NEW DELHI: Karnataka, where Assembly elections are due next year, has started to burn following clashes in coastal Honnavar town amid Bharatiya Janata Party allegations that a boy was tortured and killed. The issue has been brought to the state capital with a major protest planned by the BJP tomorrow. And it is almost certain that by the time the state goes to the polls, the almost 13 per cent population would have become invisible when the campaign begins.
The same has been true of Gujarat where the Muslims are seen—guess that cannot be prevented—but not heard. In a campaign where Congress president Rahul Gandhi joined Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a rush to the temples, the need for a token gesture towards the minorties was shunned. In a polity where Nehru’s secularism was distorted by Indira Gandhi when she visited both temples and dargahs as token offerings to the two communities, Rahul Gandhi has dropped the balancing act altogether.
(Why? As the polity is so polarised that any such move would have ensured defeat. But the option of keeping away from both temples and mosques in keeping with an election fought on the basis of the Constitution and not religiosity was not even seen as an option by the Congress in the current communally charged atmosphere. )
Perhaps the most striking demonstration of how little Muslim lives mattered to both the political parties came from the response, or actually non response, to the ghastly murder of a Bengali labourer in Rajasthan by a man who filmed it, and put it up on the social media to get accolades from those preaching such hate. PM Modi of course did not comment on this while campaigning in Gujarat, but the Congress president too did not raise the issue while wooing the Gujarati voters.
The same was visible in Bihar where except for the Rashtriya Janata Party, the BJP, Congress and Nitish Kumar Janada Dal (U) did not speak of the Muslims in that state through the campaign. It was as if the almost 17 per cent population of the state had vanished from view. The same was true of Uttar Pradesh in the joint campaign of Samajwadi leader Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi, with both steering clear of any ‘controversial’ issue that could help the BJP in its communal propaganda.
What is even more disconcerting is the Muslim voters willingness to be so segregated from the campaign, the acquiescence to an unvoiced strategy of the non-BJP political parties to garner the majority votes. This comes from again an unvoiced recognition of the communalisation that has taken place on the ground, where the Muslims in their desire to have a secular party or coalition in government are quite willing to become invisible. Just so that the political parties can appeal for the vote of other communities, without the Muslim face queering the pitch as it were.
In Bihar particularly Muslims were not willing to talk about the campaign or the elections. As many explained behind closed doors in both UP and Bihar, this was to take the pressure off the non-BJP political parties. “If we are in the forefront the other communities might not vote for them, but if we keep out of the picture they could win,” was a statement made by Muslims in different constituencies. Their desire for a secular government has become so overwhelming after the spate of targeted attacks that they have joined —as willing partners—in the political conspiracy to keep themselves invisible. The result is that while there are no maulanas rushing around in vehicles to get the vote for the Congress or the other ‘secular’ regional parties in the poll bound states—which is of course a good thing— the Muslim woes are not referred to or spoken of by the candidates of the non-BJP political parties.
PM Modi knows this, and so he and his party have been keeping up the pressure on the opposition parties. He overstretched his own brief perhaps by insisting that Mani Shankar Aiyar’s dinner party for Pakistan visitors, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and other VIPs helped hatch a conspiracy to bring Congress leader Ahmad Patel in Gujarat as the Chief Minister. A day earlier he had spoken of a Congress functionary Salman Nizami. And of course of former vice president Hamid Ansari as being present at the dinner.
But look at the Congress response. When the PM spoke of NIzami the Congress said he was not a member of the party. When the PM mentioned the other Muslims along with Manmohan Singh, the Congress stoutly defended the former PM , but did not mention Hamid Ansari or Ahmad Patel by name.
And this is being endorsed by all, in the rush to somehow get a breather from the climate of hate and violence with a BJP defeat in Gujarat. But while this would make a dent perhaps, the fact remains that to make a difference the Congress and other non-BJP political parties need to be as consistent in running a high voltage secular campaign as the BJP is in pushing its divisive ideology across. And evolve a strategy that is based on the tenets of the Constitution and not the misreading that led —and rightfully so—to the charge of appeasement.
Muslims were dug out by the Congress and other political parties before every election with sops like Indira Gandhi’s 15 point—or was it 21 point–programme announced; Mulayam Singh rushing to Muslim conclaves chaired by the most conservative; political leaders making a beeline to be photographed with the Imam of Jama Masjid or other such fellows; crocodile tears shed through emotional speeches by the leaders and the Muslim candidates in their parties. So while the ground situation remained the same, the impression given was that the minorities were special for these political leaders, who embraced all that was communal and conservative to stress this ‘affection’. In return of course, for the votes.
The RSS/BJP thrived on this and since 1984 when the Hindu vote consolidated for the first time to give the Congress 400 seats in the Lok Sabha (in the wake of the anti-Sikh violence and Indira Gandhi’s assassination) it has been working hard to take this forward. Significantly the impact on the Congress party of this victory that brought Rajiv Gandhi to power as the Prime Minister, has been to somehow repeat the performance again and keep the minorities out of the election campaign.
Under the BJP rule, the Congress has become even more defensive as have the other political parties like the JD(U) that finally gave up altogether and joined the BJP. The non-BJP political parties have been unable to evolve a counter strategy steeped in secularism and inclusiveness. For them the choices still remain two: ride with the Maulanas or make them disappear altogether. In the face of the new goalposts that the BJP has set, the choice is the latter and in the process the minorities are vanishing from the election campaigns. And in that sense from governance as well with the number of elected representatives registering a steady decline.
There is a third option. This is dependent on an approach based on the implementation of the inclusive, democratic, and secular Constitution. That means that the attention has to be sustained, equal, just and not through hectic and in-your-face election sops.
This is the hard option, based on introspection, understanding and a political will. Currently, there seems to be no understanding that the choice does not emerge from the political chimera of Hindus versus Muslims, but from the Constitution of India: between appeasement and just inclusion. The first has given the handle to the RSS/BJP to communalise and come to power; the second will cut into this and ensure a more equal and peaceful India. Both are sharply opposed.
Win or lose, the Congress party will have to work on this division fundamental to the rise of the Right. And the Right here includes even those political organisations that claim to be countering the RSS/BJP as on the issue of communalism they have succumbed.
Perhaps the old leaders who know little else can learn from the campaigns of the young rising leadership today like Kanhaiya Kumar and Jignesh Mevani who have not pushed the Muslims into the invisible bin. But have instead run sustained campaigns based on justice, social equity and inclusiveness as against the politics of hate and divisiveness.