It isn’t a surprise that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a professed “Hindu nationalist”, would indulge in a sectarian election campaign in the way he did in Bihar, very unsuccessfully, and in UP, where his success far exceeded all calculations. The minorities do not matter to his party, the BJP. Its members go to the extent of saying the party does not need the Muslim vote and, therefore, by implication is not concerned with their betterment or their constitutional rights, which are being trampled upon all over the country. But when divisiveness or sectarianism proves beneficial electorally, it becomes a creed, or an ideology itself, as has happened with the BJP, which is taking to provincial politics without turning a hair. It stokes every feeling of victimhood, real or imaginary. The PM’s campaigns in Gujarat, and elsewhere, are a telling example of that.
In a recent public meeting in Gujarat, the PM said that “the family (the Nehru-Gandhi family) does not like Gujarat or Gujaratis”, “did not like Sardar Patel or Morarji Desai”, and “spread rumours about Desai when he became Prime Minister”. When a person speaks such stuff standing on the podium, he or she can get away without having to produce a shred of evidence in support of what he or she said. But if the PM were to go by what’s there in the public domain, he wouldn’t travel very far. Every school-child today knows there was some friction between Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel in one phase of our history, and between Indira Gandhi and Morarji Desai, in another. But to say on the basis of this that the family does not like Gujarat is taking a quantum leap whose import I am not sure if the BJP knows. Divisiveness does not select a single target. It meanders into multifarious channels.
This is not the first time that the PM has dropped such provincial innuendoes. He did it once in Kolkata, when he was on the stump, barnstorming for the Lok Sabha polls in 2013-14. There he praised Pranab Mukherjee, who had become President by then, and his administrative capabilities. Then he sought to stir up the eternal Bengali grouse about being victimised by saying the Congress did not give Mr Mukherjee his due, which was prime ministership. The historical equivalent that comes to every mind — and must have come to mind when Mr Modi (then he was Gujarat chief minister) was blazing away — is not difficult to guess. If Subhash Chandra Bose was unfairly treated (I for one do not set great store by that event), his tormentor, who called Bose a “misguided patriot”, was from Gujarat. Fine, if there were differences between Gandhi and Bose. But basing himself on that, if a Bose admirer were to air the view that Gandhi hated all of Bengal, the admirer’s followers would be led into uncharted territory and the consequences of that could be ominous.
This is vintage provincialism, which many in the past have been guilty of. Remember the gentle Bihari-Bahari dichotomy during the Bihar elections in 2015? And the man who gained from insinuating that people from outside Bihar (who could they be?) were trying to capture the mind and heart of the people of the state did a remarkable somersault after that. During the Lok Sabha election campaign, in Maharashtra Mr Modi asked a question that reeked of constitutional impropriety: Referring to Sharad Pawar, who was then Union agriculture minister, he posed the question why there were so many farmer deaths in Maharashtra when the country’s agriculture minister belonged to the state (emphasis mine). Farmer deaths in Maharashtra were an enormous tragedy, but it cannot be said that for the country’s agriculture minister they were a bigger tragedy than it would be had the deaths taken place anywhere else. Mr Pawar was the country’s agriculture minister and not of Maharashtra, and therefore duty-bound to protect each agriculturist of India, regardless of caste, religion, language, region, or, if you prefer, complexion. That’s the essence of our nationhood, that’s the demand every Indian can make. Anything that detracts from this can slide into things that our Constitution is opposed to.
This is one aspect of the matter. There have been occasions when the PM has said things than go against many presumptions that have taken civilisation forward, such as the Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789 and several other proclamations thereafter. In an interview to a newspaper and in an effort to be well-meaning, the PM said it should not be as though there should be red tape for the common man but not for Mukesh Ambani. While the mission implied in this statement is laudable, the contrast he drew between the industrialist and the common man ties in with the thinking of the ancien régime. I do not know if the common man exists anywhere except in R K Laxman’s cartoons. But if there is, the discourse on the uniform applicability of the law should have been built on the assumption that Mukesh Ambani, like all others, is a common man.
The principles on which a modern republic should be governed are changing and taking dangerous turns. Who can set things right?