The social media assault on Union minister Sushma Swaraj last week – for acting on an inter-faith couple’s complaint alleging harassment by a passport official in Lucknow – is, in some sense, nothing new. It follows a pattern that has become grimly familiar, particularly when the target is a woman: assault by mob, with little regard to the facts (there is no evidence Swaraj, who was out of the country, was involved in the transfer of passport official Vikas Mishra), and ad hominem abuse instead of issue-specific criticism. Even the grisly quality of the abuse – open suggestions that she would be better off dead, or had been corrupted by an “Islamic kidney” – is of a piece journalists Rana Ayyub and Barkha Dutt and actor Swara Bhaskar have been subjected to.

Except that this is not supposed to happen to Swaraj, who is not merely external affairs minister but, by seniority and national profile, the highest-ranking national leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party other than the prime minister himself, a former chief minister, a seven-time member of Parliament, and a former leader of the Opposition. Nor is Swaraj one of the BJP’s embittered “moderates”, like Yashwant Sinha or Jaswant Singh – she remains, unrepentantly, the Hindu nationalist who promised to shave her head if Sonia Gandhi ever became prime minister.

Yet the assault on Swaraj cannot really be called a surprise. It is, rather, revealing both of the nature of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s online following and, more worryingly, of the state of our public discourse. How can the external affairs minister be abused in this way by her own side? And how can it be that the only people in sympathy with her are her political opponents?

Why Sushma Swaraj?

On the first count, the treatment of Swaraj shatters the delusion, entertained by many opponents of this government, that the BJP’s online supporters are no more than “paid trolls”, paid per tweet and merely following orders from the party’s information technology cell. This notion is rooted in the observable fact that there are plenty of both bots and genuine accounts used to spread a centrally-crafted message. But the government’s most energetic and influential online backers are not bots or sock puppets but independent agents who are motivated by ideology rather than money. Where at one time most abusive accounts hid behind pseudonyms, they are increasingly willing to post under their own names and faces.

That even Swaraj can be a target is in keeping with the nature of their ideology. These are not loyal or traditional BJP supporters. Nor, despite the popularity of the appellation, are they sanghis. Their loyalty is to the prime minister alone. And besides his glorification, their chief ideological commitment is to the dehumanisation of minorities in general and Muslims in particular. Anything less is appeasement, the crime Swaraj now stands accused of.

Swaraj may not be a moderate, but nor, in her time as external affairs minister, has she ever discriminated against citizens on the basis of religion. That in itself is grounds for suspicion. But the greater, if unstated, problem may be the perceived distance between her and the prime minister. As leader of the Opposition, she was in effect passed over in 2013 for the position of the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate and was not thought to be a supporter of Modi’s candidacy. As external affairs minister, a position to which she appeared well-suited, she has largely been reduced to the handling of overseas Indian affairs, with foreign policy per se directed by the prime minister’s office, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and, until January, S Jaishankar as foreign secretary.

Unlike her ministerial colleagues whose Twitter accounts tend to be blandly sycophantic, Swaraj has used social media to maintain an independent national profile and not simply outsourced her tweets to professionals. Her response to the abuse was an example of her sharp wit, not a common quality on the BJP front bench.

If the BJP falls well short of a majority in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, it is difficult to imagine the cadre accepting any prime minister other than the current one. But if, for instance, potential allies insist on a change, Swaraj would be the natural choice.

It is difficult not to connect all this with the fact that she was singled out, and the failure of her colleagues to defend her. In truth, she was not attacked by her own side: those abusing her do not play for the BJP’s team, only for Narendra Modi’s. The party is only useful as a vehicle for placing Modi in power.

Responses to the abuse, on the right, have been resolutely supportive of the abusers. They have ranged from claiming this as a badge of honour (unlike the left, we are so free from hypocrisy that we go after our own) to accusing Swaraj of playing victim or deflecting from the real issue.

The Vikas Mishra case is not ordinarily one that would have attracted national attention. Generations of Indian women, including my mother, are acquainted with the misogyny of passport officers who demand that a newly married woman take her husband’s surname. Tanvi Seth, however, was guilty of a crime even worse than appeasement: marrying a Muslim man. Since Mishra’s version of events was different from Seth’s, his superiors were entitled to look into the matter without media or political intrusion. Swaraj, to her credit, does not seem to have had anything to do with it.

Openly abusive, and proud of it

The whole business lays bare the degradation of the Indian public sphere. Even the way we speak about it is debased, in that we trivialise bigotry and abuse by calling it trolling (“Sushma gets trolled”; “Sushma trolls the trolls”). This is not trolling, it is moral collapse.

The assault on Swaraj came days after Twitter user Pooja Singh demanded of Airtel that she not be served by a Muslim. The public display of bigotry is now a matter of pride. As the diminishing popularity of online pseudonyms shows, the lines between Twitter or WhatsApp and ordinary society are fading. It is not the wells of India’s internet culture that have been poisoned, but of Indian society more broadly.

Narendra Modi did not cause this, although he has been its chief enabler and short-term beneficiary. It is misguided to attribute moral collapse to one individual or even one ideology. We no longer have public moral standards, and politics, across the ideological spectrum, is construed narrowly as a zone of power rather than ethics. Those on the left who trade in personal abuse on the basis of caste identity, or who view politics as a zero-sum transaction of power between communities, have contributed as well.

A (more) united Opposition may prevent Modi from being re-elected in 2019. But, as currently constructed, such an Opposition has agreed to doing politics on his terms. There is no serious attempt to restore ethical standards or offer an ethical alternative, rather than a mere aggregation of votebanks. The damage already done to our political and social life is beginning to look irreversible.