With the Lok Sabha elections less than a year away, the ruling regime can be expected to leverage its incumbency by courting the electorate in a variety of ways and shaping the public discourse to its advantage. All parties in power do this but when such early quasi-campaigning involves openly feting convicted criminals, as Jayant Sinha has done in his Hazaribagh constituency over the weekend, it sends ominous signals about the tone and tenor of the electioneering in the coming year. It is not clear why Mr Sinha, a deputy civil aviation minister, chose to garland and serve tea and biscuits to the eight men who were convicted for hacking to death a Muslim cattle trader last year. The men had been serving life terms imposed by a fast track court but had been granted bail after a higher court suspended the sentence. Mr Sinha’s argument was that the men in question were entitled to the due process of law, implying that as long as the appeal against their conviction was pending in a higher court, they should be presumed innocent.
A day after Mr Sinha’s strange action, his colleague in the Union cabinet, Giriraj Singh, perhaps wanted to do one better. The minister went to Bihar’s Nawada district jail and met Bajrang Dal and VHP activists who were arrested for allegedly inflaming communal passions, and accused the state government of “suppressing Hindus”. The BJP MP also broke down while meeting the family members of the arrested leaders and said he felt “helpless” for not being able to do anything in the matter even though his party is part of the ruling coalition in the state. At a time when lynching — whether of Muslims, Dalits or suspected child lifters — has acquired menacing dimensions in India, it is plain unfortunate that two prominent leaders of the party that is in power at the Centre have chosen to make such gestures.
But such theatrics can still be anticipated from a career politician like Mr Singh, who has made his priorities clear on many occasions. But as someone with impressive educational credentials (IIT, University of Pennsylvania, Harvard Business School) and work experience (McKinsey, Omidyar), Mr Sinha surely must understand that assuming judicial innocence is an amoral issue quite distinct from the moral choice of feting accused criminals. However he may choose to defend himself, his actions are plain wrong. As someone who is supposedly clued into the international circuit, Mr Sinha must be well aware of the global attention this lynching culture has attracted, principally because of the political establishment’s failure to unequivocally condemn it.
Even within the cynical calculations of identity politics, however, Mr Sinha’s gesture is hard to fathom. This crudely communal — and, it must be said, uncharacteristic — gesture becomes explicable when viewed through the prism of his ambitions. His father’s open criticisms of the regime’s more egregious social and economic policies may have played a part in thwarting the son’s ambitions. In that context, feting Hindu men convicted of killing a Muslim trader would send out an unambiguous signal to the party leadership of the true colours of his convictions as much as reassure his core voter base. As a representative of a modern, educated, global Indian citizen, however, Mr Sinha has done himself no favour.