Campaigning in Fatehpur on Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi accused Uttar Pradesh’s SP government of bhedbhaav or discrimination on the basis of religion and caste, and suggested that it was the biggest problem facing the state today. If there is a kabristan (graveyard) in a village, the PM said, then it must have a shamshan ghat (cremation ground) too. If there is electricity during Ramzan, it should be there on Diwali as well; if there is electricity during Holi, it should be there on Eid too. Despite that last, sudden inversion of the if-then statement, the PM’s message was clear. It was this: By building graveyards, or by making special provisions to reach electricity to Muslim neighbourhoods on festival days, the SP government is indulging in policies of “minority appeasement”. It was also this: Policies favouring the minority are inevitably at the expense of the majority’s needs and interests. Both the PM’s choice of examples, and his message, are unfortunate. He sets up stark oppositions that reinforce communal faultlines on the ground. He employs a notion of governance and development that sees it as a brutish zero-sum game. Halfway into the campaign for UP — the staging ground for political trends and experiments that have resonated nationally — he paints the electoral contest as a dark and grimy tug of war between communities, denuded of concerns, ideas and hopes that are transcendent and shared.
It is true that governments that most loudly brandish their “secular” credentials, such as the SP regime in UP, seldom live up to their claims. True, also, that — to borrow the PM’s ill-chosen illustration — the building of graveyards or their boundaries can, for such governments, become an act of glib tokenism, a stand-in for more substantive development. But it is also true that the PM’s slogan of “sabka saath, sabka vikas” — which he reiterated in Fatehpur — can also be accused of perpetuating injustice if, in a society of deeply entrenched and historically embedded inequalities, it does not make space within itself for a specific and special outreach to minorities and the disprivileged.
The backdrop of the PM’s speech is a state where his party’s footsoldiers have been known to stoke communal insecurities, and for which the BJP’s 2017 manifesto promises “anti-Romeo” squads and teams to prevent a Kairana-like Hindu exodus — the first is an unsubtle allusion to the vicious campaign, not yet abated, waged by its cadres against “love jihad” and the latter has been proved to be a blatantly fake spectre by several independent investigations. In UP, the BJP list of candidates figures not a single Muslim. In such a context, the PM’s attempt in Fatehpur to elevate “discrimination” as an overriding theme is troubling. It neither behoves the PM nor his office.
This first appeared in print under the headline This versus That