The conduct of the Prime Minister of India during the Gujarat election should set alarm bells ringing. Narendra Modi’s innuendo in an election speech in Banaskantha, in which he strung together communal canards and conspiracy theories, marks a new and dangerous low in Indian politics.
It is perhaps a sign of the times, the new normal, that the demeaning of the office of the prime minister, low level demagoguery or even communal canards will not bother many citizens. In fact, these are now the central elements of the PM’s mystique, eclipsing whatever other promises he might have made about development. But these innuendos also show a prime minister creating the wildest conspiracy theories, not because they serve the national interest, but because they satiate his need for claiming monopoly over patriotism, perpetual scapegoating and playing the politics of victimhood. God help the country whose prime minister is now in such a frame of mind.
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The innuendo that former Pakistani officials were showing undue interest in supporting Ahmed Patel, that the former Prime Minister of India somehow held secret talks at the residence of Mani Shankar Aiyar during the Gujarat elections, whose purpose was to hatch some anti-national conspiracy, would be laughable if it were not shameful and dangerous. Think of all the dangers inherent in the prime minister himself not just putting his weight behind this story, but conjuring it out of thin air. It was an uncalled for attack on former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
In a democracy there will be deep disagreements, there will also be attacks on particular leaders’ competencies, and sometimes their decisions will be questioned. True or false, these things are par for the course in a competitive democracy. But for a prime minister to paint a picture of a former prime minister as part of some social cabal in cahoots with foreign powers to meddle in the Gujarat elections is despicable. Whatever your political views, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s quiet, exemplary and thoughtful patriotism is self-evident and needs no defence. For Manmohan Singh, patriotism was not, as it has become for Modi, a scimitar to cut down political opponents and claim monopoly of nationalism. For a PM to suggest that his political opponents are doing something bordering on treasonous is to open the floodgates of a new viciousness.
If unhinged conspiracy theories about possibly treasonous socialising were not enough, this story was dripping with communal canards. The entire Gujarat campaign has been, even by the low standards set during the last three years, dripping in communal innuendo. At points, the BJP campaign has presented our only choices as being between Mandir and Masjid. The arguments over history, from Khilji to Babar, the pet themes of this election, are not about history: They are about Hindu majoritarianism wanting to make Muslims increasingly irrelevant to India’s history.
But perhaps Modi did us a favour. You could say that in this campaign, he has, at last, broken his silence on the communal poison spreading through Indian political life. He now wants to shed whatever last veneer of deniability was left and claim full-throated responsibility for spreading this poison.
By stringing together, in a crass case of loaded free association, Ahmed Patel, Congress and Pakistan in a seamless social web, Modi betrayed a whole series of prejudices that are unworthy of the Prime Minister of India: That Indian Muslim political leaders are always going to be under the pall of suspicion that they are in league with Pakistan. It is once again to raise the bogey that when it comes to patriotism a senior Muslim politician will be guilty of association with Pakistan until proven innocent. The consequence of this marginalising of the political agency of members of a community for Indian constitutional values are going to be profound.
Whether we will any longer be shocked by the degradation of public discourse, by the diminution of the moral stature of the office of the prime minister, by open communalism, is an open question. Again, whatever one’s political views, Modi’s gift as a politician was to exude self-confidence, seduce the electorate in a way that artfully disguised the potential poison he might carry, and to tap into both the hope of development and the politics of fear simultaneously. In this campaign, more than any other in recent years, the sense of control and confidence has gone, the potential communal poison is not just one element that might be contained, but is becoming his whole being, and the politics of hope has been replaced entirely by the politics of fear. Only this can explain why a party that has been for so long in power in Gujarat, is running as if it were a vicious rabble-rousing outfit.
But more seriously, Modi is increasingly showing a combination of qualities that should worry even his supporters. The more his power has grown, the more his speeches exude insecurity. A combination of great power and a deep sense of insecurity does not bode well. Even after the people of India have reposed power in him, his need to constantly play up a sense of personal and national victimhood, his need to perpetually play into stereotypes about minorities, has grown rather than diminished with his time in office. Paranoia is replacing confidence. Whatever Modi’s own political experiences, nothing in them justifies him playing a “Congress-Muslim-Pakistan conspiracy” card in the manner in which he has done in the election.
Perhaps Modi will win the Gujarat election. The personal identification with him is perhaps too far gone for his supporters to divest of him easily. More ominously, Indian democracy is at a crossroads where all its inner demons and repressed ugliness are playing out in the open. This is a time that requires statesmanship, not nauseating divisiveness.
The prime minister, instead of navigating constitutional values, ordinary decencies of discourse and civility, to safe harbour, is now bent on creating new storms. Whether he wins or loses in Gujarat, he is spreading a poison from which Indian politics will find it hard to recover for quite some time. In shoring his power through conflict he is taking India down the road to ruin.
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