Campaigning straddles the worlds of advertising and politics. The rhetoric of persuasion in either remains untainted by ethical scruples. There is not much difference between Benetton using the image of a real-life death-row convict for its bill-board campaign and the Bharatiya Janata Party using a raped woman for its pre-election rally in Madhya Pradesh. Indian politicians of every hue have a spectacular choice of human injustice and misery from which to fashion their public symbols of the cardinal political virtues. Rape could be particularly effective in this respect — as Ms Uma Bharti and the prime minister had worked out for the BJP’s Bhopal rally. It is the presence of the latter at the rally which makes the public display of a rape victim as an illustration of Congress failure especially obscene. Ms Bharti wanted to prove to her electorate the iniquities of Mr Digvijay Singh’s regime. Nothing would work better than sexual violence against women. In this case, Ms Bharti’s live exemplum symbolized not only sexual injustice, but also “mahila shakti” and, even more ingeniously, “Ayodhya”. A complicated story has now unfolded around this woman — how she was dumped by the Congress government and rescued from her misery by the BJP’s munificence a few days before this rally. A further twist is given by the fact that she has herself expressed abject gratitude to Ms Bharti and her party. A society and administration battening on brutal inequality are bound to give rise to such baffling situations.
Raped women have also figured in the armoury of other politicians. Ms Mamata Banerjee has taken them around to such places as panchayat meetings and the Writers’ Buildings to make a tastefully understated point about her political opponents in West Bengal. They have, of course, been left to fend for themselves once this job was done. The Trinamool Congress has recently dragged to another political demonstration the members from the family of Santosh Hela, whose body was found next to a garbage dump in a government hospital. Hela’s widow, daughter and mother-in-law performed their symbolic function for the entire day without being given anything to eat. Political parties have demonstrated in Bengal’s government hospitals with such aplomb that the chief minister recently had to forbid rallies in hospitals. The solemnity with which the chief minister had to make this absurd declaration only goes to show what both the health sector and the polity have been reduced to in Bengal. The Election Commission has recently objected to the Centre’s “India Shining” media campaign. The exploitation of human injustice for partisanship is more immoral than this contrived and strategic optimism.