Sunday, January 25, 2015

Ramachandra Guha: Why is Amit Shah being allowed to make MPs out of bigots?

The mainstreaming of Amit Shah is one of the more worrying aspects of public discourse in India. This is a man who was the first serving home minister of any state to be arrested; the man who was sent away from his own state for two years by the Supreme Court for fear he would tamper with the evidence in important criminal cases; the man who many say so completely politicized his state's police force that those who did not toe his line were punished

In the latter part of 2014, four members of Parliament made provocative statements. Yogi Adityanath, the MP from Gorakhpur, claimed that young Muslim men had launched a "lovejihad" to entrap Hindu women, by marrying and converting them to Islam. Sakshi Maharaj, the MP from Unnao, said that the murderer of Mahatma Gandhi, Nathuram Godse, was a true patriot. Sadhvi Jyoti Niranjana, MP from Fatehpur (and who had been recently inducted into the council of ministers), said that all those who did not worship Lord Rama or vote for her party were " haramzadon" (a term that we can politely translate as 'rascals', although the original Hindustani admits of more pejorative connotations). Satish Gautam, the MP from Aligarh, proclaimed his support to a programme of converting Muslims and Christians to Hinduism.

The four MPs all belonged to the Bharatiya Janata Party, the party that is running the Union government. As a result, the Opposition asked the prime minister, as head of government, to clarify his stand on the MPs' remarks. The Rajya Sabha was stalled for days on end, with the prime minister first declining to appear and then making a statement, which, in the Opposition's view, was not sufficiently condemnatory of his errant MPs.

In the vast press coverage on these controversies, one salient fact seems to have been obscured. This is that the four fire-raising MPs of the BJP had all been elected from the state of Uttar Pradesh. They had all been chosen to contest for Parliament by the then general secretary of the BJP, Amit Shah, who had been given sole charge of the campaign in India's largest state. Remarkably, neither the press nor the Opposition had noticed the connection. While the prime minister was repeatedly asked to state his stand, no one - whether inside Parliament or outside it - directed their criticisms to the man principally responsible for having made MPs out of bigots.

The mainstreaming of Amit Shah is one of the more worrying aspects of public discourse in India. This is a man who was the first serving home minister of any state to be arrested; the man who was sent away from his own state for two years by the Supreme Court for fear he would tamper with the evidence in important criminal cases; the man who many say so completely politicized his state's police force that those who did not toe his line were punished.

The controversial background of Amit Shah was forgotten when his party won the Lok Sabha election, their victory owed in good part to their near-clean sweep in Uttar Pradesh, where they won 71 out of 80 seats. The BJP's spectacular showing in India's largest state, and the majority gained overall, prompted the party to elevate Amit Shah to the post of president. Meanwhile, his role in fashioning a BJP victory led to a flurry of appreciative pieces on Amit Shah in the press. The man with a distinctly dodgy past was now celebrated as a political genius, as the modern Chanakya, and more. The pundits in the press particularly praised Amit Shah for his "candidate selection". 

The candidates he selected included Yogi Adityanath, Sakshi Maharaj, Sadhvi Jyoti Niranjana and Satish Gautam. And yet no one has called the BJP president to account for the statements of his MPs from Uttar Pradesh. Meanwhile, other members of the extended sangh parivar have made their intentions very clear. The head of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has declared that India is a Hindu rashtra, and that everyone who is a citizen of this country must acknowledge that he is of "Hindu" origin. In keeping with this ambition, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad has launched a series of conversion programmes. Its president, Pravin Togadia, has said that their ultimate goal is to make every Indian a Hindu by faith.

Narendra Modi was, for many years, a fervent believer in a Hindu rashtra himself. In his first years as chief minister, he made disparaging remarks about Muslims and Christians. However, from about 2008 or so he began to fashion a more moderate image. He was now avikash purush, a man of development, who wished to take all of Gujarat along on the road to prosperity. Once he launched his prime ministerial campaign, he further sought to present himself as a politician of the future, rather than of the past. Although his penchant for polemic remained, the barbs were now directed at individual politicians opposed to him, rather than at communities per se.

Narendra Modi's adroit re-branding, along with his brilliant oratory, played a major role in the success of his party in the Lok Sabha elections. Although such things are impossible to quantify, it does seem that a large number of those who voted for the BJP do not subscribe to the view that India is or must be a Hindu rashtra. They cast their votes as they did because (a) they were (rightly) disgusted by the corruption and dynastic culture of the ruling Congress, and (b) they saw in the energetic, charismatic, self-made Narendra Modi a viable alternative, who could meet their aspirations for a safer, more prosperous, and less corrupt India.

The presentation of Modi as a modernizing, go-getting, growth-and-good-governance-generating reformer was widely shared by the electorate. It may indeed be that Modi has undergone a genuine ideological transformation. Is that also true of his second-in-command? Here the scepticism must run deeper. During the election campaign, Amit Shah was reprimanded by the Election Commission for remarks he made urging Hindus to take 'revenge' through the ballot box. The statements made by his chosen MPs from UP show that they take no part in the professed agenda of the government, but subscribe still to the reactionary, polarizing view of India that it was thought (or claimed) that the prime minister had himself left behind. Shah's own failure to publicly reprimand Yogi Adityanath and Sadhvi Jyoti Niranjana suggests that he is not entirely averse to their worldview. When asked by reporters to comment, he has offered anodyne remarks such as "our party stands for social harmony".

The signs are ominous - more so because in the communalizing of UP, Shah and his party have a willing ally in Mulayam Singh Yadav and his party. Both sides have a vested interest in further polarization. As the next assembly elections in UP come closer, the worry is that the likes of Mulayam and Azam Khan will stoke fear among insecure Muslims, and that the likes of Yogi Adityanath and Sadhvi Jyoti Niranjana will stoke fear among insecure Hindus. Further stoking the sectarian pot will be Asaduddin Owaisi and the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen. The BJP under Shah's leadership might then play a double game - getting the prime minister to give stirring speeches promising jobs to all young men and 24x7 power to all rural homes, while on the ground the cadres work at consolidating "Hindu pride".

Shah's defenders have made much of the "clean chit" recently given him by the CBI. The discourse on clean chits (given in this case by an agency notorious for bowing to the wind) obscures a fundamental question, namely, whether association with, or endorsement of, statements and actions so manifestly at variance with our Constitution are at all compatible with the presidentship of India's most important political party.

Shah's career as home minister in Gujarat, his management of the campaign in UP during the general elections, and his conduct as party president all suggest that for him ends are far more important than the means. That is why we must be troubled by the mixture of deference and adulation by which he is currently treated by large sections of the media.