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A weird election campaign in India!

Hate speech makes a minority cower even as a vast section of the majority is made to feel insecure and besieged.

L K Sharma
16 May 2019
Protests against Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur on April 23, 2019 in Thane, India.
Protests against Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur on April 23, 2019 in Thane, India.
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Hindustan Times/PA. All rights reserved.

What are the current Indian elections about? About an “endangered” majority, misdeeds of the “anti-nationals” colluding with a minority, a Pakistan threatened with nuclear war, a Congress Prime Minister travelling by an aircraft-carrier in 1988, and other past events!

These elections are not about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s false promise of economic nirvana. They are not about the disastrous policy decisions taken by him, a record rise in unemployment and falling economic growth rate. They are not about rural distress and farmers’ suicides.

Language and civility are two prime victims of this vicious poll campaign. Hate speech makes a minority cower even as a vast section of the majority is made to feel insecure and besieged. Many Hindus, driven by religious fervour and nationalism, have come to support a “muscular” messiah who crushes their external and internal enemies! Their feeling, magnified many times by the slavish TV channels, newspapers and social media, gives an aura of invincibility to Prime Minister Narendra Modi who is seeking re-election after having run a presidential-style government in a parliamentary democracy.

These elections will be known for the terror-accused Sadhvi Pragya, a saffron-clad Hindu nun, fielded as a ruling party candidate. The growing criminalisation of politics has acquired a new dimension. “The implications seem to be that the more deadly the crime people are associated with, higher are their chances for a career in politics; the more the business of elections relies on crime, the more is the depreciation of any meaningful claims of being a democracy…”, write Christophe Jaffrelot and Malvika Maheshwari.

These elections will be known for the Prime Minister’s repeated violation of the moral code of conduct that advises against seeking votes in the name of the military, religion and castes and against promoting sectarian hatred. Of course, this code does not bar the candidates from telling lies.

Never before were so many complaints lodged against a campaigning Prime Minister for the violation of the moral code of conduct. The Election Commission sat over these till the Supreme Court forced it to give its decisions. The Commission then gave clean chits to the Prime Minister, ignoring dissent by one of its members. The Prime Minister continued to make subtle references to the voters belonging to a minority and attack his political opponents for appeasing it. The impartiality of the Election Commission has been questioned not just by the opposition parties but also by independent commentators.

Dark money

There is no level field in these elections as the ruling party is spending many times more money on propaganda than all other parties combined. The dark money amounting to more than half the funds circulates freely as the donors remain anonymous.

India’s nastiest, costliest and longest poll campaign will leave behind the legacy of toxic Hindu nationalism and a broken democracy. These elections will have serious implications not just for the future of democracy but also for the idea of India and the soul of Hinduism, a faith used as fodder for the political campaign.

At another level, the disruption of social cohesion and harmony will enhance, not diminish, the threat of terrorism. The continuing political confrontation will not let the next government spur economic growth and improve the law and order situation. If Modi becomes the Prime Minister again, religious polarisation, suppression of dissent and politicisation of institutions will gather further momentum.

These elections are unlikely to hand over a decisive victory to any single party. The poll campaign is only a trailer of a political thriller that will feature horse-trading before and after the installation of the new Government. A great drama of betrayal by minor players will follow. Strategists of all parties have kept ready resources for political auctions. Newly elected parliamentarians will be offered power and pelf for forming and breaking unprincipled alliances.

Strange political bed-fellows will trample upon their ideological commitments. In pursuit of power, they will forget mutual animosities. They will forgive their opponents for abusing them during the poll campaign. At times, the party winning the largest number of seats does not get to form the government as some of its legislators defect and another alliance grabs power!

This theatre of the absurd is euphemistically known as democracy. The lead actor is Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister who went into election campaign mode the day he assumed office five years ago after a spectacular victory of his Hindu nationalist party. The victory was attributed to him and he came to be known as the Propaganda Minister! With his personalised populist campaign peppered with alternative facts, he pushed his party onto the side-lines. Every candidate fielded by his party seeks votes in Modi’s name. Modi set the vicious tone of the election campaign, unleashing the demons of religious nationalism, extremism, bigotry and polarisation. Every statement is designed to consolidate the Hindu votes in his favour.

In the 2014 elections, Modi had successfully sold a potent mix of Hindutva and economic development. Then his message reached beyond his core religious-right-wing constituency, thanks to his oratorical skills. Many of those opposed to sectarianism and fake religiosity were swayed by his promise of economic nirvana.

Gradually, while Modi continued to perform brilliantly on social media, the government’s record disappointed the Hindutva as well as development lobbies. The contentious Ram Temple remained unbuilt on the site of the demolished Babri mosque. As to the promise of development, while the few rich people got richer, the common man saw his economic misery growing.

As to the promise of development, while the few rich people got richer, the common man saw his economic misery growing.

Hope replaced by fear

As the opposition leaders began to remind the voters of Modi’s false promises, Modi grabbed the non-economic issues to distract the voters. His poll campaign narrative has been kept free of the real issues related to the people’s problems. Modi could not talk again of “economic development” in his election speeches. Hope was replaced by fear for driving voters.

Modi’s campaign took a weird turn. Having polarised the nation on the basis of religion, caste, region and political leaders, Modi had to devise multiple narratives to suit the audience of the day. Initially, the movement for building the controversial Ram temple was revived but it had to be switched off abruptly because of a lukewarm popular response. The renewed Ram Temple movement in the run up to the Lok Sabha elections could have worked against Modi. Many Hindu devotees feeling empowered by their party in power would have asked why the temple had not been built in five years. Better to keep it safe as a time bomb for use against a secular Government!

The Modi campaign then turned to nationalism, casting aspersions on a minority community and calling all political opponents “anti-national”. This began to play well. At this point of time a Kashmiri terrorist killed some para-military troops by ramming his bomb-laden car into their bus on a highway. Since Pakistan has been helping such terrorists, a cross-border surgical strike was undertaken. And that became the key element of the ruling party’s poll strategy. The official intelligence failure was blacked out and the Prime Minister began to boast of the military action. In an atmosphere surcharged with patriotic fervour, issues such as the poor farmers’ suicides or the record rise in unemployment were lost.

In an atmosphere surcharged with patriotic fervour, issues such as the poor farmers’ suicides or the record rise in unemployment were lost.

Yogi Adityanath's swearing-in ceremony in Lucknow, capital of Uttar Pradesh on March 19, 2017.
Yogi Adityanath's swearing-in ceremony in Lucknow, capital of Uttar Pradesh on March 19, 2017. | Xinhua/PA. All rights reserved.

A weird turn

The daily feedback from regions with different profiles of the voters keeps altering Modi’s narrative. So, when the surgical strikes against Pakistan seemed to be losing potency in the election campaign, Modi switched to the alleged misdeeds of the former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi whose son Rahul Gandhi leads the main opposition party. Five years of sustained social media campaigns have convinced sections of Indians that Nehru was a Muslim and that Indira Gandhi was married to a Muslim!

Modi had to flit from one narrative to another. In a state where the charge of appeasement of Muslims gets political mileage, hurl that against the political opponents. In a state where the people appreciate a muscular leader, project that persona. In the border state of Punjab the voters are repulsed by the sound of war drums in election meetings. So, skip the nuclear threat to Pakistan and remind the people of the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 in which some Congress members had participated. If the aggressive attacks on the opposition have gone too far, project the Prime Minister’s soft image through a video of a “non-political” interview with a film actor. If Rahul Gandhi has to be fixed, scream that his late father was corrupt and that he once used an aircraft carrier as his “personal taxi”.

Some political leaders the world over have shown that lies work to their advantage even if they are caught lying. During the current election campaign, a few fact-checking organisations cannot cope with the material that comes under their scanner day and night.

Fear and favour

Once Modi won the 2014 parliamentary elections as the Hindu Hriday Samrat(Emperor of the Hindu Hearts), the anti-secularism campaigns, both official as well as popular, gathered momentum. The genie of religious nationalism, released from the bottle, marginalised the intellectuals combating communalism through learned papers and seminars. Chased by the mobs calling them “sickular”, the secular politicians became discreet. Hinduism scholars and true saints silently witnessed their faith being hijacked by a political force.

Modi’s oratory has made such opponents ineffectual. In an atmosphere of mass frenzy driven by religious nationalism, statements by his English-knowing critics do him no harm. Their quotable quotes are lost in the din. Modi is not bothered by a critic addressing a seminar on the havoc caused by his government. Any criticism of the Modi Government’s performance coming from eminent economists is easily countered by some organisation of chartered accountants, sarkarieconomists and a newly floated think tank.

Joint letters of protest against the Modi Government’s dangerous divisive policies signed by retired civil servants are not taken seriously. Modi knows faith, fear and favour move individuals and institutions. It is easy to spot the civil servants, educationists, judges, intelligence officers and constables ready to serve the cause of Hindutva. The residual British influence on India’s intelligence service meant that its focus was on tracking the threat from communism not from communalism.

The residual British influence on India’s intelligence service meant that its focus was on tracking the threat from communism not from communalism.

Lucknow, India – BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj after getting bail, May 2017.
Lucknow, India – BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj after getting bail, May 2017. | Hindustan Times/PA. All rights reserved.

By calling secular forces “sickular” and painting them as well as all liberals “anti-national”, Modi counters the critics attacking him on one ideological front. But he knows that religious extremism unleashed by him will lead to hyper-extremism and a new Hindu messiah may challenge him. Those playing the game of religious extremism inevitably get confronted by hyper-extremism. The latter tends to follow the former. Extreme Sikh nationalism resulted in the emergence of Sant Bhindranwale. A fiery Super Emperor of the Hindu Hearts may emerge to outshine and outbid Modi. The Prime Minister has an accurate assessment of internal threats to him.

Thus, Modi co-opted the more extremist Hindu leaders such as a monk and a Hindu nun, each one capable of challenging him for “letting Hindus down”. Yogi Adityanath has been known for asserting Hindu majoritarianism and threatening a minority. He was inducted as the chief minister of a major state after Modi’s party won the elections there.

Then the BJP fielded the saffron-clad Hindu nun accused of terror as its candidate to fight the parliamentary elections. Sadhvi Pragya’s past performance establishes her credentials as a braver Hindutva leader. She has been granted bail on medical grounds but seems fit enough to run a hectic election campaign. A court case can be made irrelevant if the accused wins a mandate from the court of the voters! That is what her campaigners keep saying.

The Prime Minister says in his campaign speeches that Hindus cannot be terrorists and asks the voters to “punish” the opposition leaders for insulting Hinduism by linking it to terrorism. Of course, the political reward given to a terror-accused will be noted by any Hindu wanting to be a terrorist!

The fielding of Sadhvi Pragya saddened many Modi devotees who thought this weakens the party’s campaign against terrorism. They wonder how will the Prime Minister now attack the Government of Pakistan for protecting terrorists. They fail to appreciate the critical importance of Sadhvi Pragya for the poll campaign driven by Hindu nationalism and for Modi’s own political future. Blessed by the party, she would aspire for more and not challenge Modi from the religious right-wing.

Inside the tent

Modi can afford to offend a minister or a former party president but does not dare to do that to the fire-brand Hindu leaders such as Yogi Adityanath, Sadhvi Pragya and Shakshi Maharaj. Wise politicians bring their potential rivals into their tents unless they can be destroyed. So, Yogi was accommodated as the chief minister of UP and the Sadhvi was fielded as a BJP candidate. Another fire-brand BJP leader Uma Bharati, who once called Modi Vinash Purush, (a man who destroys)was accommodated in the Modi Cabinet.

Modi assessed Yogi’s potential and the need for keeping him confined to a state. Yogi could have taken on a bigger political role by attracting frenzied mobs angered by the non-appearance of a Ram temple on the site of the demolished Babri mosque. With his oratorical powers, one can imagine millions shouting: Agar India mein rehna hoga, to Yogi,Yogi kehna hoga.(Chant Yogi, Yogi, if you want to live in India!) He could have shifted his battleground from Lucknow to Delhi and gone around badgering Modi for his failure to build the Ram temple.

Modi does not want to pave the way for a Hindu monk, male or female. He believes that after centuries of sleep, Hindus woke up in 2014. Suppose India gets ready to see a monk/nun in the Prime Minister’s role. A Sadhvi-like Prime Minister having supernatural powers to curse and annihilate India’s enemies can be a bigger asset to the BJP. Belief matters. Many believe the snake-oil seller who mesmerises the street-corner crowds.

The irresistible rise of Narendra Modi

Prime Minister Modi’s irresistible rise in politics has been due to his astute understanding of social fault-lines and the weaknesses of his opponents. As the Gujarat chief minister, he always moved fast to crush any internal threat. Modi cleansed the BJP’s state unit of all his critics. He even saw off the challenge by the Prime Minister belonging to his party who tried to teach him Rajdharma and make him resign as the Gujarat chief minister in the wake of horrendous communal violence.

The way Modi side-lined the elders, including the party’s founder, is well known. Modi is called the most divisive and polarising leader, but he ruthlessly unifies the party workers around him. It may take time to crush dissidence in the country but dissidence dare not raise its ugly head in the party.

The monks and nuns mesmerise faithful audiences and are assets for the party. If disgruntled, they can cause immense harm either as party members or by forming a more extremist Hindu group that promises three temples instead of one. Modi cannot have an unfriendly Sadhvi marching on the street shouting slogans against him for cheating Hindus. Sakshi Maharaj of the BJP can get away with saying anything because like Pragya, he claims to have the power to “curse” people. God forbid if such magicians were to turn hostile to their own leader!

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