India is hardly a stranger to political violence. But even by the country’s turbulent standards, the events in Uttar Pradesh’s Lakhimpur Kheri on October 3 were a shock.
On Sunday, a convoy of three SUVs owned by Union minister Ajay Mishra allegedly rammed into a group of peaceful protesters agitating against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s new farm laws, hitting them from behind at high speed. An FIR in the incident states that Mishra’s son, Ashish, was in one of the cars, and that he had also opened fire at the protestors.
The violence came days after Ajay Mishra, who is the local MP, had delivered a threat to the farmers: “Sudhar jao, nahi toh hum aapko sudhaar denge, do minute lagega keval.” Mend your ways otherwise we will make you mend them. It will take only two minutes.
It was a significant statement, given Ajay Mishra’s well-known role as gangster who is even accused of even committing murder, before he followed a familiar path in Uttar Pradesh and moved onto politics. The FIR also named Mishra, accusing him of conspiracy.
Explicit videos are available of the attack. Clips showing the three SUVs speeding into unaware protesters have gone viral.
Brazening it out
In spite of the brutal nature of the allegations, maybe what is most egregious about this entire saga though is that in spite of the compelling video evidence, the BJP has not felt the need to take any action. Ashish Mishra is still roaming free, with the Uttar Pradesh Police not having arrested him as of Thursday evening.
Earlier in the day, the Supreme Court, which was hearing a petition regarding the events at Lakhimpur Kheri, asked Uttar Pradesh to submit a status report by Friday. “How many people have been arrested?” it asked.
However even after this there was no arrest. Hours later, all the police did was paste a notice outside Ajay Mishra’s home, summoning him to appear before them to be questioned on Friday morning.
His father, who delivered the threat, is still a minister in the Modi government.
In fact, Ajay Mishra has continued to maintain a brazenly public profile as minister of state for home. On October 6, he met with Union Home minister Amit Shah to brief him about the Lakhimpur attack – an incredible event given his and his son’s alleged role in it. The Indian Express reported that Shah used the meeting to express confidence in Mishra, asking him to continue his duties. As per the report, Shah also discussed strategies on how to handle the fallout of the Lakhimpur situation.
On Thursday, Mishra even appeared in public, inaugurated a conference of heads of prisons from states across the Union.
High risk play
In an earlier age, Indian ministers would often resign on moral grounds. In 1956, Jawaharlal Nehru’s railway minister Lal Bahadur Shahtri put in his papers after a railway accident, taking responsibility for the deaths, even though he had no personal role in the tragedy. However, Indian politics had changed so much in the intervening five decades that in the Lakhimpur case, even though a minister’s son faces personal allegations of murder, the minister has seen no repercussions.
Ironically the only action the BJP seems to have taken on Lakhimpur is to punish its own MP, Varun Gandhi, for condemning the attack. On Thursday, the party dropped his mother, Maneka Gandhi from its national executive, a move widely seen as retaliation for Varun Gandhi’s statements.
What makes this even more unusual is that the BJPs reaction, or lack of it, is a high-risk strategy. The fact that the BJP has decided to brazen out the alleged attack on farmers by Mishra’s convoy has galvanised the opposition only months before Uttar Pradesh goes to polls. The Uttar Pradesh government’s strategy to simply lock up any opposition leader it can get its hands on is poor optics for any government given that jail, in the Indian context, often lends politicians legitimacy as serious players willing to put their personal liberty on the line for public causes.
However, given the BJP’s style of politics, the party has few options when dealing with the Lakhimpur attack. As political scientist Neelanjan Sircar has explained it in another context, the BJP’s politics is “not only about winning elections, it is about demonstrating control over all facets of space”.
As a result, the BJP must constantly display an aggressive aura of invincibility. The front is a tightrope for the saffron party, since if it gets pierced, its political fortunes might slide quickly in spite of seeming invincible till then. As Sircar points out, a similar play has already happened before with the CPI(M) in West Bengal. The communists maintained a 34-year hegemony over political life in the state – till a precipitous collapse all but wiped out the party in under a decade.
This is, therefore, not the first time the BJP has brazened out allegations of criminal activity. For example, early on in Modi’s first term, in 2015, with the BJP’s Union foreign minister and Rajasthan chief minister accused of corruption in helping cricket administer Lalit Modi bend international travel rules, Union home minister Rajnath Singh simply dismissed demands for anyone to reign since “this is [BJP-led] NDA [National Democratic Alliance], not [Congress-led] UPA [United Progressive Alliance]”.
The BJP’s normally authoritarian style has got turbocharged in Uttar Pradesh, where for the last five years, Adityanath has built up his own image as a strongman. The chief minister has frequently encouraged blatant illegality, pushing police extra-judicial killings and arrests for free speech, as a way to burnish his strongman image. Ethics of the strategy aside, those actions have won Adityanath significant popularity. He is, along with Modi and Shah, one of the BJP’s most well-known leaders, popular not only in Uttar Pradesh but also nationally.
Caught between a rock and a hard place, clearly the BJP has decided to keep on course with its aggressive style of politics, brazening out even this allegation rather than pursue justice for the nine people murdered on Sunday.