It was supposed to be a fortnight of celebration for the ruling BJP. After eight years on the throne in Delhi, the party had launched its “eight years of Seva, Sushasan and Garib Kalyan,Celebrations, highlighting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership as that of a welfarist giver of benefits to the poor. In fact, in the last eight years, the PM has lent himself to a careful image makeover for his leadership and government.
Yes, come elections, the sharply polarizing rhetoric would be unleashed, but in the government, the attempt was to project Modi as a welfarist governance guru, with ‘sabka saath sabka vikas’ as his motto, forever showering gas cylinders and cash handouts equally to “Salma” and “Sita.”
But suddenly, the balloon of the 8-year celebration has been rudely popped. Nupur Sharma, designated party spokesperson, appeared on a TV Prophet show screaming insults at The, and within days, all West Asia, major powers like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia, and others, were roundly condemning India and demanding an apology.
A flustered government quickly dubbed Nupur Sharma as “fringe”, the BJP suspended her and expelled another hate speaker Naveen Jindal, but to no avail. The fury across the Islamic world continues to grow and India faces an international blowback and serious embarrassment, its loss of face made more acute by the fact that just days ago the US referred to India as a country of concern for religious freedom of minorities.
Today, when the world is asking if India is committed to religious freedom, the Modi-led BJP faces a moment of truth, a test that former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee too faced (and failed) post the Gujarat riots of 2002. Can the party rein in its hotheads and radicals and make a bid for Rajdharma and statesmanship? The BJP has now reportedly issued an order to all its spokespersons to steer clear of inflammatory words. But it’s a belated wake-up call, given the sustained shrill rhetoric over the last few years.
Two arguments being made in defense of Nupur Sharma are both invalid: first, Nupur Sharma is not “fringe”. She’s a former Delhi University Students Union president, was given a BJP party ticket to contest against Arvind Kejriwal in 2015 and is an integral part of the BJP’s aggressive, in-your-face prime-time army. Second, Nupur Sharma’s comments cannot be equated with the freedom of speech of the magazine Charlie Hebdo (which published cartoons of the Prophet) or of author Salman Rushdie (on whom a fatwa was issued for his novel ‘The Satanic Verses’.) Nupur Sharma is not speaking as a private satirical magazine or as a novelist. She is an official of the ruling party who shot her mouth off while doing her official duty as the ruling party’s spokesperson. Also, the party that she represents has been accused of systematically undermining the rights of minorities, and the government she represents is accused of sins of omission and commission towards Muslims.
The governments of France or the US do not stand accused of violence against minorities as the government of India does today. This is the government Nupur Sharma represents as a spokesperson of the ruling party. Sure, she has the right to free speech, but when she uses it for public hate speak and religious incitement, she cannot but expect a serious backlash and legal action, given the discriminatory context in which her party and government operates.
At the same time, we must be that death threats to Nupur Sharma are unacceptable and those clear who must be waraffron nationalism of shooting off the shoulders of autocratic governments like Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Frankly, this inner BJP wrangling is not one that the opposition needs to speak much on, except to emphasise that India’s secularists and liberals reject all forms of communalism and fanaticism, both Hindu and Muslim.
The identity battle within the BJP is the central focus now. Nupur Sharma and Naveen Jindal are not isolated voices. They represent the core identity of the BJP in the Modi-Shah years as distinct from the Vajpayee era. The Modi-Shah led BJP is unapologetic about its vichardhaaramakes no secret of its contempt for Islam and minorities, is perpetually in combat mode and openly favors a Hindu Rashtra.
Modi himself was once very much part of the party’s radical wing. As Gujarat Chief Minister, he made the infamous remark “hum paanch, unke pachchees”. In 2019, for the important Bhopal Lok Sabha seat, the Modi-Shah-led BJP chose Sadhvi Pragya Thakur, a terror accused. She was left free to eulogise Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse, even as the Modi government used Gandhi’s spectacles for its Swachh Bharat campaign.
In the 2015 Bihar polls, party leader Amit Shah declared that fireworks would go off in Pakistan if the BJP did not win. In the 2017 UP polls PM Modi himself made a campaign speech on “shamshan and kabristan”.
In 2019 in Jharkhand, PM Modi said certain protesters (against the CAA and NRC) can be identified by their clothes. In 2019 he accused Rahul Gandhi of contesting in a seat where the “minority is the majority.”
Sakshi Maharaj, a serial offender on hate speech against Muslims, has repeatedly been given a BJP ticket. And Yogi Adityanath, the UP Chief Minister who could well be the BJP’s Face of The Future, has made the bulldozer a metaphor for his preferred form of muscular ‘nationalist’ politics.
Apart from the dog whistles, the leadership party has stayed silent during lynchings, riots, bulldozing of homes and hate speech during dharam sansads. In the hyper-connected era of social media, these events have been disseminated worldwide. Hindutva is unwelcome abroad – BJP MP Tejasvi Surya’s lecture event in Australia was cancelled and saffron-leaning filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri, the director of The Kashmir Fileswas denied a platform at UK’s Cambridge University.
The tightrope walk, the clever duality of crafting a welfarist governance image and at the same time coddling fire breathing radicals is now unraveling. How will you pose as Vishwaguru when you can’t control the dark underbelly of VHP and Bajrang Dal wreaking religious havoc on the ground? This battle, an inner Mahabharata war between party and government, was one that Vajpayee faced throughout his tenure as PM. Narendra Modi is more powerful in his party than Vajpayee, but is he willing to make a choice and fight the battle within?
Staying silent, applying band-aid to festering sores like hate speech, making the odd statement and indulging the saffron madmen do not look like options anymore. The Modi-led BJP will either have to fully embrace the radical right and make a choice about its identity or be prepared to fight the battle that Vajpayee once waged and lost.
As it makes this choice, the BJP may like to consider the fate of other right wing radicals across the world – the Maulvis and fundamentalists who dominate the discourse on Muslim questions have all mostly become marginalized. Some of Europe’s far right parties have become un-electable as they have grown more radical. Riding the Hindutva tiger may bring short-term electoral rewards, but tigers are known to devour those who attempt to ride them.
(The writer is senior journalist and author of a new biography on Atal Bihari Vajpayee)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.