Social media is replete with comments and statements that are often ill-informed, sometimes abusive and frequently banal. Usually, though, there is solace in the fact that half-baked opinions and provocations can be dismissed as emanating from a small group looking to spark a conversation to get their 15 minutes of 280-character fame.
However, in the manufactured controversy around Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey being photographed with a polemical poster that carried an exhortation “to smash Brahminical Patriarchy”, it is a senior spokesperson of India’s oldest political party who has now displayed a shocking lack of sociological perspective. Manish Tewari’s words also show a political naivete that will only further diminish his party’s image.
Dorsey, who was photographed with the poster created by a Dalit woman artist based in the US during his visit to India, was quick to distance himself from the politics underlying the image. Many on social media seem not to have understood that “Brahminical patriarchy” is a theoretical construct meant to articulate the ways in which a caste-gender nexus operates in the Subcontinent — not an attack on individuals of a particular caste. Those on the extreme right seem to have interpreted the poster, and Dorsey standing next to it, as an “attack on Hinduism” and a call to violence.
This sentiment was given tacit support by Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who has promised “strong action” against Twitter. At a time like this, rather than espousing the liberal, constitutional values the Congress claims to stand for, Tewari tweeted that “anti-Brahminism is the reality of Indian politics. Got accentuated in the North post-Mandalisation… We [Brahmins] are the new Jews of India…”
That a Congress spokesperson chose to equate those uppermost in a millennia-old system of stratification with a group that suffered pogroms and ethnic cleansing is not merely indicative of insensitivity and impoverished powers of analogy. It also mirrors a Congress syndrome. Politically, the party has been struggling to find a narrative to counter the near-hegemonic rise of the BJP. And the statements of its leaders are too often, as in Tewari’s case, counterproductive.
Former minister Mani Shankar Aiyar did much to help the BJP’s 2014 campaign with his “chaiwallah” comment. In October, MP Shashi Tharoor equated the BJP with the Taliban (on the heels of his “Hindu Pakistan” comment), likely alienating a large section in order to score a point in a non-existent debate. The carelessness of Congress leaders can, of course, be put down to each individual’s failings. But the question is whether Congressmen, part of a party which claims the legacy of the freedom movement and its progressive character, have an understanding of the ground realities of the country and the people they seek to govern.