IN THE political silence in India over the attack on author Salman Rushdie, leaving him critically injured, the most deafening is of the ruling BJP.
The BJP had criticised the Rajiv Gandhi government’s decision to ban the book in October 1988, as appeasement of the Muslim community. Later, its government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee had granted Rushdie a visa to travel to India in February 1999, for the first time since The Satanic Verses controversy.
While the BJP would have been expected to react to the attack on Rushdie, party leaders – who did not want to come on record – said the circumstances had changed. A conscious decision has been taken by the party now to refrain from commenting on any incident involving international ramifications, particularly one as sensitive as the Rushdie episode, sources said.
The situation has been further complicated by the recent fiasco surrounding statements by its spokesperson Nupur Sharma (since suspended), as well as its mixed feelings about the writer himself who has been critical of the Narendra Modi government.
“The party, since 2014, has taken a decision not to make comments on issues involving international relations. Being the party in power, the BJP cannot comment on issues that can run contrary to the government’s position,” said a former minister.
With Prime Minister Modi very careful about his image abroad, a stern message has gone down the party ranks to not do anything that can catch international attention and “embarass” him or his government.
For example, the former minister said, many in the BJP as well as the RSS were keen on commenting on the Chinese military drills near Taiwan, following US Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, but kept mum, keeping the Indian government’s delicate balancing act in the region in mind.
Officially, the BJP’s stand on Rushdie is that External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar has already reacted to the attack on him. BJP national media in-charge and Rajya Sabha MP Anil Baluni said the same on the matter.
However, Jaishankar’s response at a press conference in Bengaluru last week was evasive. Asked about the attack, he said: “I also read about that… I think, obviously, that is something which the whole world has noted, and any attack like this obviously the entire world has reacted to it.”
The BJP had to hasten to retrieve the situation after Nupur Sharma’s comments regarding Prophet Mohammed had sparked outrage in the Middle East – a region that the Modi government has assiduously wooed. After several countries in the Gulf and Islamic nations summoned Indian ambassadors to register their protest, and demanded a public apology from India, the BJP had acted swiftly against Sharma, as well as expelled a Delhi leader of the party.
“It was a big lesson for the party’s talking heads,” said one of the party’s national spokespersons. “Both India’s position or the BJP’s stature before the international community is not like it was in the early 2000s. Now there is a conscious attempt by the BJP leadership too to have warm ties with major parties in other countries.” He made a mention of BJP chief J P Nadda’s meetings with envoys of various countries to brief them about the party.
A senior BJP leader added that the party also had divided feelings over the whole Rushdie affair. “We have got a problem there. Many in the BJP liked Rushdie at the time of the ban because of his portrayal of (late Prime Minister and Congress leader) Indira Gandhi in Midnight’s Children. The conservative Islamic groups’ stand on Rushdie provided a perfect opportunity to talk about the radicalism in the religion as well. But Rushdie has been severely critical of Modi and the BJP,” the leader said.
The author has called PM Modi a “highly divisive figure” and a “hardliner’s hardliner”. Rushdie has also expressed concerns over freedom of expression under the BJP regime.