A government’s legacy is usually measured in terms of the delivery of its manifesto promises, policy successes and policy failures. The Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party government has, at best, a middling record by that metric.
But the last five years have been transformational for India, by a different metric. As the country wades into another election campaign, we risk losing sight of the fact that this transformation began with the Lok Sabha election campaign in 2014.
The 2014 campaign was described by many as “presidential”. Everyone agrees that Narendra Modi turned that election into a landslide victory for the BJP. The Gujarat chief minister was transmogrified into a national messiah in a campaign managed by Amit Shah, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh workers, and private TV news channels. It was a campaign unlike any other, and it set the BJP’s agenda for the next five years.
Mohammed Akhlaq’s murder in September 2015 was an early indication of what was to come. Akhlaq was killed in his own home on the outskirts of Delhi by a lynch mob composed of his Hindu neighbours, who gathered after an announcement was made from the village temple claiming he had slaughtered a cow. Government ministers and MLAs justified the violence.
This set a pattern. In the following months and years, several men, most of them Muslim, were killed across North India, by cow vigilantes, many with links to one or other of the RSS’ myriad affiliates.
Although “vikas” or “development” was purportedly the BJP’s main election plank in 2014, one of the recurrent themes of Modi’s election campaign was the claim that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre supported the slaughter of cows and promoted the beef trade.
“This country wants a Green Revolution,” Modi said in a speech in Bihar in April 2014. “…But those at the Centre want a ‘Pink Revolution’. Do you know what it means? When animals are slaughtered, the colour of their flesh is pink...There are many big slaughterhouses in the country. The government is not willing to provide subsidy to a person who keeps a cow, but if a person wants to set up a slaughterhouse, he gets assistance.”
A master of dog-whistle politics, Modi led a campaign designed to drive a communal wedge between Hindus and Muslims. He vilified Muslims, labelling the Congress, and by extension any party associated with it, the “Muslim party”.
The “pink revolution” was one of many tropes, including “Hindu refugee” vs “Bangladeshi infiltrator”, that Modi used in 2014 to great effect. He was careful not to use the word “Muslim”, thereby not falling foul of very narrowly interpreted Election Commission norms.
Amit Shah, the other star campaigner but, importantly, not an election candidate, had no such compunction. In April 2014, he was briefly banned from holding public meetings by an Election Commission forced to respond to complaints about repeated violations of the model code of conduct.
In multiple speeches Shah, among other things, described Muslims as those who “violate our women…who rape our sisters and daughters”. The Election Commission conceded that Shah’s code violations were made with “deliberate and malicious intention”.
It was no surprise that Modi, as prime minister, was silent when Akhlaq was killed. Modi was silent as the incidence of cow related violence grew, as cow vigilantes associated with the RSS-BJP eco-system lynched people going about their business or triggered other forms of violence around religious identity. His government ministers either justified the violence or said violence was a law and order issue – a state subject, and hence not the Union government’s responsibility.
In 2015, when Bihar went to the polls, Modi repeated his 2014 set piece on the “pink revolution” in rally after rally. For greater effect he added that Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Lalu Prasad Yadav’s statement that “even Hindus eat beef” was an insult to the traditionally cow-herding Yadav caste and to all Indians. The Election Commission, which treated him with kid gloves as a parliamentary candidate, gave him a free pass as prime minister.
Then, as now, a large section of the commentariat chose to run with Modi’s claim that nasty, divisive, lying statements made in the heat of an election campaign did not carry over into day-to-day politics once votes were counted.
Even critics heaved sighs of relief when weeks or even months after a lynching, Modi finally made some oblique, perfunctory remark about the need to maintain the peace. Modi’s silence tainted the office of the prime minister. When he gave the appearance of criticising violence, many felt the integrity of this institution was upheld – even if only in form.
Indians vs the enemy
In his five years as prime minister, Modi’s silences were punctuated by calculatedly offensive and repetitive speeches made in state after state that had elections. The fiction that it is possible to switch between being prime minister and a poison-tongued rabble-rouser was shored up by the belief that the office of the prime minister is at the core of our democracy and the fear that if this fiction is not maintained, the edifice of India’s democracy will collapse.
The cacophony of BJP ministers, MPs, regional leaders, TV anchors, and the well-organised social media army calling Opposition leaders and the BJP’s critics “anti-nationals”, and asking them to go to Pakistan, was not a distraction as some suggested. It was the message.
It was not without reason that in the early months of the new Parliament, in 2014, the Modi government picked Adityanath to respond to an Opposition motion on rising communalism. With ministers thumping their desks in approval, Adityanath declared that Opposition parties protected terrorists and were “working to Pakistan’s agenda”.
Under cover of another election campaign, Modi took ownership of this narrative, going further than Adityanath. He did not merely suggest that those who opposed him supported Pakistan and terrorists; he had already done that in his 2014 campaign. Modi called former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and “a former vice-president” (Hamid Ansari) fifth columnists who were conspiring with Pakistan to interfere in Indian elections. In doing so, he underlined that for the BJP there are no political opponents, only enemies.
In May 2014, as prime minister-elect, Modi had said: “I want to tell my fellow Indians that in letter and spirit I will take all Indians with me.”
At the time, this was interpreted as a show of magnanimity, a desire to start anew after a scorched earth election campaign. This interpretation involved a leap of faith. For there was nothing in Modi’s history that suggested he was capable of such magnanimity. He had run Gujarat for 15 years by successfully marginalising the Opposition. In order to bend the Assembly to his will, with the support of a partisan Speaker, he had quite literally kept the Opposition out of the State Assembly.
What the last five years have shown is that Modi has become a more toxic version of the Modi of Gujarat. All he meant when he said he would take all Indians with him, was that those who went along with him were Indians, the rest were the enemy.
Modi and Amit Shah managed the RSS-BJP’s audacious project of 2014 to build a narrative of a nation besieged from the inside and the outside by enemies – an undifferentiated mix of Muslims, Opposition parties, critics of the BJP, terrorists and Pakistan. Modi was the messiah sent to vanquish the enemy and create a “New India”.
Modi has been mocked for referring to himself in the third person during his speeches – but in the BJP narrative, he personifies India. In his last speech in Parliament, on February 7, a stump speech like all his previous ones, Modi declared with characteristic hubris: “In hating Modi, the Opposition has begun to hate the nation.”
A new India
At the end of five years, the Modi-Shah project has left Indians with a rising graph of targeted communal violence, a palpable fear of violence, the projection of the political Opposition and argumentative Indians as the enemy, the normalisation of hate speech, and coarseness as the dominant language of politics.
It has also left us with a TV nation, which includes critics of the BJP, asking: “But, other than Modi, who else is there?”
It is true that there is no one other than Modi who can make the same poisonous speeches over and over again and still be called a great orator. It is true that there is no one else in India who can lie with such felicity in order to project his political rivals as enemies. It is true that there is no one else who can channel people’s low self-esteem to make victimhood his battle cry.
The political Opposition and the commentariat – accustomed to a mix of rivalry and accommodation – found itself cornered. In Parliament, after giving Modi a year to honour his claim to represent all Indians and seeing that it was not part of the plan, the Opposition re-grouped to contain the BJP onslaught.
But Parliament is a side-show in the Modi-Shah-BJP-RSS project. Outside Parliament, the mainstream media has worked like sidekicks of the mafiosi, verbally battering the TV nation, until they parrot, “But, other than Modi, who else is there?”
The BJP’s 2019 election campaign, which included Modi’s speech at the inauguration of the National War Memorial in Delhi, on February 25, will only build on the narrative it has unfolded over the last five years.
Modi has already called the Opposition the “tukde-tukde gang”– literally, the “pieces gang” – to suggest they were out to break up India, and said they speak the language of terrorists.
The Election Commission, it is clear, will once again give Modi a free pass. But it will be a colossal error if right-thinking people once again treat the low, divisive abuse of this election season as mere campaign rhetoric.
The country is faced with is an existential crisis – a pluralist, inclusive India is defending itself against a majoritarian hate-filled “New India”. The Modi-Shah-led BJP’s language of violence, we have seen these past five years, is quickly translated into actual violence in pursuit of the party’s political goals. Whatever the outcome of the coming elections, this is not going to change.