The script is quite predictable. Someone from the Bharatiya Janata Party says something outrageous that is aimed at polarising Indians. In this case, it was Union Minister Giriraj Singh, a Hindtuva hardliner, taking to Twitter to criticise Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar for attending an iftar party to break the fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramzan. Singh asked why there was this “pretence” when “our own faith is ignored”.
Singh’s message is part of an effort by Hindutva proponent to shame all politicians into thinking that any public engagement with Muslims is “appeasement”. It also seeks to further the narrative that Hindu traditions have been ignored. Of course, there is little truth in either of these ideas. Where such arguments may have previously been used against the Congress, here Singh directed his missile at Kumar, a BJP alliance partner who was at the iftar party along with BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi.
In the past, media organisations that tilt towards the BJP would brush this sort of thing off as a statement from the Hindutva “fringe”. But you barely hear that phrase any more because most of these “fringe elements” are now at the very heart of the party. Singh is, after all, a Union Minister and a repeat offender. (See also: Adityanath).
Playing to script, many media outlets followed up with a story claiming that the “leader was unhappy” with Singh’s statement – or so their sources had informed them. During the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance years, the “Sonia Gandhi is unhappy” story became a cliche, a reference to how the former UPA chairperson would use the media to defuse a situation without actually doing much about it. In this case, media outlets reported that Union Home Minister Amit Shah had phoned Giriraj Singh to rebuke him, telling that incidents of this sort should not recur.
After this, most outlets moved on to other matters – not quite noting that, for all the claims of a rebuke from the second-most powerful man in the country, Singh still did not delete his offensive tweet. It is clear that this is not a reflection of Amit Shah’s lack of power, and so the only other conclusion can be that he was not as angry with Giriraj Singh as the source-based stories were claiming.
A similar narrative played out during the election campaign with regard to terror-accused Pragya Singh Thakur, who is known to her followers as Sadhvi. It said much about the BJP’s thinking that the party decided to choose a Lok Sabha candidate who is currently on trial for terrorism. Then, as campaign was underway, Thakur described Mohandas Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse, as a “true patriot”. In the ensuing furore, she tried to wriggle out of the situation by claiming that she had not intended cause offence. “If it has hurt someone, I apologise,” Thakur said.
Shortly after, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told journalists that though Thakur had apologised for the remarks, “I will never be able to forgive her for this”. But even after the most powerful man in the country declared he would not pardon Thakur for her statement, she remained in the BJP and was elected to Parliament.
For the moment at least, these fig leaves – Amit Shah rebuking an errant minister, Modi finding it impossible to be able to forgive Thakur – are important, because there is additional scrutiny over the government as it moves into its second term. But if the first term is anything to go by, even this pretence of rebuking party members who articulate the BJP’s underlying narrative out in the open has been dropped.
The template is clear. It is the responsibility for citizens to question such pat narratives in the media. It is exactly through hundreds of little events like this – Singh gets a rebuke but the underlying point he is making is not challenged – that the ground is being shifted beneath our feet.