Stooping to a new low

With the 2014 general elections crossing the midway mark, political discourse during this election campaign is slipping to a new low with each passing day. With electioneering at its peak, insalubrious political sparring and nasty remarks by the leaders have become the order of the day.

In response to Congress’s slogan of secularism, the BJP first harped on development but within a short space of couple of days the BJP and other constituents of the Sangh Parivar changed the tone and tenor of the election campaign in the two key swing states of UP and Bihar with certain inflammatory and openly anti-Muslim comments thereby communalising the campaign.

The Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) President Pravin Togadia and the BJP’s Lok Sabha candidate from Bihar, Giriraj Singh, have given a definite communal turn to the political discourse of the 2014 general elections. The VHP leader raised the pitch in Gujarat against Muslims purchasing properties in ‘Hindu areas.’

Bihar BJP leader Giriraj Singh, who is also the party candidate from Nawada, while addressing an election rally in Deoghar, Jharkhand on 18 April this year in the presence of former BJP president Nitin Gadkari and Godda MP Nishikant Dubey, said, ‘Woh log Narendra Modi ko rokna chahate hain, woh Pakistan dekh rahe hain. Aane wale dino mein aise logon ke liye jagah Hindustan mein nahi, Jharkhand mein nahi, parantu Pakistan mein hoga, Pakistan mein hoga.’

Perhaps this was not enough to heighten frenzy and there emerged reports in a section of media about an alleged Rashtriya Sayamsevak Sangh (RSS) letter imploring Hindu electors to turn out in greater numbers in Madhya Pradesh and party leader Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi’s statement that a quick solution to the Ayodhya Ram temple issue needs to be found have altogether added to the communal discourse. Interestingly, all these statements have come within days of one another. BJP sources deny the party is working on a plan to introduce the ‘communal’ element at a time when the Lok Sabha elections are entering a crucial phase in the key swing states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Strangely denial comes as a damage-control exercise in the aftermath of the damage caused by the constituents of the Parivar. This seems to be a part of the well-concerted strategy.

Concurrently, the BJP’s propensity to speak in multiple voices is breeding confusion in the ranks of voters, party workers, and allies. Leaders have alternated between hard-line and moderate stances making it tough to distinguish a clear party line on prickly issues. It is imprecise whether this is a clever strategy of hedging to appeal to different sections, or is reflective of larger ideological and political differences. On one hand, the party has quietly dropped its poll anthem; an aggressive, hyper-nationalist composition featuring PM candidate Narendra Modi. But the RSS request to the ‘majority community to vote 100 per cent or risk becoming history’ reveals the workings of organisational machinery that thrives on communal polarisation.

Such doublespeak does no credit to a party that is claiming support from all sections of the population, riding on the back of a pro-Modi and anti-Congress wave. The BJP’s slogans promising jobs, good governance, zero-tolerance to anti-corruption, combating price rise, ensuring women’s security and saving the girl child, have found resonance among all sections. Top-ranking leaders have taken the cue and intensified the push for moderation. Former BJP president Nitin Gadkari’s clarification that abrogating Article 370 is on the BJP’s agenda and not the NDA’s and current president Rajnath Singh’s visit to a dargah in Lucknow appeared to be manifestations of this approach. But the message seems not to have percolated downwards.

Diverting from Amit Shah’s narrative of badla for the insult suffered by Jats in Western UP, his mentor, Narendra Modi, attacked Mulayam Singh for the death of infants in relief camps and being soft on rapists. Most of those housed in relief camps and the victims of rape belonged to the Muslim community. But Modi’s attempts at moderation have several rough edges. Modi’s hard-line Hindu nationalist image is in no danger of being dented by putting a few lesser politicians in their places.
With such ambivalence, the BJP runs the risk of alienating allies and a significant section of voters, who have dissociated from the Congress-led UPA, but are equally averse to aggressive, intolerant and divisive tendencies in politics. If such voters repose their faith in parties organised on caste or regional lines or a nouveau political movement like the Aam Aadmi Party, the BJP will have only itself to blame. The BJP’s strategy is to achieve a consolidation of Hindu votes overriding caste, class and regional sentiments by alternatively harping development, nationalism and minority appeasement. Unlike the initial post-Babri years when Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s secular image was an ideal foil to the rabid persona of L K Advani and other Sangh Parivar leaders, Modi’s reluctance to reveal how he intends to deal with Parivar elements, more hard-line than himself, is a crucial void that the BJP has left unfilled at the top, in an, otherwise, well-executed election campaign. Between the conflicting signals to minorities, the references to Pakistan while targeting political rivals, and the more-patriotic-than-you stances lie thin lines between chaos, strategy and ideology.

The elections in December 1984 gave the Congress  a massive mandate. The 1996 elections didn’t give anyone a clear mandate, and resulted in a hung parliament. The country went back to the polls in 1998, and then 1999 saw the NDA government in power, and the Congress then (as now) seeing the urgent need for introspection and re-assessment. In 2004, things had turned right round – which not too many people saw coming – which is why the Congress leaders in public refer to 04, in 2014, saying... you never can tell.

But what is it about this time round that feels so epic about 2014? It’s gladiatorial, and being projected as a clash of ideologies, a battle for India’s heart and soul, India’s spirit and nationalism; but the ground realities are entirely different. Communalism, parochialism, caste and other sinister motives have come to rule the roost in this critical phase of polling.

Going by the projections of the electronic media and pre-poll surveys which have predicted top slot for the BJP under the so-called ‘Modi wave’, one wonders the urgency of playing the communal card and appeal to religious passions, especially in the ‘Cow Belt’ and Hindi heartland. The ‘Cow Belt’ accounts for about 310 seats. One wonders as to how the BJP under Modi can muster the magical number of 272-plus, especially when it has no electoral alliance with powerful regional satraps like BSP, SP, JD (U) and others. The Southern and North-Eastern states of the Indian Union are all together bereft of the BJP wave. Besides, regional satraps like AIIADMK, DMK, TDP, and other regional groupings have a firm grip to disallow any scope for the BJP.

The BJP under Modi has set in a new trend of nominating its prime ministerial candidate even prior to elections, a practice which is contrary to the constitutional provisions and parliamentary precedents. The prime minister is elected by the party which commands majority in Lok Sabha in the aftermath of the general election. Perhaps, the party is nurturing the ambition of transforming the existing parliamentary system into American style presidential system and such an eventuality is fraught with serious consequences for the very survival of democracy in the country.

Another interesting aspect of BJP’s current campaign is different promises for different states in the form of a separate manifesto for each state. One wonders as to whether the party is fighting state assembly elections or parliamentary elections or it intends to do away with federal form of government and replace it with unitary form of government. These are serious questions that entail the potential of derailing the existing democratic process to be substituted by dictatorship. The common electorate is flooded with the pithy catch-phrases and slogans, the big sales pitches and bombarded day after day with ads so he can’t remain oblivious; and yet he is not entirely on solid ground in terms of substantive, tangible issues. Who stands for what, really? Whose agenda is being served by whom? Why is there this fear psychosis? Where is the name-calling and aspersion-casting going to lead the nation?

In the entire process, people’s faith in the vital institutions of democracy is already eroded. Grabbing power by hook or crook is the only mantra being practiced by almost all political groupings at the expense of the people. The credibility has already been in short supply. If we are suffering because of our past follies, then remedy also lies with us in terms of casting our vote judiciously.

The writer is author of 'The PM: Discourse in Indian Polity (2014)'
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