Does Hasan Minhaj’s Patriot Act Play Into the BJP Narrative of “There is No Alternative”?

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Does Hasan Minhaj’s Patriot Act Play Into the BJP Narrative of “There is No Alternative”?

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

Last week, when Narendra Modi tweeted a personalised election challenge to Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan reminding them that “It’s all about loving your democracy,” little did he expect that everyone’s favourite American-born desi, Hasan Minhaj would take it up. In the latest episode of the new season of Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, the comedian highlights exactly what is at stake as over 900 million Indians prepare to cast their vote in the general elections next month.

The episode “Indian Elections” is preceded by a short gag where Minhaj debates his plan to talk about the upcoming general elections with his family and relatives. Their reactions, predictably, veer toward advising him not to go ahead with it. Discuss something more comical like cricket or “sneakers” they insist, pointing out the consequences of being critical of the Indian government. “There will be an accident. You will be burnt to death!” someone offers, while another warns him of being labelled a “terrorist” – or worse, a “Pakistani agent”.

It’s a clever, if a little too self-conscious, attempt at taking a dig at the government’s reputation – and that of its acolytes – of being intolerant to dissent. In his introductory monologue, Minhaj admits that talking about Indian elections could land him in trouble, especially because he is “Indian and Muslim”. Although, India’s hobby of instantly equating Muslim identity with being anti-national isn’t new, Minhaj’s declaration works, given it is a sentiment that has assumed greater relevance in times of josh-fuelled war-mongering.

Aimed predominantly at a largely American audience, the primer episode is largely critical of the BJP government, even when it tries to land a few punches at the door of a lacklustre Congress. Minhaj spends the initial minutes establishing a connection between PM Modi and Donald Trump, based on their similar campaign catchphrases – “India First” and “America First”; their bizarre greeting styles; their unhealthy obsession with Twitter; even unearthing the video that captured the awkward hug-shake between the two leaders.

The comedian then touches upon the government’s possible strategy of mining the Pulwama attack to distract voters from pertinent issues like the unemployment crisis, the National Register of Citizens Policy, and the impact of demonetisation. And each of these epochs in the BJP reign are underlined by punchlines, that are specific and universal, which make dissecting them, easy for someone who is not sitting in an Indian newsroom. For instance, the revelation that PM Modi has never held a press conference is offset by, “That’s like posting on Instagram but disabling the comments.”

Tharoor’s presence on Patriot Act isn’t entirely surprising – the Congress has, on more than one occasion, used his fair-weather liberal image to advertise itself.

Yet, there are times when this cheekiness appears to overpower the significance of the accusations. In fact, the overall satirical tone of the episode tries to pass off punchlines as sharp political critique.

Midway through the episode, Minhaj reveals that he tried to get in touch with both the BJP and Congress in order to get a comment for the episode. The BJP didn’t respond, but the Congress sent sitting MP and human quote-generator Shashi Tharoor to field questions on its behalf. Tharoor’s presence isn’t entirely surprising – the Congress has, on more than one occasion, used his fair-weather liberal image to advertise itself. Tharoor’s views, similar to his opinions on Sabarimala, aren’t unpredictable. On being asked about the rampant corruption that has marred his party, Tharoor offers a meek, “No party has a monopoly on virtue” before playing down the omnipresence of Indian politicians who have a murder charge against them. “Voters get the leaders they deserve,” he claims, resorting to a cliche I last read in a class VIII civics textbook. Minhaj isn’t the only one left unconvinced.

The episode’s weakest link is Minhaj’s surface-level bracketing of both the BJP and Congress as “rabid” and “struggling”. In 25 minutes, Minhaj pits religious fanaticism against corruption, simplifying the two choices that Indian voters have in front of them in this crucial general election. It leaves a viewer with one thought: Indian voters should pick the lesser of two evils. It boils down to a contest between the BJP’s “display of strength”, and everyone else. With its alarmist tone, it buys entirely into the “There is No Alternative” theory floated by the BJP.  

Yet, as this editorial in The Wire, points out, “alternatives are never perfect”. Neither can they emerge suddenly. “With experiments, contradictions and even failures we move; and the very willingness to undertake this challenge is a new beginning. Is it possible for the ‘opposition’ parties to move towards these alternatives?… We remain preoccupied with all sorts of juicy riddles suitable for toxic editorials in sensational newspapers: Is hyper-ambitious Mayawati’s ‘masterstroke’ better than Yogi Adityanath’s communal politics? Is Mamata Banerjee’s aggression an appropriate response to Amit Shah’s cleverness? Or, for that matter, is Rahul Gandhi’s ‘hug’ a reminder of the limits to the ‘signs’ Modi’s armoured body can emit?”

And that is exactly the effect Minhaj achieves, even if he didn’t intend it. The episode ends up subscribing to the BJP’s “strong man” narrative – the idea that no party can match up to it. In the last four years, this has been the party’s playing card, bolstered by insults of inefficiency and weakness that are routinely heaped on the Congress. Minhaj plays right into the ruling party’s hands: In a year where the elections have the power to determine whether “India will remain India”, it’s this black-and-white narrative that we must be careful of, when we think of an alternative.