Votes and vengeance
Amit Shah’s speeches suggest that hate remains a key mobilising tool for the BJP.
Fear remains the chiefest of them,” the American critic, H.L. Mencken, famously wrote about politics under democracy nearly a century ago. “The demagogues, i.e., the professors of mob psychology, who flourish in democratic states are well aware of the fact, and make it the cornerstone of their exact and puissant science. Politics under democracy consists almost wholly of the discovery, chase and scotching of bugaboos. The statesman becomes, in the last analysis, a mere witch-hunter, a glorified smeller and snooper, eternally chanting ‘Fe, Fi, Fo, Fum!’”
In the famous nursery rhyme, the giant smells the blood of an Englishman and declares, “Be he live, or be he dead/ I’ll grind his bones to make my bread”. In the fables being pushed on to gullible voters in India these days, references abound to the blood and bones of cows, buffaloes and goats, to the vast fortunes allegedly being amassed by butchers. In Assam, Narendra Modi even deployed the poor rhinoceros. “These days there is a conspiracy to kill it,” he told a rally on April Fool’s Day. “I am making the allegation very seriously.
People sitting in the government… to save Bangladeshis… they are doing this conspiracy to kill rhinos so that the area becomes empty and Bangladeshis can be settled there.” But all of this irresponsible rhetoric pales into insignificance when compared to the poisonous campaign Modi’s lieutenant, Amit Shah, has been waging in the riot-affected areas of western Uttar Pradesh on the eve of elections.
I began this analysis of Amit Shah, Narendra Modi and the place of “revenge” in politics with a quote from an American only because apologists for these two eminent Indian professors of mob psychology are drawing great solace from a clip of Barack Obama, in which the US president uses the “R” word.
“No, no, no, don’t boo. Vote,” Obama told a crowd in Ohio during the 2012 presidential election when they started booing at the mention of the name of his opponent, Mitt Romney. “Voting is the best revenge.” While Republicans rebuked Obama for running a negative campaign, BJP supporters argue that if a Nobel peace prize winner could speak of revenge via the ballot box, Shah did nothing wrong in urging Hindus to take “badla” by voting.
The question, of course, hinges on revenge by whom, against whom, and for what.
It is beyond dispute that both Hindus and Muslims were killed in the riots that took place in and around Muzaffarnagar last year. While the state administration never released a community-wise break down of the victims, the fact that a large number of Muslims were displaced and are unable to return home, and that several Muslim women have come forward with allegations of rape, makes it indisputable that Muslims form a disproportionately large part of those who were affected by the violence.
If Shah had addressed people from both the communities affected by last year’s incidents and asked them to vote for the BJP in order to take revenge against the UP government for failing to protect their lives, izzat and property, there would have been no controversy.
But Shah did nothing of the sort.
Instead, he presented himself in three meetings in Shamli and Raajhar as a representative of Hindus and made it clear he was concerned only about the insults and injustice that had supposedly been meted out to “us”. “We have been treated as second-class citizens,” Shah said at one of the meetings, his voice choking with emotion. “Justice has not been given to us.”
Here are some more quotes:
“This is not just another election. This is the time to avenge the insult meted out to our community. This election will be a reply to those who have been ill-treating our mothers and sisters.”
“A man can live without food or sleep. He can live when he’s thirsty and hungry. But when he’s insulted, he can’t live. We must seek revenge for the insult heaped on us.”
“People who have insulted our community, those who have killed our youth, can we feel honoured sitting with them?”
The BJP has made much of the fact that in one of the meetings, Shah tells his audience to take revenge by pressing a button and voting for the right party. But what remains uncontested is the ugly reality of its senior leader wading into a sensitive area that saw the killing of around 50 people, the rape of women and the displacement of thousands of families, and calling not for peace and justice, relief and rehabilitation for all, but for “our community” to avenge itself.
While the target against whom revenge is to be taken is political — Shah attacked the Samajwadi Party, which rules UP, the Congress, which rules New Delhi, and the Bahujan Samaj Party, whose Dalit voters the BJP is keen on attracting — it is clear that he is calling upon these parties to be punished for allegedly acting against Hindus and in support of Muslims. He threw in the 1990s-era Sangh Parivar epithet, Mullah Mulayam, against SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, to reinforce this point. But the reference to the insult of “our women” panders to the myth of Islamic aggression that the Sangh Parivar has been propagating in the region through its “love jihad” campaign and raises the possibility that revenge may again need to be taken against Muslims directly too.
For an American equivalent of such hate speech to exist, one would have to go back to the George Bush Sr versus Michael Dukakis presidential campaign of 1988. The Democrats accused Bush of subliminal racism for his advertisement attacking Dukakis for giving furloughs from prison to an inmate, Willie Horton, who then went on to kill a man and rape his girlfriend. Horton was an African-American and his victims were white, and Bush’s ads did sail pretty close to the wind, even though they never dwelt on the race of the victims. However, Bush never went as far as Shah has gone. He never explicitly addressed himself to whites or exhorted them to avenge Horton’s — or Dukakis’s — crimes, and if he did, he would have been roundly condemned.
Let us be clear: Shah has indulged in blatant communal politics. His behaviour raises the possibility that Modi’s talk of development is aimed at bringing first-time voters into the BJP’s fold, while hate remains a key message for mobilising its traditional bank. The irony is that in Muzaffarnagar, Shah resorted to some fear-mongering about Hindus being turned into second-class citizens in order to garner support. The core BJP voter has no such concern. “Modi’s appeal lies in the fact that only he can make Muslims second-class citizens,” the president of the Kanyakubj Brahmin Samaj told a national daily on March 12. “That is our primary aim right now.”
The writer is senior fellow at the Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, New Delhi