Opinion

In his attempt to win elections, Narendra Modi does not seem bound by propriety – or even dignity

The prime minister’s use of Pakistan to marginalise Muslim voters is truly alarming.

It would take a certain kind of thought process to suggest that the presence of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and former vice-president Hamid Ansari at a dinner where the Pakistani High Commissioner to India and a former Pakistan foreign minister were also in attendance, was some kind of a secret gathering related to the ongoing Gujarat Assembly elections. Clearly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has that kind of a mind.

Modi’s accusations – made during an election rally in Gujarat on Sunday – have a touch of the sinister, and, coming from the Prime Minister of India, are deeply troubling.

He also claimed that a person called Sardar Arshad Rafiq, a retired Pakistani military officer, had called for Ahmed Patel, the political secretary of Congress leader Sonia Gandhi, to become the chief minister of Gujarat. Simultaneously, Modi alleged that it was following this dinner, which was hosted by Mani Shankar Aiyar, that the Congress leader called him “neech” or a low-life.

A professor posted on social media that this is what a spurious correlation is all about. A website hosted by a Harvard student has shown how easy it is to come up with correlations between completely unrelated events. For instance, the website has charts showing that there is a correlation between the number of people who drowned by falling into a pool and the films Hollywood actor Nicholas Cage appeared in, and between the per capita consumption of cheese in the US and the number of people who died by getting tangled in their bedsheets.

The contentious dinner

As the Indian Express has reported, there was indeed a gathering at Aiyar’s house on December 6. But this was a dinner in honour of the former foreign minister of Pakistan, Khurshid Ahmed Kasuri. Present at the occasion were Manmohan Singh, Hamid Ansari, the Pakistan High Commissioner to India, former Army chief Deepak Kapoor, former foreign minister Natwar Singh, senior retired diplomats and former high commissioners of India to Pakistan – Salman Haidar, TCA Raghavan, Sharat Sabharwal and KS Bajpai.

Such a dinner is perfectly normal, especially since Aiyar is involved in the Track-II diplomacy process with Pakistan. These talks, outside the ambit of the official dialogue between New Delhi and Islamabad, have long been a fixture in the landscape of India-Pakistan relations.

Perhaps it will also be useful to recall that on December 25, 2015, Prime Minister Modi dropped in at a party in Lahore thrown by Nawaz Sharif, then Pakistan’s prime minister, and no one accused him of anything else but naiveté.

A new low

If there indeed was a conspiracy to subvert the election process in Gujarat, it is the duty of the government to immediately arrest anyone who is seeking to do so, even if that person is the former prime minister, vice-president or Army chief. As of now, there has been no follow-up action by Indian authorities

Instead, Manmohan Singh issued a sharp statement on Monday, saying that the Gujarat elections were not discussed at the dinner hosted by Aiyar, and that Modi was spreading falsehoods about Pakistan meddling in the Gujarat polls. “I reject the innuendos and falsehoods as I did not discuss Gujarat elections with anyone else at the dinner hosted by Mani Shankar Aiyar as alleged by Modi,” Singh said. “Nor was the Gujarat issue raised by anyone else present at the dinner. The discussion was confined to India-Pakistan relations.”

As for Sardar Arshad Rafiq, his Facebook page is public, and there does not seem to be any trace of his alleged appeal to make Ahmed Patel the Gujarat chief minister. Rafiq, though, does have a post from a friend ribbing him about his new-found fame in India, and another mourning the passing of veteran Indian actor Shashi Kapoor.

One of the downsides of democracy is that during elections the contestants seek to divide the electorate. Ideally, this is done on the basis of the different policy options that the candidates offer, and their qualifications to fulfil their promises. The reality in India, however, is that this division is more often than not sought on the basis of caste, creed and ethnicity.

But even by the standards of electoral rhetoric, Modi’s recent performance in Gujarat is a new low. In these fraught times, perhaps it is necessary to point out that the term “low” does not refer to Modi’s background and origins, but to the personality trait that allows the prime minister not to feel bound by any propriety or dignity when it comes to winning elections. Even though Modi has repeatedly declared that he does not want office for the sake of power, that is precisely what he seems to be seeking.

Election dog whistles

Muslims and Pakistan are Modi’s favourite bugbears. He came to power in Gujarat in the wake of the Godhra train massacre, which had led to widespread violence against Muslims in the state. In the election that took place after these tragedies, Modi berated “Mian Musharraf”. This was not so much a reference to the Pakistani general as it was code for the state’s Muslim population – an attempt to pit the majority of the population against the minority.

Modi’s style was evident from the manner in which he dissed the directives of the Election Commission, then headed by JM Lyngdoh. In his speeches, Modi always referred to the polling official with his full name, James Michael Lyngdoh, thus underscoring his Christian faith.

The 2012 state assembly elections was the first time Modi used the “Ahmed Patel for Chief Minister” card to polarise voters against the Muslims. This time the term “mian” was used as a suffix, as in “Ahmed mian”, almost suggesting that Patel was being supported for the office of chief minister by a former Pakistani general. Ahmed Patel has as much a right to become the chief minister of Gujarat as any other Indian national. It is also clear that Modi’s reference to Patel as “mian” is more of a tactic to scare voters about the possibility of a Muslim chief minister rather than something that has any basis in reality.

Invoking Pakistan

What is really alarming here is the use of Pakistan to marginalise Muslim voters in an Indian state. Even in 2002, Modi projected himself as the man who would save Gujarat from terrorism and “Mian Musharraf”.

In the past two years, notwithstanding claims that the only thing that he seeks is development, Modi has raised the rhetoric against terrorism and Pakistan to a high, even though actual instances of terrorism – attacks on unarmed civilians – have sharply declined since the attack on Mumbai in November 2008.

Modi has used the attacks on security forces in Pathankot in January 2016, and in Uri in September that year, to call for Pakistan to be labelled as a state sponsor of terrorism. The hysteria that was aroused over the so-called surgical strikes against Pakistani positions on the Line of Control at the end of September 2016 was blatantly used to harvest votes in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections five months later.

That Modi is playing politics with surgical strikes is evident from the fact that he returned to the theme again at an election rally on Sunday, when he attacked Manmohan Singh for not conducting surgical strikes on Pakistan in the wake of the Mumbai terror attack. Why Singh did not do so is not known, but such issues are hardly things that are debated in public. If every executive action has to be measured by Modi’s macho standards, a question could perhaps be asked as to why the Modi government did not react to last November’s attack on India’s 16 Corps headquarters at Nagrota in Jammu and Kashmir, which took place exactly two months after the surgical strikes. Seven soldiers, including two officers, were killed in that attack. It was a much more serious incident than the one in Uri since Nagrota is a Corps headquarters and quite far from the Line of Control unlike Uri, which is a stone’s throw away.

None of this is a good augury for the country.

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