Much of the conversation around this election has been driven by the argument that Narendra Modi’s BJP is a party whose agenda centres on governance and growth, not on communally divisive and inflammatory issues like the building of a Ram temple at Ayodhya or the demonizing of Muslims. The BJP’s manifesto, released on Monday, which had the Ram Mandir and other sectarian staples consigned to page 41, was cited as more evidence of this evolution.
The difficulty with believing the BJP’s new ‘governance’ anthem is that Modi and his right-hand man, Amit Shah, chose during their election campaigns to sing a succession of the sangh parivar’s oldest tunes. As political disc-jockeys they showed a marked preference for the BJP’s bloodiest hits. In Bihar, Modi made speeches where he re-mixed the cow-slaughter theme song under a new title, the ‘Pink Revolution’. The lyrics of his cover version went like this: the Congress government had subsidized cow-slaughter, butchers had grown rich on the back of meat exports, did Yadavs really want to make common cause with people who killed the sacred cow?
Amit Shah, hand-picked to deliver Uttar Pradesh to the BJP in 2014, made even more viscerally provocative speeches. Majoritarian parties are founded on a narrative of resentment, in which the majority, the People, tried beyond forbearance by a devious, predatory minority, strikes back. Last week, Amit Shah played variations on this theme of vengeance in speeches in western UP. The political context of these speeches was a region communally divided by the violence that flared up in Muzaffarnagar last year between Jats and Muslims.
Amit Shah’s ‘revenge’ speech in Shamli received a great deal of media attention. In this speech, Shah urged Jats to revenge themselves by voting against the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Congress because these parties had, allegedly, pandered to Muslims and discriminated against Hindus during and after the riots. The Election Commission issued Shah a notice on the ground that he was, prima facie, guilty of creating mutual hatred, causing tension between different communities on the basis of religion, and making an appeal on communal lines for securing votes.
The BJP’s strategy in these cases is plausible deniability: its leaders skirt the edges of the law without naming names or saying anything explicit enough to incur legal penalties. In the case of the Shamli speech, the BJP’s position was that Shah’s call for ‘revenge’ was no more than a metaphorical way of asking electors to vote against parties which had betrayed them. It was a metaphor that had been used before in elections by Barack Obama himself and it was, therefore, a legitimate word in the political lexicon of a democracy.
However, a day after the Shamli speech, Amit Shah addressed a gathering of Jat leaders in a farm house in Bijnor, where he forgot to take the usual rhetorical precautions. The Bijnor speech was reported by the Hindi news channel, Aaj Tak (https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=PCjYDbwdQsY). While attacking the BSP and Mayavati, Amit Shah made great play with the fact that both the BSP and the BJP had fielded exactly the same number of Dalit candidates in UP. He then moved to his clinching argument. Mayavati, said Shah, in her eagerness to win the votes of a particular community (varg vishesh), a community that violated the honour of his assembled audience’s sisters and daughters (jo behen-betiyon…ki aabru pe haath dalta hai), had alotted that community 19 Lok Sabha tickets in the province, more even than the 17 she had given Dalits.
The speech resulted in the local police lodging a case against Amit Shah. This was denounced, predictably enough, by the BJP spokesperson, Ravi Shankar Prasad, as an abuse of police powers and an example of ‘votebank’ politics. In actual fact, Shah’s Bijnor rhetoric was so toxic that even Prasad’s practiced legal mind would have been hard put to spin it as something other than hate speech.
While Shah was careful not to name Muslims in his Bijnor speech, this omission bought him no wiggle room or strategic ambiguity because by citing the number of parliamentary tickets the BSP had given to the aforementioned ‘particular community’, Shah effectively confirmed that he was referring to Muslims. We know that the BSP had nominated 19 Muslims to UP’s Lok Sabha constituencies in this election, so we know that the community Shah was referring to, the varg vishesh, which according to him, oppressed Hindus and violated the honour of their womenfolk, was the Muslim community. There is no room for doubt here, no plausible deniability.
Consider the enormity of the allegations made by Shah in the Bijnor speech. He described Muslims collectively as a community of oppressors and predators who preyed on Hindu women. This isn’t even dog-whistling; this is straightforward communal slander, a textbook example of hate speech.
It’s worth remembering that the man who made this speech is Narendra Modi’s most trusted lieutenant, a man who used to be his home minister in Gujarat, a political operator hand-picked by him to lead the BJP’s campaign in UP, India’s largest state, a state crucial to Modi’s goal of leading a ruling coalition after the elections. Amit Shah is not a political operative gone rogue: he is His Master’s Voice.
Shah and Modi performed a kind of jugalbandi during their election campaigns across UP and India. They are masters, both of them, of the sangh parivar’s favoured musical instrument, the dog-whistle. Sometimes, though, as in Bijnor, the dog-whistle was set aside and Shah plainly voiced the ugly rage that defines majoritarian politics, its loathing of minorities and its willingness to shape that hatred into a political instrument.
The nature of Amit Shah’s speech in Bijnor is important not because he has been summoned by the Election Commission; the judgment that matters will be delivered by India’s electorate, not its regulatory bodies. The point is to show that growth might be the centre-piece of Modi’s manifesto, but his economic agenda comes embedded in an explicitly communal politics.
Gurcharan Das, corporate India’s most literate spokesperson, acknowledges Modi’s divisive, polarizing politics but argues that his commitment to growth ought to outweigh our commitment to a secular politics. “There will always be a trade-off,” he writes, “in values at the ballot box and those who place secularism above demographic dividend are wrong and elitist.” Given this perspective, Das is unlikely to be disturbed by Amit Shah’s speech at Bijnor. As for Ambani, Mittal, Tata, Adani… well, businessmen through the ages have always packed long spoons and supped with everyone, whiffs of sulphur notwithstanding.
Christopher Marlowe, who was, like Gurcharan Das, a playwright, would have recognized his ‘trade-off’ for what it is: a Faustian compact where you give up a cherished value, or scruple or (if you’re Faust) your soul, and trade it in for the promise of well-being. Modi’s and Shah’s speeches make the price of this contemporary compact explicit: growth and prosperity can be ours if we are prepared to ignore the violent marginalization of Muslims as incidental, collateral damage.
Secularism and pluralism aren’t just abstractions: they are institutional commitments intended to protect the lives and rights of individuals and groups. When we treat them as optional extras, we knowingly license violence. After Amit Shah’s speeches in Shamli and Bijnor on the eve of this pivotal election, we can’t say we haven’t been warned.