Fifth Column: Election Redux

Heat and stress are also beginning to affect those noble representatives of the ‘common man’. (AP) Heat and stress are also beginning to affect those noble representatives of the ‘common man’. (AP)

This election really has gone on much too long. The stress of the campaign and the horrible, horrible heat are beginning to affect everyone in most peculiar ways. So last week we saw a celebrated TV anchor ask Narendra Modi who was going to be in his cabinet, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he is not yet the prime minister. We saw spokesmen of our oldest political party try to establish that Modi is really not as low caste as he claims to be. Does it matter? And why the sudden need to change his social status when just till the other day he was mocked by venerable Congress leaders for being just a chaiwallah? “He can come and serve tea at the next meeting of the AICC,” said a proud devotee of the Gandhi family. Remember?

Heat and stress are also beginning to affect those noble representatives of the ‘common man’. So on the day that Modi stormed Benaras yet again last week, we saw a very sulky and cross Arvind Kejriwal accuse him of making a “tamasha” just to stay in the media glare all day. From the master of this particular tactic, that is a real compliment. And then there was the madness of that “jan sailab (flood of humanity)” washing through the streets of Benaras for a glimpse of the man they hope will bring development and change.

Mercifully, the silliness and the personal attacks have not obscured the main message of this election. It is an election about “vikas” and “parivartan” and Modi is seen as the magician who can make these things happen, with the flick of a wand, if he is given the chance to be the prime minister. Nobody else, not even the BJP without Modi, is seen as capable of bringing about the change that India’s first middle-class election wants. What is sad is that the only group of Indians who are not participants in this outpouring of hope and aspiration are Muslims.

For them, the mood is sullen and scary. Wherever I have gone during the campaign, I have made it a point to seek out Muslims to understand why what happened in Gujarat in 2002 resonates so much more with them than more recent communal violence in Uttar Pradesh and Assam. I have stopped in small villages in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and asked why the absence of electricity, clean water and roads should not be as important to them as it is to their Hindu brethren and I have asked the same questions of mullahs in urban mosques. Everywhere, there has been a standard answer. Modi cannot be trusted because of what happened in 2002 and because more recently he refused to wear a Muslim skullcap when a maulvi offered it to him.

Later, when I have come home and poured over my notes, I have been intrigued not just by the sameness of the answers but by how much harm Muslims could be doing themselves by remaining stuck in a time warp that could perhaps be no longer relevant. It is true that all our “secular” political leaders have used Modi to frighten Muslims into voting for them and this includes Kejriwal. It is also true that Modi has not worked hard enough to convince Muslims that he is not the monster they think he is, but there is a new element that I have detected in the Muslim mood in this election. Having spent many of my years as a reporter covering communal violence, I learned long ago to detect fear in a community and this time I saw no sign of it among the Muslims who said they would not vote for Modi.

What I saw was something much more worrying and this was a sense of power. It was almost as if they knew that in the name of secularism they would always be important to a certain kind of political party and that this would be their weapon to remain relevant. There was something deliberate in their resistance to Modi’s “India first” idea and something sad about the way they seemed to need to make it clear that for them religion was always going to be more important than such things as vikas and parivartan. They admitted that they had been let down by the political parties they had supported but they said they were determined to not let this come in the way of their conviction that the BJP would never be there for them.

So, mingled with the silliness and the political nonsense what we saw in the last days of this interminable campaign is the sad reality that an important section of India has not shared in the hope and excitement of this election. For this, every political party is to blame, both secular and communal.

Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @ tavleen_singh