In June 2015, a candidate in the election for President of the United States said, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” People were outraged, yet 62,984,825 persons voted for him in November 2016.
In January 2017, that candidate was sworn in as the 45th President of the richest and most powerful nation in the world. He is Mr Donald Trump.
I suspect that there are several candidates in India who would like to do a Donald Trump and be as successful in the elections to the Lok Sabha that are underway. In March and April of this year, there was a rash of statements and there will be more in May — scaling new heights of hate and extremism — before the campaign winds down on May 17.
Brace yourself to listen to voices that spew venom and vitriol. Let me begin with the one that appears to be the mildest: the familiar motor-mouth
Mr Sakshi Maharaj, MP, kicked off the campaign with the following words — “There won’t be an election in 2024. I am a sanyasi and can see the future. This is the last election in the country.” It was an ‘auspicious’ beginning to the Lok Sabha 2019 elections!
Abuse and ridicule
Abuse was the first weapon in the campaign. Here are some examples of the choicest abuses:
On March 18, Mr Mahesh Sharma, Union minister, said, “Pappu says he wants to be Prime Minister. So there is Mayawati, Akhikesh Yadav, Pappu and now Pappu’s Pappi has also stepped in.”
Mr Surendra Singh, MLA (BJP, Ballia) said on March 24, “Rahul’s mother (Sonia Gandhi) was also in the same profession in Italy and his father made her his own. He (Rahul Gandhi) should also take the family tradition forward and make Sapna his own.”
Ridicule was next: Mr Mahesh Sharma, on March 20, targeted Ms Mayawati and said, “Mayawatiji does facial every day, she gets her hair coloured to look young.”
Threat was a commonly used weapon: Mr Ram Shanker Katheria, a BJP candidate (Etawah), said on March 23, “We are in power in the state and Centre. We will break any fingers that are pointed at us now.”
Ms Maneka Gandhi was not beyond threatening. On April 12, she told a gathering of Muslims, “I will win this Lok Sabha election anyway but I won’t feel good if I win without the support of the Muslims. Things become sour after that. Later when a Muslim comes over for some work, I feel let it be, how does it matter?… I am winning with or without Muslims.”
Mr Ranajit Bahadur Srivastava, a BJP leader, had no qualms in saying (on April 19), “In the past five years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made attempts to break the morale of Muslims. Vote for PM Modi if you want to destroy the breed of Muslims.”
There were other kinds of threats too. Sample these:
“The Opposition says what is this surgical strike and who did it. Then you should have tied a bomb to Rahul Gandhi and sent him to another country. Then they would have understood.” — Ms Pankaj Munde, Minister in Maharashtra, on April 21.
On the same day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a highly irresponsible statement. Referring to Pakistan’s alleged boast about tactical nuclear weapons, Mr Modi said, “What do we have then? Have we kept our nuclear bomb for Diwali?” No Indian Prime Minister before him and no leader of the world (North Korea’s Mr Kim excluded) has spoken so casually about the use of nuclear weapons since 1945.
There were curses. Leading the pack was Ms Pragya Singh Thakur, who said (April 19) that she had pronounced “tera sarvanash hoga (you will be destroyed)” and, lo and behold, Mr Hemant Karkare (a genuine hero among police officers) was killed while fighting terrorists.
The BJP’s weapon of choice was hatred towards the Muslim community, in the hope that hate speech will inevitably lead to polarisation of the two communities. Look at the statements made with that intent:
Declared Mr Adityanath, Chief Minister of UP, on April 9: “If the Congress, SP and BSP have faith in Ali, then we too have faith in Bajrang Bali.”
Mr K S Eshwarappa, former deputy chief minister of Karnataka, said (April 1), “We won’t give tickets to Muslims in Karnataka, because you did not believe in us.”
On April 11, Mr Amit Shah made the BJP’s intent clear when he said, “will remove every single infiltrator except Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs”.
The Opposition had its share of speakers but nothing that they said came anywhere close to abuse or threats.
There are still four phases — and 19 days — to go in the campaign. There will be many more gems dropped by candidates and campaigners. With every irresponsible utterance, India will descend one step on the ladder of civil discourse in a democracy. What is ultimately in danger is not the discourse but democracy itself.
This article first appeared in the print edition on April 28, 2019, under the title ‘An outrageous campaign’.