Congress, BJP: Both Nangey in India’s Communal Hammam

BY JYOTI MALHOTRA

Does the Congress party essentially control the narrative around political violence in India? The latest example is that of Imran Masood, its candidate from Saharanpur, a constituency in western Uttar Pradesh (UP) which also houses the Deoband seminary –– whose hate speech a few days ago resulted in his arrest and consequent disapproval by Congress party vice-president Rahul Gandhi. Television cameras had caught the Congress candidate saying that he would cut up opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate Narendra Modi into “small, small pieces” and that he better be forewarned because UP was not Gujarat.

Now it turns out that the party is in two minds about denying him the ticket. Clearly the Congress, reeling with the possibility of an imminent political demise, will find it easy to abandon the high moral ground in favour of waging a battle not by totally scrupulous means. Both India’s major parties realise that the fight for the throne of Delhi will take place in the lanes and bylanes of UP and that every seat counts.

On the eve of the previous general elections in 2009, BJP leader (and Rahul’s first cousin) Varun Gandhi had been summarily thrown into jail for threatening to “chop off the heads of Muslims”. A few weeks ago, the head of the Sri Ram Sene, Pramod Muthalik, better known for beating up girls as they wanted to participate in Valentine’s Day, was admitted into the BJP for a day or so before national outrage forced the party to throw him out.

Of course, the best known examples of political violence are found in the Gujarat riots of 2002, which Modi allegedly did nothing to stop and indeed may have thus allowed the barbarous mobs to take revenge upon hapless Muslims, although several courts of inquiry have so far failed to indict him on any charge – as well as in the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984, planned, organised and systematically carried out by members of the Congress party.

But according to well-known political analyst Mukul Kesavan, there is a distinct difference between the Congress and the BJP on the communal question, even though the 1984 riots killed three times as many Sikhs as Muslims in 2002. “Congress, by a kind of historical default, is a pluralist party that is opportunistically communal, while the BJP is an ideologically communal party that is opportunistically secular,” Kesavan said.

However, the BJP’s newest spokesperson as well as one of India’s best-known political analysts, MJ Akbar, would rather focus on the economic development of Gujarat under Modi’s rule during the past 10 years rather than on the violence in 2002, which he now believes were an aberration.

In fact, that is the biggest question of the current election: Should India learn to put the Gujarat riots behind it, just as it did the 1984 Sikh pogrom?

Many Indians believe that if Modi can become another version of Atal Behari Vajpayee – who also had no hesitation calling himself a card-carrying member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the right-wing puritanical mother lode of the BJP – then he may just be able to become the leader of all Indians. The question is, can the tiger change his spots?

From his comments at a Jammu rally last week, when he accused Congress leader AK Antony and Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal of being “agents” of Pakistan, it seems as if Modi will hope to keep himself above the communal fray just as he has tried to do in the election campaign so far – except when he simply can’t help himself lapsing back.

Increasingly though, the same Indians that Manmohan Singh’s reforms over the last 10 years have permanently lifted out of poverty and put spare cash into their pockets to spend, are now vociferously voting Modi. These people don’t see the essentially illiberal streak in Modi because they would rather focus on his ability to get things done. This is the second time in contemporary history when Indians are supporting a wilful suspension of civil liberty in the name of development and economic reform – the first time being during the emergency ordered by Indira Gandhi.

Equally, Mrs Gandhi had a change of heart two years later and ordered elections in 1977, where she was roundly defeated… Can Narendra Modi learn from those who came before him?

-the writer is an independent journalist based in New Delhi

-by arrangement with The Express Tribune