When BJP president Amit Shah, campaigning in Uttar Pradesh, calls his party’s political opponents “Kasab” (Ka for Congress, Sa for SP, B for BSP), he clearly crosses a line — and the loser is not just the basic civility of public discourse that should be taken for granted in a democracy. The loser is, also, the BJP. Ajmal Kasab, of course, was the only terrorist caught after the Mumbai attack in 2008. He came from Pakistan, and was hanged in 2012. Shah’s attempt to draw a parallel between Congress-SP-BSP and a Pakistani terrorist who was also a Muslim is an unsubtle bid to demonise the political rival, to cast it in the role of the “other”. This is not rhetorical excess in the heat of political battle. It is a troubling glimpse of a political approach that refuses to acknowledge, much less to respect, the fact that the electoral battle has two, and more, sides.
In a parliamentary democracy, an election is not about decimating the opponent. It is about one party or alliance winning the majority, and for the next five years governing within a constitutional framework, restrained by institutional checks and balances, while being accountable to those it has defeated and, through them, to the people. All players — including the BJP, which currently seems to be on a winning spree — need to remember that in a democracy, and especially in one with as many cross-cutting cleavages as India, there are no permanent majorities. And that one of its most crucial measures lies in the way it treats its minorities. By showing such extreme intolerance and prejudice to political competitors, Shah sends out a message that travels down the party that rules at the Centre, blurs the distinction that is often made between the Sangh Parivar and its fringe. The BJP high command loses plausible deniability the next time an unseemly or irresponsible statement is made or a party leader behaves in a way that disrespects the rules of the game.
Beyond the immediate contest in UP, the BJP president’s labelling of the political opponent as the enemy damages the possibilities of the NDA government reaching out to the opposition — fundamental to a parliamentary democracy. For a party that has long term stakes in the system, Amit Shah’s campaign should bring a moment of pause, and sober reflection.