In India, there has always been a question mark on the motivations and quality of what passes for public debate on matters of public interest. But never before has this debate been as corrosive as it is in today’s poisonous environment created by the venomous ideology and brutal brazenness of the Modi government.

Truth be told, there is not a single crime or impropriety in the political history of independent India whose initiation could be blamed on the Bharatiya Janata Party alone. Not one. All the scourges we deplore so much today were unleashed during the various rules of the Congress, especially during Indira Gandhi’s time – casteism, communalism (under the veil of secularism), the Emergency, the bubble of garibi hatao, corruption, scams, personality cult, the curse of dynastic politic, and ultimately the Sikh genocide.

To propagate, however, that the intellectuals of that time had maintained a studious silence and turned a nelson’s eye to the establishment’s excesses is wholly disingenuous. Yes, the intensity or the magnitude of the protests might not have been the same as today. But to contend that intellectuals who were taciturn then have suddenly woken up to protest during Modi raj is a lie that is totally in step with the standards of the BJP and Sangh Parivar.

Anti-Congress movement

The eminent Gujarati author Manubhai "Darshak" Pancholi had warned about the excesses of the Congress in his celebrated novel Socrates and public speeches even before the Emergency was declared. In these, he worried that mobocracy was replacing its illustrious cousin, democracy, and that the voting system was being systematically perverted by corruption.

It was during the same Congress regime’s term that poet, scholar and writer Umashankar Joshi emerged as a stalwart of Gujarat’s public discourse and a fierce opponent of the anti-democratic forces. He did not think twice before strongly criticising the government on the floor of the Upper House despite being a Congress-nominated member of the Rajya Sabha. He followed this up with an equally trenchant critique of the Emergency in his monthly magazine Sanskriti.

Besides them, myriad other intellectuals stood up to be counted during the Navnirman agitation against corruption in the 1970s as well as during Jayaprakash Narayan’s Bihar movement.

Anti-Congressism, in fact, wasn’t a purely political construct. Its inception can be traced to the contribution of the intellectuals and the leading thinkers of the day who encouraged imagining an alternative with their relentless outpourings against the Congress. Grassroots thinkers such as Ram Manohar Lohia and JP contributed immensely to making this movement robust, which ironically ended up benefiting the Sangh Parivar and its ragtag affiliates.

The Emergency was the high noon of this anti-Congress movement. But since the much-touted alternative had the misfortune of being shepherded mostly by short-sighted leaders, it collapsed in a heap, bringing Mrs Gandhi back to power.

The curtain on the Indira Gandhi era fell with her assassination in 1984. It would do well to remind ourselves that even during that time, the intellectuals were not tight-lipped – not even when Rajiv Gandhi uttered his grossly insensitive statement “When a big tree falls, the earth shakes” in the wake of the Sikh pogrom. Organisations such as the People’s Union for Civil Liberties submitted a meticulous report on the massacre.

Communal rhetoric 

The historically challenged may not remember this, but just as there is today a class of people who only have praise for Narendra Modi, there was in the ’70s a section who lauded the Emergency. Just as the bogey of development today is a convenient alibi to hide the more unsavoury aspects of this regime, it was an expedient excuse then. Indeed, there was a strange bunch of Indira Gandhi fans who saw virtues of the Emergency in the fact that trains were running on time. Instead of asking tough questions of the administration, some of these fans got a thrill out of praising the perverse machismo of the powers-that-be. That was when Lal Krishna Advani coined his memorable phrase “When the government asked them to bend, they began to crawl”.

The guiles of Mrs Gandhi and her acolytes still didn't equal the astuteness of Narendra Modi. By mixing the development myth with well-calibrated communal rhetoric, he has created a class of devotees who are not only happy to crawl but even dance with delirium. And all this, without actually declaring the Emergency.

The fact is, putting aside the enormous foundational differences on communal issues, there has never been much to distinguish the Congress from the BJP. Given that the Congress was the original sinner in almost every aspect of governance, the BJP had the luxury of indulging in as much aggressive whataboutism as was organisationally possible before it came to power. Whataboutism, in fact, became the touchstone of its political campaign.

However, despite being perfectly in step with the Congress, the BJP overachieved its objectives. A party which originated from street rhetoric and a toxic mindset against Gandhi, Muslims and Christians outdid itself on brazenness. For instance, the Congress did not exactly take out a yatra on the back of the 1984 genocide. Narendra Modi, however, had no qualms doing so after the Gujarat riots. Whenever any BJP or Sangh leader was questioned on the impropriety of the issue, the standard response was: “Where were you when…?”

Missing the present picture

This one question became a drug of sorts that the BJP-RSS distributed in abundance. The gullible public swallowed it with unquestioned enthusiasm since it came wrapped in the cover of nationalism and in turn repeating ad nauseam, “Where were you when…?”. As a logical extension, the same people have now begun to criticise the writers who have returned their Sahitya Akademi awards with another unrelated gem, “Have they given back the money with the award or not?” But of course, they are not in the least bit interested in knowing just why these awards are being returned. Theirs is to pose the one eternal question: “Where were you when this was happening during the Congress rule?”

Here are some simple queries that can be posed to these questioners: Where are you at this very moment when these events are unfolding in front of you day after day? If you do not count yourself as a member of the establishment or a paid propagandist, what makes you escape into the past to cover up or justify the shame of the here and now? Since you are so justifiably keen to discuss the Congress scams, why do you seem to develop cold feet or find refuge in technicalities when it comes to discussing the favours afforded to, say, Lalit Modi? Why do you keep descending to “Where were you when…” over and over again?

The fact is, whether it is the Congress, the BJP or for that matter the AAP, every political party is only as straight as it is held accountable. It’s not our burden to lift them to an exalted status or become their cheerleaders through whataboutism. Instead, we would be better off demanding answers. If only we were half as passionate about seeking answers as we were in getting a response from the writers who have been returning their awards in protest.

But, alas, that’s a pipe dream for another day.

Translated from Gujarati by Vistasp Hodiwala.