Prime Minister Narendra Modi has had a peripatetic week, travelling from Champaran in Bihar to celebrate 100 years of Mahatma Gandhi’s satyagraha against indigo, back to Delhi to inaugurate the Ambedkar memorial at Alipur Road — as well as meet Buddhist monks in Parliament house — and onwards to Bijapur district where he praised the legacy of Bhim Rao Ambedkar amid chants of “Jai Bhim”.
The impressive emphasis on the glories of the Dalit leader were, once again, phrased in conjunction with his own struggles as the son of poor parents who has risen to the top. Moreover, Modi said, it was the Atal Behari Vajpayee government which had decided before it lost power in 2004, to make a befitting memorial to Ambedkar which the Congress government promptly forgot. It was only when he and the BJP came to power, did “we open the files again.”
But the PM’s focus on Ambedkar this week has only rivaled his admission that the country has failed its “daughters (who) will get justice.” “I want to assure the nation that no criminal will be spared. Justice will be done. Our daughters will get justice. We all have to work together to end this internal evil,” the PM said at the memorial at Alipur Road, where Ambedkar breathed his last.
The admission came after a storm of outrage across the country and after Congress president Rahul Gandhi, along with his sister Priyanka, led a late-night candlelight vigil at India Gate demanding that the government take action against those accused of raping and murdering an eight-year-old child in Kathua and raping a 16-year-old teenager in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh.
The Congress leader also later taunted him about his “Beti bachai/Beti padhao” slogan, asking him to “save” India’s daughters. The PM’s statement the following day also reminded many of the BBC film by the same name, “India’s Daughters,” about the brutal gangrape of a young girl, Nirbhaya, in December 2012 – banned by the Modi government in 2015, ostensibly because it interviewed Nirbhaya’s rapists without permission in Tihar jail.
In the wake of the ban, Priyanka Gandhi had told this reporter, “I believe it is an outrage to ban the film. We should all watch it and understand the grave consequences of the mindsets we create when we deny even the smallest measure of equality to women.”
The PM’s carefully worded statement on Friday at the Ambedkar memorial was clearly meant to assuage the vocal middle-class outraging about rape as an instrument of terror. Although BJP MPs Meenakshi Lekhi and I&B minister Smriti Irani both accused the Opposition of selective protestation (“why not other abused children,” they both said), social media’s questioning of the PM’s silence had been driven home.
The PM knows that one reason for the middle-class’ support to the BJP and to him personally in 2014, was its overwhelming fear about the safety and security of their girl children. Especially after the horrific Delhi gangrape, the cities looked towards Narendra Modi to keep their children safe.
For a Yogi Adityanath government to prevaricate around the arrest of its BJP MLA (who, admittedly, was in the BSP and then in the SP in his previous incarnations as MLA) and for two BJP ministers in the Mehbooba Mufti government to defend those accused of raping the child in Kathua – both in the same week, the PM probably realized, was looking terrible for the BJP.
In this last year before India goes to the polls, the most important issues before the people are beginning to clarify. Dalit anger is certainly one – this has been evident since the Una protests in Gujarat, around the Rohith Vemula suicide and at the Bhima-Koregaon protest outside Pune.
It is clear the PM is assiduously reaching out to the 21 per cent Dalit population – they helped make the Modi wave in 2014 as well as shifted in large numbers in the 2017 Assembly election in UP to give the Yogi Adityanath government an enormous majority. But will they continue to repose trust in the BJP in 2019? If simmering middle-class anger around women’s safety and security – and especially the safety and security of girl children – can be added to the cauldron of issues facing the government, the danger signs could soon come on.
The Prime Minister, who keeps his finger on the nation’s pulse if nothing else, knows this. The statements applauding Ambedkar as well as in defence of women and children, in the same speech, were deliberate and thought-through.
Remember, too, that the PM is travelling to Sweden and London in the coming week, where he may be questioned about these exact issues. He has to have a response ready. The PM knows the Nirbhaya gangrape in 2012 drove another nail into the coffin of the UPA – he knows he can’t afford to have the same done to him and the party.
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