By Manik Sharma Feb. 04, 2020
When I was growing up, parties targeted each other over political scams or incompetence. But if the Delhi elections are any indication, the BJP has vitiated the atmosphere, by trying to turn the campaign into a shouting match of hate and toxicity.
“Arvind Kejriwal is a terrorist,” says Union Minister Prakash Javadekar.
“Only Pakistan and Kejriwal were upset by the abrogation of Article 370,” says UP chief minister Adityanath.
“Shaheen Bagh protesters will enter your house… abduct your sisters and mothers, rape them, kill them the way militants had treated Kashmiri Pandits,” says BJP MP Parvesh Verma.
Ladies and gentlemen lend me your ears, for I will seal them to save you the bile and dirt being slammed in your unsuspecting faces. The average Indian election isn’t exactly known for its political decency, but the campaign for the Delhi elections has descended to new depths of tastelessness.
For the last couple of weeks BJP leaders have been launching a throaty tirade against the Aam Aadmi Party, the incumbent Delhi administration. So much so that the Election Commission must be struggling to keep track of violations, not to mention the lack of respect that ministers have shown for the stipulated code of conduct. All of this, however, is part of the BJP’s sole strategy in Delhi. Saddled on a dead horse, with nothing but poisonous rhetoric to race with, the ruling party is trying to turn the Delhi election into a shouting match of hate and toxicity, a strategy they have pioneered.
Growing up, I was a huge fan of watching election coverage on television, given how charged and electric, how enjoyable the whole process was. But those were times when parties targeted each other over administrative failures, political scams or simply incompetence. In most cases, a vision, a reprieve, an alternative was offered.
Historically, Indian politics has always tread a fine line, as far as labels are concerned.
The Delhi election has, so far, proven to be anything but. It feels like a match between a functional, adequately performing log of wood and a red-hot iron ball of hate that intends to cut through opposition, irrespective of the damage it causes to the sport itself. A BJP MP, Anurag Thakur, urges protesters to chant “goli maro saalon ko,” and two days later, a 17-year-old fires at protesters. Then star campaigner Adityanath shows up a couple of days later, echoing Thakur’s sentiment, which escalates into a third gun-related incident in the last week alone.
Gone are the days when young men and women could sit and partake in conversational politics, cherish the variety of voices on offer and the different perspectives of India they brought to the table. Instead, the BJP seems intent on blowing dog-whistles, spewing a litany of bigotry and hate speech targeting opponents and colouring them in select ways.
Which isn’t to say that I am harking back to some glorious past – that’s a job for the history textbook wings of our political parties. Historically, Indian politics has always tread a fine line, as far as labels are concerned. Lalu Prasad Yadav was once known only by the scam he lent his name to. During the 1996 elections, RSS ideologue K N Govindacharya apparently dubbed his own party leader, Atal Bihari Vajpayee a “mukhota” or mask. We all know what happened to Govindacharya, but the benignness of these labels – which caused a furore in their time – almost sounds innocent. In recent years, however the bar has consistently gotten lower, a notable example being when Sonia Gandhi called the then prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi a “maut ka saudagar” in 2008 and 2012, or the incessant “shehzada” and “pappu” jibes levelled at Rahul Gandhi.
Still, it’s a far cry from calling someone a terrorist or exhorting people to commit violence on their own countrymen and women. But a lot of it makes sense because there is precious little that can replace this hateful attempt at programming the voter.
A BJP MP, Anurag Thakur, urges protesters to chant “goli maro saalon ko,” and two days later, a 17-year-old fires at protesters.
I travel across the Delhi-Noida-Delhi highway every day for work. It is at the moment crowded by saffron hoardings with larger-than-life pictures of the Prime Minister and some barely legible highlights. Among them, the abrogation of Article 370 and the passing of the controversial, unconstitutional CAA feature prominently. The former has nothing to do with the governance of Delhi and the latter is well… contentious, not to mention irrelevant to Delhi.
Considering how the economy of Kashmir has tanked after Article 370 was withdrawn and the reputation it has robbed India of in terms of Human Rights on an international scale, the benefits of the article’s removal are more poetic than backed by fact. CAA on the other hand, is uncertain territory considering how it satisfies religiously colloquial desires without articulating what tangible benefits it presents to a country already struggling to employ and feed its people.
Thus, what remains, and what has unfortunately already worked well for the BJP, is inciting anger and hatred among the electorate. Shaheen Bagh has, for example, been turned into an inconvenient reality that whosoever doesn’t condemn is either anti-national, terrorist, and “Pakistani”.
This approach is not only limited to those who take to diases around the city. A friend who lives in Vasant Kunj told me that while a team of AAP volunteers came to her house opting to listen to concerns and share plans for the future, a group of BJP supporters arrived, shouting “Jai Shri Ram” and asking for votes in the name of religion. Even Delhi BJP’s campaign video is a call to action against people it has self-certified as either anti-national, or in the case of Muslims, social opponents.
BJP seems intent on blowing dog-whistles, spewing a litany of bigotry and hate speech targeting opponents.
Such is the directness of the messaging, the tone of voice, the vileness of the method. I can only imagine what impact this vicious trolling of moral accountability or ethics might have on young children or impressionable teenagers. That a 17-year-old felt the need to carry a gun to a protest at Jamia a few days ago, is evidence, if any required, of what this immodest and brutal form of politics is doing to the country.
This is not to say that politicians have in the past been genteel, or anything close. We haven’t exactly been served an eye-watering array of class and conduct. But while we have laughed away the eccentricities and the ludicrous excesses of some politicians in the past, the Delhi election campaign has turned the dial to a setting that could well perpetuate a new paradigm — a politics driven by toxic, apathetic, hateful men for whom no bar is too low.