Behave like a PM, Mr Modi!
This is the message of anti-CAA protesters, who, unlike political pundits, are not bothered whether the BJP will exploit their agitation for Hindu consolidation, but point to the regime's moral bankruptcy
It is a contradiction hard to fathom. Never before have there been such widespread protests against Prime Minister Narendra Modi as he is currently facing over the twin issues of the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens. Yet political pundits say the ferment in the street will boost, even further, his and the Bharatiya Janata Party's popularity. Their claims would take the form of unchangeable truth should the BJP emerge victorious in the Jharkhand Assembly elections, the results of which will be announced today.
Modi did indeed press the CAA-NRC pedal to polarise Jharkhand. He dared the Congress and its allies to grant citizenship to all Pakistani citizens; he said those protesting against the CAA can be identified by their clothes and accused "urban Naxals, people who claim to be intellectuals" of instigating them to take to the streets. Modi will have people believe that Opposition parties and intellectuals are opposing the CAA-NRC because they wish Pakistan and Muslims to benefit at the expense of Hindus, whose interests only he protects.
Neither Modi's line of attack nor his targets were new. Modi has reconstructed the Indian political-scape as an arena in which the BJP and the Hindus are arrayed against the combination of Pakistan-Muslims-intellectuals-Opposition parties. As long as electoral politics remain stuck in this binary, Modi and the BJP will thrive as the Hindus, even though heterogeneous, are an overwhelming majority, or so pundits argue.
Yet they rarely outline the measures that the Opposition or even civil society could take to blunt the BJP's politics of polarisation. Stray suggestions are, occasionally, tossed around — for instance, focus on the economic downturn to turn the heat on the BJP. Or parties in power in states should showcase their performance to wean people away from Hindutva, which Modi epitomises.
These pundits seem to be ostensibly advocating that the Opposition should accept the Hindutva frame of politics to battle Modi. But this is what Opposition parties have tried, but failed to get much purchase. For instance, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi went on a temple-visiting spree to provide proof of his affinity for Hindu identity. Others have portrayed their reverence for the cow. A range of parties welcomed the Modi government's egregiously flawed decision to read down Art 370, as they did the Supreme Court's judgment to build a Ram temple in Ayodhya.
Modi's politics of polarisation is not solely anchored in policies, as is partially true of the CAA-NRC. He spins yarns to give booster shots to Hindutva, of which his Jharkhand campaign was not the only example. For instance, in 2015, before the Bihar State Assembly elections, he was guilty of lying when he said the Grand Alliance of the Rashtriya Janata Dal-Janata Dal (U)-Congress had decided to reduce the quantum of reservation for Hindu backward classes and Dalits in order to give a five per cent quota in government jobs to Muslims.
In 2017, before Uttar Pradesh was to elect its Assembly, Modi made sly innuendoes accusing Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav of constructing graveyards but not cremation grounds; of providing a 24-hour electricity supply on Eid but not on Diwali. Government data proved Modi had dissimulated. In the same year, Modi's feverish imagination turned a dinner hosted by Mani Shankar Aiyar for a former Pakistani foreign minister into a grand conspiracy of Pakistan and the Congress to interfere in the Gujarat Assembly elections.
Modi's unconscionable tactics succeed because the Opposition perceives politics only in its electoral dimension. It does not view politics as an instrument of social transformation and rejuvenating society, as was the hallmark of the Indian national movement. This is why it takes a lie, a rumour, and a solitary communal incident to rekindle prejudices and stereotypes to cleave the society into voting along sectarian lines. Opposition parties do not seek to construct, between election cycles, a social architecture impervious to communal polarisation, which they know Modi will unfailingly attempt.
Indeed, the Opposition's failure to tackle the polarising politics of Modi has had people spilling out in the streets. They know he will still seek to exploit the social ferment to consolidate the Hindu votebank, evident from only the BJP-ruled states reporting deaths in protests – Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Assam, and Delhi, where the Central government controls police. Violence in west Uttar Pradesh will be scripted to polarise Delhi, which will go to polls in a month or so.
But the protesters are no longer bothered, as pundits are, whether Modi wins or loses. Their subliminal goal is to morally delegitimise the BJP regime, which sought to use the CAA-NRC to challenge the citizenship of Muslims; for having the temerity to demand documents from all to prove their bona fides; and, above all, to convey to Modi that he should behave befitting his prime ministerial status. Never before has an Indian prime minister resorted to dog-whistle politics to demonise his rivals and social groups as Modi has.
The writer is a senior journalist. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper
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