Populism in politics comes in many forms. And in recent days, it has taken the form of threat to life.
In an uncanny coincidence, in the last few weeks, one leader after another has started talking about the threat to his/her life, political or real, and referred to sacrifices made by them/their party.
And no less a person than Prime Minister Narendra Modi, often presented as a fearless later-day avatar of India’s iron man, Sardar Patel, has talked of it, not once, not twice but at least three times while defending his move to demonetise Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes to fight corruption, terror funding, counterfeiting and black money.
In a series of meetings in Panaji, Belagavi and Baramati on November 13, Modi blended emotionalism with aggression to hit out at his opponents.
"I know what kind of powers I have taken on. I know the kind of people who will be against me now. I know some forces are up against me, they may not let me live, they may ruin me because their loot of 70 years is in trouble but I am prepared," he said.
He fought back tears saying he had given up "my home, my family. I gave up everything I had for this country’’ and declared that he would come out with additional anti-graft measures "even if I am burned alive".
Ten days later, he talked in the same vein when Shiv Sena MPs called on him to voice their concern about the implications of demonetisation, particularly on agriculture, farmers and cooperatives.
The Sena MPs had, much to the BJP’s chagrin, broken ranks with the NDA and joined Trinamool leader and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s protest march to Rashtrapati Bhavan on November 16, the day Parliament opened for the month-long Winter session.
"When I die and meet Balasaheb Thackeray in the afterlife, I can confidently say my decision was to improve the lot of the common citizens... What will you tell Balasaheb? That you opposed Modi’s demonetisation drive which was meant to flush out black money? ’’ he reportedly told the delegation.
Earlier, at a farmers' rally in Bargarh in Odisha on November 21, Modi alleged that various forces were conspiring to finish him because he was determined to fight corruption. "Ye log shadyantra karte hain ki Modi ko kaise khatm kiya jaye," he said, adding that he would never give up the task the people have entrusted him with.
Allegations of conspiracy
But then Modi is not the only leader to talk this language.
The latest in the series relates to Mamata whose party read something "sinister" in the twin facts that her plane had to hover in the air even though it ran low on fuel and the Army had taken over road toll plazas so much so, that she spent the night at the government Secretariat in Kolkata to safeguard democracy against the alleged attempt to dethrone her.
Urban development minister Firhad Hakim alleged the airplane incident "was a conspiracy to eliminate Mamata Banerjee’’ while Rajya Sabha MP Derek O’Brien wondered if there was "more to this than meets the eye…’’ as Parliament was disrupted on the issue on December 2.
|Depending on who they see as their tormentor, at different points of time leaders like BSP chief Mayawati and even SP supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav have spoken of a conspiracy to eliminate them. (Photo: India Today)|
A few months ago, Aam Aadmi Party leader and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal charged that people in the Modi government were out to torment and eliminate him. "There is a daman chakra over the Aam Aadmi Party... In the times to come, this daman is going to turn very dirty. They can go to any extent. They can try to kill us. They can try to kill me. They can do anything," he alleged.
Even JD-U leader and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, who shuns melodrama, recently accused his critics of trying to finish him for supporting Modi’s demonetisation move. "My opponents are trying to politically assassinate me by spreading canards that we are getting closer to the BJP,’’ he said.
Depending on who they see as their tormentor, at different points of time leaders like BSP chief Mayawati and even SP supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav have spoken of a conspiracy to eliminate them. During the 2014 campaign, RJD’s former Bihar chief minister Rabri Devi even filed an FIR alleging threat to her life.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi and vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s public speeches are littered with references of the sacrifices of the Nehru-Gandhi family. While attacking the BJP’s divisive politics in the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Rahul was quoted saying: "They killed my grandfather, father and they will kill me too. But I am not afraid.’’
Decoding the message
Is there a message in why leaders talk like this?
In some cases, the fear and the threat may be genuine. Most political leaders live under that shadow and may even be paranoid about it.
After all, in 1995 Mayawati was assaulted when she broke off the BSP-SP alliance, Mamata was hit on her head as an opposition leader and the Congress lost Indira and Rajiv Gandhi to assassins. AIADMK chief Jayalalithaa or DMK chieftain Karunanidhi have often been roughed up. But this does not necessarily mean they are always in the line of fire, even if they make such allegations.
More often than not, depending on who is making the allegation at what point of time and against whom, the charge may be intended to achieve some political objective or objectives.
His critics interpret Modi’s comments as the case of a leader who, having pushed demonetisation to fight graft, black money and terror funding, even if it is half-baked and poorly implemented, wants to see it through no matter what the cost.
In talking in this fashion, he may be trying to consolidate his supporters, win popular sympathy, establish an emotional bond with the masses and signal that he is ready to make any sacrifices for them and even risk his life. "In a way, it is an attempt to cover up the deficiencies in the implementation,’’ said a leader.
As for Mamata, her supporters believe she is being targeted because she is leading the fight against demonetisation. Nitish Kumar’s critics interpret his support of demonetisation as an attempt to either distance himself from or to rein in his ally, Lalu Yadav and the RJD, or to build bridges with the BJP-NDA he had broken ties with in 2013 over Modi’s elevation as PM nominee, or to seek a financial package from the Centre for his state.
His supporters however claim his support for demonetisation is an extension of his own battle against corruption that involved seizing of benami property in Bihar.
Kejriwal has acted victim so often in his political and administrative battle with Modi, the Centre and the Lt Governor of Delhi that his complaints are considered habitual and part of his political strategy to remain in the limelight.
By and large, talking about threat to life is meant to establish a synonymity between the person and his politics, in which any criticism of or attack on the leader is construed as an assault on an idea, the party or the country.
The aim is to create a larger-than-life image of the leader, polarise the polity with binary opposites like "we vs them, pro-poor vs pro-rich, pro-people vs anti-people, common good vs machinations of vested interests, patriotic vs unpatriotic, altruism vs self-serving or nationalism vs anti-nationalism’’.
Such projections however could turn out to be a double-edged sword - it could help or mar the image of the leader, depending on whether the public sees it as a genuine expression of concern or a melodrama that plays to the gallery.