The mean-spirited controversy sparked by BJP general secretary Ram Madhav’s questioning of Vice President Hamid Ansari’s absence at Sunday’s commemoration of International Yoga Day on Rajpath will not be deleted as easily as the offensive tweet. The fact is, a senior and responsible functionary of the ruling party has levelled an unseemly accusation at the occupant of one of the nation’s highest offices — and there is no escaping the impression that Ansari’s religion has something to do with it. This is because there is a larger context to Madhav’s tweet. For one, it is the second instance in less than five months where an attempt has been made by supporters of the Narendra Modi government to cast aspersions on Ansari’s patriotism. On Republic Day, the vice president’s office was forced to defend Ansari against the charge of disrespecting the national flag by not saluting it during the march-past. Then, in the run-up to International Yoga Day, voices from within the ruling establishment sought to convert a shared celebration of India’s soft power into an occasion for unabashed Hindu nationalist chest-thumping. A line can be drawn from BJP MP Yogi Adityanath’s remarks that those who refuse to do the suryanamaskar should go to Pakistan and Madhav’s tweet against the vice president, and it points to a dispiriting conclusion: All too often, when it comes to assertions of crude majoritarianism, in the ruling establishment, there is no separating the mainstream from the fringe.
The minister of Ayush, Shripad Naik, has now said that the vice president was not invited to the event because of protocol issues. But that does not settle the matter either. The Narendra Modi government must address the apprehension that, even as it has appeared to be settling down — before the unfurling of the Lalit Modi-Sushma Swaraj row — to the task of governance, it continues to be visibly ill at ease with opponents, critics and minorities. The vice president is not only the highest ranking Muslim office-holder in the country, but he came to office during the UPA government and is the presiding officer of the Rajya Sabha, Parliament’s Upper House, where the NDA is in a minority. In the past, too, there have been instances of a ruling party at the Centre having to deal with a president or vice president whose candidature it may not have been enthusiastic about, or who did not share its worldview. But by letting a senior office-bearer in the party get away with making a remark such as the one made by Madhav — the government did not immediately and unambiguously distance itself from it at the highest levels — the Narendra Modi government is failing a crucial test of statecraft apart from inviting charges of anti-minorityism and disrespect to a high office.
If the Narendra Modi government wants to clear the air, it needs to apologise to Vice President Ansari — and be seen to do so, too. Anything less is not enough.