Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj has been praised for the dignity and quiet elegance with which she shamed those who criticised her viciously for intervening in a passport matter involving an inter-faith couple in Uttar Pradesh last month. Singed by the fury of Hindu radicals – luckily only on social media – Swaraj should now script a fight against the politics of hate, which has been gathering intensity across India every passing week.
Swaraj no longer has the option of remaining silent on hate crimes occurring around the country. Her silence would imply that she is either indifferent to the goings on, or lacks the empathy to feel the pain of those who are attacked, even lynched by groups who share the ideology of those who have abused her on social media.
Swaraj is most likely aware that she will needle her Bharatiya Janata Party, and even invite its displeasure, if she speaks out against the politics of hate. Yet, philosophically, politically and personally, it makes immense sense for her to now take a position against that strand of politics.
Ideas and abuse
As Swaraj battled vitriolic abuse on social media following her intervention in the passport matter related to a Hindu-Muslim couple, she tweeted on July 1:
But as an intelligent politician, Swaraj would know that trolls are not just about abusive language.
Ideas produce the language they articulate. Indecent ideas determine an indecent choice of words. An idea propagating hate sounds hateful – even if it is not peppered with expletives. For instance, the politest of anti-Semitic or anti-Black statements will be categorised as hate language in most western democracies. In India, to object to the state providing help to an inter-faith couple reeks of hate. When accompanied with abuse, the vilification is worse just in degree.
The relationship between language and ideas was vividly illustrated in a piece BJP national general secretary Ram Madhav wrote for the Indian Express on July 6. In the piece titled Trolling Sushma Swaraj, a champion of nationalism, on passport issue is unacceptable, Madhav convolutedly defended Swaraj, putting the blame for the passport controversy on Muslim clerics, who, he said, insist that Hindu women marrying Muslim men adopt Muslim names. “The social media activists should have taken on the clerics who insist on writing a different name in the nikahnama…” wrote Madhav.
Madhav’s piece could be called criticism in decent language. Yet his choice of words suggested that he would not have minded if Muslim clerics were abused on social media in the manner Swaraj was. Madhav’s choice of words was perhaps subconsciously determined by the idea behind them.
From this perspective, it will be hypocritical of Swaraj to treat abusive language and the ideas it stems from as separate categories, as she seemed to have done in her July 1 tweet. Perhaps Swaraj is aware of the link between idea and language, but thinks it is judicious to not criticise the ideas of hate. After all, some of these ideas have been deliberately constructed by her own party leaders, spawning a climate in India in which trolls will abuse and people will resort to violence.
But her cautious pushback will have no purchase in her party. This is why her ministerial colleagues, barring Union Ministers Rajnath Singh and Nitin Gadkari, did not defend her. They knew that to condemn the language employed by social media trolls against Swaraj was to also tacitly criticise the Sangh.
In the post-2014 BJP, careers can be built by endorsing ideas, words and actions dripping with hate. Union ministers Jayant Sinha and Giriraj Singh possibly know this all too well. If Sinha and Singh feted and defended men convicted for lynching and accused of fomenting communal tension last week, it was because they knew their party would not condemn their actions and might even appreciate it.
The transformation of the BJP since 2014 underlines Swaraj’s disconnect with the growing lumpen support base of her party. In a poll she conducted on Twitter last month, 43% of 1,24,305 Twitter users approved of the foul language used against her. Though the majority 57% comprised those who disapproved, they presumably also included those who are ideologically opposed to the BJP.
Philosophically then, Swaraj’s silence on hate crimes in the country can be seen as an example of double standards. Politically, her silence does not fit in with her party’s growing extremism and will not win her support among the BJP cadres. Personally, her silence will erode her image as a sensitive and caring politician.
For all these reasons, Swaraj can remain silent on hate at her own peril. The alternative to speaking against hate implies risking marginalisation in the BJP. But then, Swaraj has reached that point in her career where she does not have much to lose – and everything to gain.
Like many senior ministers in the Modi government, Swaraj’s potential has not been allowed to flower. Over the years, the External Affairs Ministry has been increasingly run by the Prime Minister’s Office. This is especially so during the tenure of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has a penchant for centralising power in himself.
Perceived to have been sidelined, not least because she was among those who opposed Modi as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in 2013, Swaraj has shown extraordinary skills to endear herself to the public, deftly using Twitter to provide relief to many. Swaraj has been praised for her creative humanity, although some uncharitably call her India’s Agony Aunt.
Swaraj’s image has given her equity that she perhaps hopes to invest in occupying the Prime Minister’s Office. But as far as the BJP goes, there is no vacancy for that post, such is Modi’s domination and so focused his tactics to beat back competitors.
Political pundits think Swaraj could become a prime ministerial contender if the BJP’s tally in the 2019 elections slides to 200-220. They say in such a scenario, the allies who are part of the National Democratic Alliance and those outside it whose support the BJP might need to form a government could demand that Modi be replaced.
But such a replacement cannot just be the call of BJP allies. It will certainly require the approval of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. In that scenario, it is unlikely that the RSS will back Swaraj over Nitin Gadkari and Rajnath Singh. Gadkari has been an RSS favourite for long. Like Swaraj, he is considered amiable and accommodating across political parties.
Charting a new path?
It is therefore Swaraj’s best bet to speak against the ideas, language and actions of hate. Swaraj should become the face of contradiction to power. This should work in her favour as Indians love politicians who take an ethical position against the government of which they are a part.
There are compelling examples of such politicians in the past. For instance, Jagjivan Ram’s departure from the Congress in 1977 after the Emergency galvanised the Opposition, which also got another infusion of energy when VP Singh rocked the Congress government over the Bofors scandal. Singh grew even stronger when he was ousted from the Congress in 1987.
Now that Swaraj has spoken against the abusive language directed at her, logic demands that she might as well go the whole hog and question the ideas of hate her party leaders peddle. This might imply scripting her departure from the party.
This might seem a problem for Swaraj cannot possibly drift to the Congress against which she has fought many a battle. But there is little doubt that a large segment of the Opposition will enthusiastically welcome her, seeing in her a catalyst for their politics. It will be particularly true of the socialists, with whom she has worked and continues to have warm relations.
Swaraj was 25 years old when she became a minister in the Devi Lal government of Haryana in 1977 and was appointed the president of the Janata Party (Haryana) two years later. Her husband, Swaraj Kaushal, defended socialist leader George Fernandes in the Baroda Dynamite case during the Emergency. In addition, a clutch of regional outfits will be more than eager to have her on their platform.
For this, Swaraj must redefine her role beyond the BJP. She must cultivate a persona beyond party affiliations. This may even be her best bet to become the prime minister. The alternative is to continue to oversee the External Affairs Ministry. Many before her have done this too, rarely leaving their imprint on Indian politics.
Obviously, Swaraj cannot play this role if she does not believe that foul language flows from vile ideas. Swaraj needs to show that her celebrated pushback against trolls is not restricted to her Twitter timeline.