Aijaz Zaka Syed
Despite all the progress India has made over the past few years and decades in economic terms and other ways as a nation state, it is amazing how little it takes to cook up trouble. A minor misunderstanding here and a little rumour there is all it takes to wreck long years of peace and amity.
Everybody loves a good riot. And almost always, there is a political connection to it; the more desperate the politicians the deadlier the concoction of rumours and venom. As the game of thrones enters a decisive phase, these time-tested shortcuts to electoral windfall are being resurrected.
In the breathless run up to Narendra Modi’s anointment as the hope and future of the great republic, we have been repeatedly assured by pundits that the peace-loving and reasonable majority of Indians would never allow a divisive figure like him to lead Gandhi’s nation.
They are right of course. Only an electoral miracle or extreme religious polarisation, like the one witnessed during the Ayodhya mayhem in the 1980s and ‘90s, may get the BJP or its prime ministerial hopeful past the post.
Even under AB Vajpayee, a much popular leader with a national appeal, it took the BJP much political jugglery to come within the striking distance of Delhi. Its best performance till date remains 183 seats, in 1999–way short of the 272-majority mark. The 21st century India has arguably moved beyond the cynical mandir-masjid politics. Indians today are more concerned about bread-and-butter issues, rather than about a temple in Ayodhya. The people, repeatedly conned and exploited over such emotive issues, are wiser today.
But are they really? As reports of the madness in Muzaffarnagar, a sleepy district in Uttar Pradesh, pour in, it’s like yesterday once again. Politicians wanted a communal conflagration and the state that sends the largest number of lawmakers to parliament and is home to the largest Muslim population in the country, has delivered once again.
A besieged minority being hunted and chased like animals out of villages and towns; homes, businesses and mosques being burnt as an indifferent administration looks on; what is new? We have been here before. And this is the government of a party that is supposed to be ‘soft’ on Muslims. Indeed, since the Samajwadi Party returned to power under Akhilesh Yadav, UP has seen more than hundred riots.
As the 2014 poll battle heats up, a desperate BJP led by an even more desperate Modi appears hell-bent on stirring the communal pot and raising temperatures. The party knows that without sharply dividing the nation along religious lines, it cannot capture Delhi despite all the help from a directionless UPA government.
Besides, in the face of the corporate media’s campaign to build Brand Modi and the middle classes’ longing for a no-nonsense knight in shining armour, his past is catching up with him. As if all those court cases about the 2002 pogrom and sordid details about a series of staged killings of Muslims weren’t enough, his former top cop, Vanzara, who presided over all those killings has begun to sing like a canary.
No wonder Modi is impatient for an early party nomination for the top job. But this is precisely why many in the BJP, including the patriarch Lal Krishna Advani and popular face Sushma Swaraj, do not cherish the idea. They feel that this would politically isolate the party.
Already, most of its allies have abandoned it over Modi’s leadership. Even Shiv Sena isn’t excited about the proposition. The National Democratic Alliance has practically been reduced to the BJP and Akali Dal.
Under the circumstances, a storm of communal passions and obtaining polarisation is what the Hindutva party is clearly hoping to cook up. Ironically, the Congress too hopes for an early declaration of Modi’s candidature. Deeply unpopular over a series of scams and the mess on economic front, the Congress hopes that the idea of ‘PM Modi’ would scare the voters, especially minorities, into its arms.
One suspects that the wily Mulayam Singh, the SP chief, is hoping for the same in UP. He also has his sights on Delhi hoping for a third alternative to the Congress and BJP. Else a government endlessly paying tributes to secularism wouldn’t sit around while the state is ravaged by riot after riot.
Meanwhile it’s ordinary people who become the cannon fodder in this cynical game of power. The Muzaffarnagar riot, the bloodiest since Gujarat 11 years ago, isn’t an isolated incident. A method in the madness is apparent. It’s part of the pattern that has been emerging in UP and elsewhere over the past few months.
It’s no coincidence that nearly two decades after bringing down the Babri Masjid and just before the General Elections, the VHP has woken up to its promise of a Ram temple. The elaborate VHP show in Ayodhya last month in the presence of saffron-clad ‘sants’ and sadhus amidst slogans against ‘Muslim appeasement’ and ‘injustice to Hindus’ was frighteningly familiar. It is as though we are back in the last century and it’s as if India has stood still all these years.
In the run up to the latest of VHP antics, Prashant Panday wrote in the Times of India: “Nothing sounds correct about this yatra. Here’s what is likely to happen. There will be violence in UP. A few innocents could die. The government will be shown to be the villain. TV channels will amplify the violence. It will make every Hindu sit up and take note. Every Hindu will feel the only saviour is the BJP and vote for the party. It happened that way following 1992. The VHP-yatra is tailor-made to help the BJP. For the SP and Congress, it’s a no-win situation. All in all, this is a political masterstroke, one that is bound to succeed for the BJP.”
So Muzaffarnagar may just be the beginning. There could be more fireworks on Modi’s way to Delhi. What was seen at the Jat ‘maha panchayat’ last week could be replayed across the Hindi belt. Even BJP’s Hukum Singh, facing charges over his role in Muzaffarnagar, says he was disturbed by what he saw at the massive angry gathering which led to attacks on Muslims.
Many in the 150,000-strong crowd brandished guns, swords, knives and sticks and demanded teaching a lesson to the Muslims, and, interestingly, cheering for Modi. It was as if UP had become Gujarat overnight. And on their way back, they did teach unforgivable lessons to Muslims destroying everything in their path.
So it’s all nicely playing out according to the script. Various saffron outfits are successfully enacting their roles in one grand, flawless design. And the BJP is ready to reap its bitter harvest, once again. Who cares what it would entail for the wellbeing and stability of this complex land of myriad, competing identities! It’s a small price to pay for power.
*Aijaz Zaka Syed is a commentator on the Middle East and South Asia affairs and Editor of Caravan. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org