If politics in a mature constitutional democracy is also about the unwritten rules of the game, if it includes a reciprocal pact between players to acknowledge and uphold dignity, their own and their opponent’s, then this is a disquieting day. PM Narendra Modi’s none-too-veiled innuendo in an election speech in Banaskantha district on Sunday has severely let down his constitutional commitment and office. A day after the first phase of polling in Gujarat, he spoke about a former Pakistani army officer allegedly showing undue interest in the election and supporting Ahmed Patel for chief minister. And about a dinner meeting at Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar’s home, where Indian dignitaries, including a former PM, vice-president and army chief, met with a Pakistani delegation, including the Pak high commissioner, to hold secret talks in the midst of Gujarat polls. The import of the PM’s statements was inescapable and grim: Speaking in the same breath of the Congress, Pakistan and a Muslim candidate for CM, he suggested that they are partners in an unholy, rather anti-national, conspiracy. In one stroke, he labelled his political opponent as unpatriotic and lent the immense weight of his office to a shameful politics of stereotyping that holds all of India’s Muslims to be pro-Pakistan and guilty.
Whether the BJP wins the Gujarat election, or loses it, the PM’s day out in Banaskantha should bring a moment of reflection and pause. So far, over the last three years or so of the Modi regime, whenever unseemly and outright bigoted statements were made that cast the Muslim as the Other, the Anti-National, and the Enemy, the PM’s office was singed. And yet, it maintained a modicum of distance and deniability. It was the fringe, it could be said, and in any case, these were sporadic excesses that a large party like the BJP couldn’t possibly control. On Hindus and Muslims, in the Lok Sabha campaign on the eve of the 2014 polls in Bihar, Candidate Modi had struck a high note. Muslims and Hindus must not fight each other, he said, but together battle poverty. When he repeated that statement as PM during another Bihar campaign, this time for the state assembly, not even his party president Amit Shah’s incendiary remark, that firecrackers would be burst in Pakistan should the BJP lose, could fully extinguish the distinction between the PM and the Rest.
Now, the PM’s statements at Banaskantha imperil that distinction. Several of Mani Shankar Aiyar’s guests, including and especially former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, have denied PM Modi’s version of the dinner party. Gujarat was not on the menu, they have said. The Modi government has sought to challenge their response, but the damage is done. It travels far and runs deep. Next time there is a hate crime, the next time a Shambhulal Regar counts on state protection and impunity, the silence of the PM can — and should — be interrogated more loudly.