Pragya Singh Thakur, charged in a terrorist conspiracy case under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, is the Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate for the Bhopal Lok Sabha constituency. She is out on bail.
In the days before the BJP announced her candidature, Prime Minister Narendra Modi (and his satraps Arun Jaitley and Amit Shah) had set the stage. In speeches made across the country, Modi claimed the Congress had invented a category called “Hindu terrorism” to malign all Hindus and India’s ancient civilization. Hindus, he said, were peace-loving folk and could not possibly be terrorists.
Two days after Thakur’s nomination, Modi told his favourite TV channel that “Sadhvi is a symbol” against “those who branded a 5,000-year-old peaceful civilization a terrorist”. He said it was outrageous that people were making a fuss about Thakur being out on bail. After all, he said, the candidates for Amethi (Rahul Gandhi) and Rae Bareli (Sonia Gandhi) were also on bail and no one thought it was worth commenting on.
Thakur faces terrorism charges in connection with the 2008 Malegaon bombing that killed at least six people and she spent eight years in jail before being bailed on health grounds. The case against the Gandhis is for economic offences.
In Modi and the BJP’s formulation, a Hindu cannot be a terrorist. So, it follows, in their scheme of things, that despite what the law says the case against Thakur has no basis. Indeed, Thakur declared that by nominating her the BJP had given her a “clean chit”.
It is banal to say Thakur’s candidature signals that Modi and the BJP care not for the rule of law or the Constitution. The primary political goal of the BJP and its mother ship, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, is the exact opposite of the nation as defined by the Constitution. It is not too far-fetched to say the patriotism that the BJP peddles is not patriotism for the Indian nation that is, but for a majoritarian Hindu rashtra that it is willing into being.
Transforming the republic
We have taken for granted India’s capacious constitutional design, which accommodates diverse, even divergent ideologies. We have assumed the institutional checks and balances it has created are a bulwark against forces opposed to the Constitution’s core values. The BJP’s slow rise to power, its working within the institutional arrangements of Indian democracy was viewed as a marker of the success of these checks and balances. Even as it struck at the basic tenets of our republic, most people, even among those who were ideologically opposed to the BJP, were sanguine about the party’s ultimate intentions and goals.
Too few acknowledged that the only checks on the BJP were the limits set by limited power. That its systematic push for political power through what is popularly called “Hindu consolidation” was a clearly stated policy of building a constituency to enable the “democratic” transformation of our pluralist republic into a majoritarian one.
The process began in earnest with LK Advani’s rath yatra, winding its way through the Devanagri belt to the cries of “Garv se kaho hum Hindu hain” and “Mandir yanhin banaenge”, taking the poisonous rhetoric of the RSS shakha on to the streets of India. The sharp rise in communal violence that followed was an important part of the strategy, and peaked with the pogrom in Gujarat in 2002.
The emergence of a new-generation leader, Narendra Modi, who christened himself “Hindu hruday samrat” and created a template for moving the BJP-RSS agenda forward having gained almost absolute political power and effectively turned the institutions of democracy into handmaidens of the party.
In his nearly 15 years as chief minister, Modi created the myth of the “Gujarat model” as business friendly and focused on “development”, never mind that government spending and social development indicators consistently told a different story and several other states outstripped Gujarat in terms of investment and job creation.
Modi also perfected a form of passive aggression against the minorities, particularly Muslims. The “Gujarat model” that almost everyone chose to ignore was one where minorities were absent from the public sphere and permitted to go about their business only so long as they kept their heads down.
It was this model that propelled Modi to power in 2014, with the RSS and its multifarious organisations finding in him and his model the surest chance of capturing power through a first past the post electoral system. The template had something for everyone – from the hardcore Hindu support base to that curious entity, the reluctant backer. The first gloried in the sly targeting of Muslims throughout the 2014 campaign and the rest clutched at the claim that “vikas” or development would be Modi and BJP’s focus.
The myth of the Gujarat “development” model was kept alive for much of the last five years, alongside targeted communal violence and murderous attacks on Muslims, a continuous campaign to vilify opponents – from moviegoers to university undergraduates and political parties – as anti-national and supporters of terrorism, an orchestrated infusion of fake news, the installation of Adityanath as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, and even demonetisation.
Modi and his party’s refusal to decry communal violence and the victimisation of victims – almost without exception the Muslim victims of communal violence had criminal charges filed against them – and the prime minister’s continuous use of dog whistle communal rhetoric was the other part of the Gujarat model in practice. Maneka Gandhi’s election speech setting out the quid pro quo between Muslim votes and development for Muslim areas laid bare in chilling detail a political agenda that undermines the foundations of the Indian republic.
Sending a message
Selecting Thakur as its candidate in Bhopal is consistent with the trajectory the BJP has set. It sends a message that is unequivocal: that the ordinary laws of the land do not apply to those who have the protection of the Sangh Parivar. That Muslims and other minorities in India can never be victims of terrorism. That the violence they face – whether from cow vigilantes or Hindu extremist organisations like Abhinav Bharat – is only a “reaction” to their “action”. Recall that after the pogrom in Gujarat in 2002, the RSS adopted a resolution that said: “Let Muslims realise that their real safety lies in the goodwill of the majority”. Not the rule of law or constitutional guarantees but the “goodwill of the majority”. The Union government led by the Pradhan Swayam Sewak has driven this home these last five years. Thakur’s candidacy simply reaffirms this.
There is a view within the RSS-BJP that Thakur’s candidature is the party’s way of bolstering a flagging election campaign. A candidate like her, they say, will “fire up the BJP’s core electoral base”. That a mass-based political party relies on a core electoral base that is fired up by a terror accused should make a civilized society speak out. But those who speak out are drowned out by the deafening silence of the fearful or, worse, the indifferent.
The BJP claims to speak for the majority. But does it? Its share of the vote in 2014, when the party won a landslide victory, was 31% of the total votes polled. It is unfashionable, in our first past the post system, to dwell on a victor’s vote share. But when the victorious party, claiming to speak for the majority, pushes a nasty divisive agenda designed to subvert the very basis of the nation, it is something worth dwelling on. A good 69% of Indians did not vote for the RSS-BJP. Its time to say Modi and the BJP do not speak for all of us.
By saying so we are making a choice. A choice between a 70-year-old plural constitutional democracy, however imperfect, that is India, and a violent majoritarian Hindu rashtra that is in the process of being birthed. It’s a choice between repair and renewal on the one hand and death and destruction on the other.
It is not a choice that will be made only at the election booth, but in the days and years that follow. The task before us is to persuade the 69%, and then some, that its worth their while to stand up and be counted.