The cacophonous responses to Mani Shankar Aiyar calling Prime Minister Narendra Modi “neech kisam ka aadmi – a low-life kind of person – are infinitely more shocking than the words that the beleaguered Congressman actually said. So too is Aiyar’s summary suspension from the party and the disquiet among left liberals that he may have inadvertently altered the script of the Gujarat Assembly election.

Aiyar has been hugely criticised even though he has clarified that by neech he did not mean a person of low caste. He claimed that his skills in Hindi are limited. Meanings are indeed often lost in translation. But Aiyar should not have even provided a justification because his statement, in Hindi, did not include the word “jaati”. Anyone who has another understanding of Aiyar’s remark is guilty of giving a spin to it.

Indeed, any doubts on this score were dispelled when Modi twisted Aiyar’s remark, insisting he had called him “neech and from nichli jaati”. “Is this not an insult to Gujarat?” Modi demanded to know. Modi said the remark showed the “Mughal mindset” of the Congress, implying it was a pro-Muslim and anti-Hindu party. His imagination working overtime, Modi informed a crowd in Gujarat’s Banaskantha district that Aiyar had had told people from Pakistan to “remove Modi from the way”. He then tossed a rhetorical question at Aiyar: “Did you go to Pakistan to offer a supari [contract for killing] on my head?”

It seems Modi is keen on proving that he can fabricate a lie and still have the media hail him for delivering a knock-out punch. It is difficult to imagine the media having the temerity to remind its viewers and readers of the many intemperate, and, yes, lowly remarks, top leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party have made in the past. The media has jumped on the BJP bandwagon either out of fear or ideological affinity or to gain revenue through government advertisements.

From Modi to the spokesperson GVL Narasimha Rao, the BJP’s responses to Aiyar testify to the party’s propensity to inculcate in the Hindus a feeling of victimhood. It keeps telling the Hindus that they were victims of Muslim rule, of British rule, of Partition riots, of westernised Indians after Independence; they are victims of secularism, of minority appeasement, of vote bank politics, of Pakistan’s evil designs; they will become victims wherever and whenever the BJP is out in power, for all other parties oppress the Hindus because they suffer from sadomasochism.

Then the BJP deftly turns the feeling of victimhood among the Hindus into a veritable rage against its political rivals. This is why after falsely claiming Aiyar had used nichli jaati instead of neech to describe Modi, the party has sought to portray Aiyar as well as the Congress and its leader Rahul Gandhi as code for the Mughals, Muslims and Pakistan, the troika every Hindu nationalist is trained to hate.

Double standard

The moot question is: Why hasn’t the BJP exploited Aiyar’s ostensibly casteist remark to trigger a polarisation between lower and upper castes? Unsure of the dent it can make into the Dalit support base of the Congress, Modi and the BJP certainly do not wish to alienate the upper castes, who are the party’s mainstay. The BJP’s preferred strategy is social engineering and co-option of lower castes, not the overturning of the social hierarchy. Religious polarisation is an aspect of social engineering, precisely why Aiyar’s remark has been placed in the Mughal-Muslim-Pakistan paradigm.

Even before Aiyar made his remark, the BJP harped on the legal position that the lawyer and Congress leader Kapil Sibal took on the Ayodhya dispute in the Supreme Court to depict India’s grand old party as anti-Hindu, pro-Muslim and anti-Ram temple. In the court, Sibal did indeed argue for delaying the final arguments in the Ayodhya dispute case until after the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Lawyers adopt a legal stance that is advantageous to their clients, not their parties. Ask Union ministers Arun Jaitley and Ravi Shankar Prasad, lawyers both.

Yet, Rao tweeted:

If Rao’s tweet is not a manifestation of low-life, then what is? It is a remark infinitely more derogatory than Aiyar’s. Yet the media will not holler and fume against the BJP nor go to town saying Rao suffers from foot-in-mouth disease.

Read what Modi said in Gujarat in 2011: “The Congress symbol used to be cow and calf and people used to say gai [Indira Gandhi] and vacchharado [Sanjay Gandhi] are contesting. Now, farmers tell me a hybrid calf has come to contest the elections.” The hybrid calf was an allusion to Rahul Gandhi and his parentage.

The BJP did not need Aiyar’s remark to polarise Gujarat and stoke “Hindu pride”. It has been Modi’s most favoured technique since he first led the BJP campaign in the 2002 Assembly election. After becoming prime minister, he has applied this technique in other states as well.

Aiyar did not utter a word before the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election earlier this year, yet Modi brought in the qabristan-shamshan binary and hinted that there was 24-hour electricity on Eid, but not on Diwali. And Aiyar was not shooting his mouth when the BJP president Amit Shah told the people of Bihar that should his party lose the state election, in late 2015, there would be celebrations in Pakistan. Shah’s innuendo was aimed at consolidating the Hindus, portraying to them that the Grand Alliance of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Janata Dal (United) and the Congress represented the interests of the Muslims, who treacherously support Pakistan.

Aiyar did not make a statement on caste and reservation in 2015. Yet, Modi said in Buxar, Bihar: “It is clear through the discussion of our constitution makers that reservation cannot be given on the basis of religion…The leaders of this opportunistic alliance [Grand Alliance] are…conspiring to take away 5% reservation of Dalit, Mahadalits, Backwards and Extremely Backwards and give it to a particular community. I come from an Extremely Backward Class…I will not allow this to happen. I pledge the rights of Dalits, Mahadalits and Backwards.”

Lost cause

It was assumed that the BJP and Modi would resort to innuendo and fabrications to polarise the electorate in Gujarat. JS Bandukwala, social activist and retired nuclear physicist, told at least 21 days before Aiyar made his controversial remark: “[Modi’s] major campaign in Gujarat will begin from November 20. He will try to communalise Gujarat.” No doubt, the Congress has sought to preempt the BJP’s ploy of portraying the Gandhis as opposed to the Hindus. This is why Rahul Gandhi has visited a string of temples in Gujarat during the election campaign. Nobody has accused him of playing the BJP’s game, of resorting to soft Hindutva. It is evident that the Congress wishes to contest the BJP’s appropriation of the religious realm, its usurpation of the role of sole spokesperson of the Hindus.

But in challenging the BJP’s monopoly over Hinduism, the Congress cannot become what it ideologically opposes. It must act according to its belief – that it is possible to be Hindu without having to bait the minorities, without having to join the lynch mobs. It cannot allow the BJP to set the norms for what is permissible speech and what isn’t. In taking punitive action against a 77-year-old leader, the Congress has acted against its own ken.

Perhaps, Aiyar’s suspension is a temporary measure aimed at denying the BJP an opportunity to continue milking a lie for votes. Yet, Aiyar is a litmus test for the Congress. He has been a committed votary of Nehruvian secularism. Once the Gujarat election result is declared, the Congress should revoke his suspension or else the party will seem incapable of distinguishing right from wrong, of not ideologically contesting the politics of polarisation that the Sangh Parivar has mastered, of accepting falsehoods out of political expediency.

The response of the liberal left to Aiyar has been similar to that of the Congress. On social media and in private conversations, liberal leftists have been berating Aiyar for his remark, apprehensive that it could turn the tide against the Congress in Gujarat. They have chosen to gloss over the BJP’s deliberate misinterpretation of Aiyar’s remark, mistakenly believing he has given a chance to the BJP to polarise Gujarat.

It is indeed puerile of them, as also of the Congress, to think a statement from Aiyar could turn the election around. Their response is a reflection of their fear of the BJP, their fervent desire to trump the BJP even by compromising their principles. They have endorsed the unjust punishment meted out to Aiyar in the hope that it could appease Gujaratis and have them vote for the Congress.

If through such duplicitous measures Hindutva has to be countered, if the battle for religious pluralism has to be won by victimising its most steadfast fighter, then it would not be wrong to say India has already lost its soul.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid.