PM Modi shouldn't campaign anymore

Can the prime minister threaten the unity of a country with rabble-rousing politics?

 |  5-minute read |   01-11-2015
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Election campaigns are epic performances where some moments are more memorable than others. The Bihar election is particularly intriguing as it is a mix of fable, farce, anecdote and history, a ruthless battle for survival as parties fight desperately for votes.

The very setting of the stage tunes you to Bihar’s ambiguous tenor in the political scene. As the see-saw battle between Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar proceeds, whole narratives acquire a "Punch and Judy" quality. The debates are ferocious and repetitive and yet suddenly in the middle, a new formulation, like a new viral strain, emerges which alters both the contours of anxiety and debate.

Symbolically, the choice of place was apt. Buxar, in Indian history, was the scene of defeat of the combined forces of Indian rulers to the British in battle, and it once again became a scene of ignominy when Modi sprang a new list of accusations. Going beyond the general competitive politics of caste, Modi claimed that the Lalu-Nitish-Congress alliance was “conspiring to take away five per cent of the quota from Dalits, Mahadalits, backwards and extremely backwards to give it away to another community.” Modi accused his opponents of communalising politics. He presented no evidence for his case.


Modi’s comments, which he repeated, altered the texture of the electoral game. As old Modi-watchers pointed out, it was sad to see a prime minister reduce himself to the status of an ordinary candidate with a speech that did not suit the dignity of office. Others noticed that his body language did not represent the seductive, almost calculating, ease with which he spoke to his favourite audience, the NRIs. This was a more belligerent voice, reminiscent of his 2002 days. It represented the style of a Bajrang Dal candidate rather than any act of statesmanship.

Opposition groups were varied in their response. Nitish immediately said that elections should be played within the framework of the Constitution. Lalu Prasad hinted that the move was a sign of desperation on part of the BJP. Others felt that such a comment should be brought to the attention of the Election Commission. Dalit activists were saddened by the way Modi pitted Dalits against Muslims.

Everyone was surprised at this new turn of events. Amit Shah added to it when he said that if the BJP lost, crackers would be burst across the border in Pakistan. It was a not-too-subtle hint that voting for the BJP was an act of patriotism. Such careless jingoism in an election from leaders is a bit surprising. Such comments came not from the lunatic fringe but from the leaders of a party.

If the short-run response was one of contempt and consternation, the long-run consequences need to be elaborated. This act of Modi goes beyond electoral norms and alters the mindset of a democracy. Democracy is a rule game and rules constitute literally the table manners of an electoral system. But Modi’s act is more than a violation of table manners. It is also an attempt to tamper with the plural framework of democracy by turning competitors into enemies. He is trying to suggest the battle between Muslims and Dalits is a zero sum game to be fought beyond constitutional provisions. There is a paranoid element which goes beyond the populism we associate with such elections. The issues and the competition thus far has been between a model of governance which went beyond caste reservation and a much touted as a "development model".

The old style populism was seen as passe. Everyone, even Lalu, wanted to go beyond the old era of populist "jungle raj" where governance was a distant dream. Now, the battle was between two models of change, between the governance model with its sense of stability and a development model which catered to the aspirational classes. Each party spoke of caste but caste pretended to be a background grammar, a tacit assumption around which new models of change were to be built.


The first attempts to contaminate such a politics began with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat who claimed that the reservation question should be reopened. For a while, the RSS tried to distance itself from Bhagwat’s contentions but Modi’s comments added fuel to the fire.

Curiosity demands one ask why Modi indulged in such irresponsible fabrications. Lalu’s response that it was “desperation” seems inadequate. The attempt to see it as a slip of the tongue also does not wash. The question is whether Modi is returning to his original colours as a majoritarian rabble rouser. If so what would be the consequences? Does the BJP feel caste without communalism is an incomplete plank or is it that a climate of communal violence helps it aggregate votes in quicker time? Modi himself claimed that he was challenging the polarisations that the Nitish-Lalu nexus was creating. Yet his comments create more animosity than any party statement so far.


Yet, there are issues beyond party politics. The first of them deals with the office of the prime minister. Can the prime minister, even during election time, rob his office of a statesman-like dignity? Can responsibility be replaced with rabble-rousing so quickly? But more importantly, can the prime minister threaten the unity of a country with such rabble-rousing politics?

This situation goes far beyond bans and censorship. It affects the constitutional assumptions of a country. When Modi and Shah tamper with it, then are tampering with democracy, making a mockery of the models of justice and even the aspirations of diverse groups. A citizen watching such behaviour feels a sense of fear and anxiety. Not since Rajiv Gandhi after the Sikh riots have we seen such irresponsible statements. One hopes for the future of democracy in India, the prime minister acts like a statesman.


Shiv Visvanathan Shiv Visvanathan @shivvisvanathan

The writer is a social nomad

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