November 02, 2015

India: It's useful (and not before time) that India Inc. has begun to speak up against majoritarian bullying (Mukul Kesavan)

The Telegraph, November 2, 2015

Fringe and rather more
- Buyer's remorse, the BJP and Bihar

Mukul Kesavan

When ratings agencies, central bankers and corporate titans begin to speak directly of intolerance, of the connection between insecure minorities and India's growth prospects, Mr Modi and his white-collar fellow travellers pretend to listen. To dismiss protesting artists and writers as Congress clients orphaned by that party's defeat comes naturally to a parivar inoculated against the individual imagination; telling Moody's Analytics or Narayana Murthy that they're imagining things is harder. When someone as adept at reading the prevailing wind as Kiran Mazumdar Shaw begins to tweet careful dissent, it's clear that deep in the bowels of India Inc. buyer's remorse has begun to stir.

Jayant Sinha, minister of state and the Bharatiya Janata Party's most credentialed corporate recruit (IIT, Harvard, McKinsey) did his best. Confronted on a talk show by a recording of Narayana Murthy's categorical assertion that India's minorities were beginning to feel insecure, that their security was the necessary precondition to economic growth, he blandly agreed and suggested that statements by the prime minister and the National Democratic Alliance's senior leadership reflected an absolute commitment to inclusiveness and social harmony.

Unluckily for Jayant Sinha, Mr Modi and his colleagues had just spent weeks in Bihar campaigning in an idiom that reflected the reverse. Sushil Modi, Amit Shah and Narendra Modi had made speeches, granted interviews and mounted political advertisements dedicated to dividing the electorate along communal lines. They had done this so brazenly and intemperately that the Election Commission had to order its officials in Bihar to forbid the BJP from using two advertisements that had "...the potential to create disharmony and mutual hatred between different communities".

One of the advertisements consisted of variations on a rhetorical question intended to highlight the Mahagathbandhan's alleged partiality to Muslims: "[I]s it good governance to snatch reservation quotas from the plates of Dalits and OBCs and serve them to religious minorities? Till when will this chief minister [Nitish Kumar] who swears by good governance continue to carve up the rights of Dalits and backward castes and fraudulently distribute them to religious minorities?"

The second banned advertisement was intended to be read alongside the first, like a real-world version of a two-part tweet. "Is it governance to harvest votes by raising crops of terror?" Read together, these advertisements insinuated that Nitish Kumar was stealing from Dalits and other backward classes what was theirs and giving it to Muslims to harvest the terrorist vote.

Democratic politics is a contact sport and in Indian elections, as elsewhere, parties give as good as they get. But even by that robust standard a political party that pits India's poorest communities against each other in a zero-sum game, positions itself as pro-Dalit, pro-OBC and anti-minority and implicitly stigmatizes that minority as terrorist, is not a party that should intone ' Sabka saath, sabka vikas' and expect to be believed.

The naked bigotry of these advertisements can't be attributed to an excess of local zeal; this line of attack was sanctioned from the top of the BJP hierarchy. Thus Sushil Modi, the head of the party's Bihar chapter, was even more specific than the advertisements in his social messaging. On October 28, he tweeted that "[i]n its attempt to win the minority vote en bloc, Nitish Kumar, Lalu Yadav and the Congress are carving out 9% of Dalit-OBC reservations to give to Muslim-Christians". Sushil Modi scorned the mealy-mouthed anonymity of 'religious minorities' in favour of a hyphenated bogey that named the enemy 'Muslim-Christians'.

But even Sushil Modi is no more than a provincial leader. The cue for this line of attack came from the prime minister of India, Narendra Modi and the president of his party, Amit Shah. A couple of days before the advertisements were published, Modi got the campaign rolling by accusing Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav of conspiring to transfer a part of the quota reserved for Dalits and other backward castes to members of "another community".

It's worth reflecting on the enormity of this. Modi has dog-whistled before during election campaigns; through the general election in 2014 he tried to make political mileage out of the 'pink revolution' (the trade in beef) in Bihar and suggested that rhinos had been displaced to accommodate illegal Muslim migrants in Assam. Sordid as this was, he was the leader of the principal Opposition party at the time, not the prime minister of the country.

When the prime minister of all Indians campaigns in a state election by casting "another community" as the unworthy recipient of favours stolen from Dalits and backward castes, he divides his people and discredits his office. He sets the tone for his party's members and supporters. He indicates that it's legitimate to single out and demonize the members of this coyly anonymous community. He doesn't have to be specific because every single person in his audience knows its name. For those innocents who don't there are lieutenants like Sushil Modi to make things explicit.

The politics behind this squalid campaign is straightforward: this is a competitive election and the fifth and final phase of the polling in Seemanchal on November 5 might make the difference. Seemanchal in north-east Bihar has a substantial Muslim population in districts like Kishanganj, Katihar, Purnea and Araria. Seemanchal is also one of the poorest, most backward parts of Bihar and the BJP's strategy is to consolidate the non-Muslim vote by describing the leaders of the Grand Alliance as men trying to buy Muslim votes with reservations stolen from the Hindu poor.

This is the BJP's explicit strategy in Bihar, with Modi in the vanguard and Amit Shah bringing up the rear. Amit Shah warned that a BJP defeat would be celebrated with fire-crackers in Pakistan. The sangh parivar is not above using Pakistan as a contemptuous metaphor for Muslim neighbourhoods, especially in Amit Shah's home state, Gujarat.

Encouraged by his boss's invocation of Pakistan, Rajiv Pratap Rudy, the minister of state and member of parliament from Saran in Bihar, saw a Grand Alliance advertisement on the website of a Pakistani newspaper, Dawn, and jumped to triumphant conclusions. "Nitish advertises in Pakistan daily 'DAWN' e-edition to reach voters in Bihar. Why Pak? Whom does he want to reach?" Online responders pointed out to Rudy that the ads had been placed by Google AdSense which served up advertisements based on a browser's location and IP address, not by Nitish Kumar. An embarrassed Rudy deleted the tweet which wouldn't have seen the light of day if the BJP hadn't declared open season on "another community".

In her interview with The Indian Express, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw said she was very "...disturbed by fringe elements trying to disturb communal harmony". Reining in "fringe elements" figured very largely in her expression of concern. Invoking "fringe elements" in Indian discourse is a polite way of both expressing worry about bad things happening and insulating the political leadership from any direct responsibility for them. If Shaw really believes that the BJP's response to, say, the Dadri lynching represented the fringe, she either hasn't been paying attention or her definition of the fringe encompasses Union ministers, MPs and chief ministers.

In Bihar it is the top brass of the BJP that set the agenda and decided that trolling Muslims would be the centre-piece of its election campaign. The notion that "fringe elements" - trishul-bearing, potty-mouthed lumpen or their online counterparts, trolling bhakts - need to be reined in by the BJP's leadership is either delusional or a form of political discretion. It's useful (and not before time) that India Inc. has begun to speak up against majoritarian bullying; it would be better still if its spokespersons aimed their anguish at the right address.