BJP's ghost stories for Delhiites
The increasingly vicious poll rhetoric merits a scientific examination of how the politics of fear makes a voter tick
We must turn to neuroscience to examine the Bharatiya Janata Party's boast that more and more Indians are making a rational choice in favour of Hindutva over competing ideologies. The truth, in fact, is to the contrary: The BJP projects itself as the sole saviour of Hindus, then scares them into suspending their rationality before every election, and hopes they will herd around it for protection. This strategy of the BJP is stark in its campaign for the Delhi Assembly elections.
Psychologists and neuroscientists, seeking to comprehend why fear is a powerful tool for mobilisation, say humans make decisions by using two parts of their brains, one of which works fast and the other slow. The faster part, as Sara Gorman and Jack M Gorman, wrote in Psychology Today magazine, is located "in the primitive parts of the brain like the limbic cortex" and is highly susceptible to emotions like fear, anger, sadness and happiness. The slower part, based in the prefrontal cortex, uses reason to make rational decisions.
The Gormans noted, "When strong emotions are stirred the limbic cortex can inhibit the prefrontal cortex and prevent us from using reason to make a decision." They added wryly, "This is something politicians figured out long ago." The BJP has been working on exactly this principle in Delhi — scaring its Hindu citizens to prevent them from making a rational decision.
For instance, Home Minister Amit Shah has been asking the voters to "press the button with such anger that the current is felt at Shaheen Bagh." They must do it, he said, to make the "country safe." Since Muslims dominate the protest there, Shah is essentially projecting their activism as inimical to the country, although without citing evidence to back his charge.
Indeed, Shah's silence on the nature of the threat that Shaheen Bagh poses is deliberate. Or so it would seem from what Arash Jayanbakht, of Wayne State University, recently wrote on the politics of fear: "If one undocumented illegal immigrant murders a US citizen, some politicians use fear with the hope that few will ask: 'This is terrible, but how many people were murdered in this country by US citizens just today?'"
Such a question will likely not be asked because, as Jayanbakht says, "fear bypasses logic", which presumably also prompted BJP MP Parvesh Verma to outlandishly warn Delhi's Hindus that those who gather at Shaheen Bagh will enter their houses, rape their sisters and daughters and kill them. Verma hoped the scared Hindu will not ask: Is such a scenario plausible? Is it not Hindutva footsoldiers who rape and kill Muslim women, as they did during the 2002 Gujarat and the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots?
Such questions are not posed because fear continues to fashion our responses, as it did during the early stages of human evolution. It would trigger in people a "fight or flight" response — they either retreated or banded together to ward off rival tribes, described as "the others", from appropriating their resources. This principle still applies: Nations do sink their internal differences to fight a war.
The BJP has turned elections into war waged through the Electronic Voting Machine. It must, therefore, create the "other". "The typical pattern is to give the other humans a different label than us, and say they are going to harm us or our resources," says Jayanbakht. The difference between "us" and "them" could be real or simply imagined, as is true of Verma's depiction of Shaheen Bagh's protesters. "By scaring us, the demagogues turn on our aggression towards 'the others'," Jayanbakht writes.
It is to fuel the aggression of the Hindus and harness their votes that the BJP has chosen to portray the little-known student leader Sharjeel Islam's intemperate speech as representing nothing less than the seditious heart of Muslims. This is also why stories have been planted in the media to claim that the Popular Front of India, a radical Muslim organisation, is funding the protests at Shaheen Bagh.
The use of the fear-aggression dyad to gather votes could incite violence, as it has in Delhi, where Hindutva followers used firearms at protest sites. They have taken their cue from Union Minister Anurag Thakur, who had earlier led the chant of "desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maro saalon ko [What should be done with traitors of the country? Shoot them.]" Thakur's remark marks a new low in the BJP's own record of scare-mongering.
The BJP has injected an unprecedented dose of fear in its electoral rhetoric in order to ensure Delhiites do not use reason to decide on their votes. A rational decision would have them vote overwhelmingly for AAP, which has performed far better than most governments in north India. The rationality of Delhiites is on test — whether they can be scared as children are by ghost stories, although the BJP seems to have made the same mistake as those storytellers who are disbelieved because they pump their tales with an overdose of fear.
The writer is a senior journalist
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