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Notes Of Stridency
If Gandhi were born again and to undertake a political pilgrimage to Champaran today, he would have bought a non-AC three-tier ticket—if not a general one—on the Sabarmati Express from Ahmedabad to Muzaffarpur. From this north Bihar town, the untiring crusader may have opted to march to the land of indigo farmers, where the Mahatma had launched his first non-violent struggle almost a century ago, or 97 years to be precise. On its way, the train would stop at Vadodara, Godhra, Lucknow, Ayodhya, Varanasi. It would not, however, loop back to Delhi.
Circa 2014, though, any route to Delhi has to go via Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Narendra Modi, therefore, is leaving no stone unturned to conquer these two states before laying claim to the crown in New Delhi. It is another matter that Modi doesn’t travel by train these days, he is flying too high to be grounded.
Challenging him in this land of the Buddha are two former railway ministers, known for their divergent stands on the Godhra tragedy of February 27, 2002, which was followed by a communal earthquake which to a large extent devastated the social fabric of the state.
Both incidentally at different points of time have nursed the ambition to become prime minister. Both, however lost the race—Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Laloo Prasad Yadav in 1996 and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar in the recent past.
However, as the electoral battle reaches its voluble climax half-way through, the country suddenly finds itself in the grip of a heated debate over the DNA of two non-biological entities—casteism in Bihar, and the BJP itself.
The recent remarks of former party president Nitin Gadkari—“there is casteism in the Bihar DNA”—and staunch NaMo loyalist Giriraj Singh saying “the Centre gave subsidy to those who exported beef and taxed those who reared cows” and his exhortation to NaMo opposers to head for Pakistan have reinforced the growing perception that the saffron party has travelled much beyond Hindutva and even Moditva. It seems caught instead in an ideological muddle as many of its staunchest supporters are finding it difficult to defend the party.
Though some have already voted for the BJP in the ongoing election, many now want the DNA of the party to be tested as it no longer seems to be the outfit it has been projecting itself to be in the last few months.
“My father, a retired employee of the Patratu thermal plant, is so upset by recent developments that he went and voted for the Janata Dal (United) candidate fully knowing that it is not going to win,” a middle-aged man in Patna tells Outlook, not wishing to be named. “It is wrong to believe that the BJP would benefit by such extreme stands. Where have the slogans of development and good governance gone?”
Incidentally, an FIR was lodged on April 20 in Deoghar, Jharkhand, against Giriraj, Gadkari and Nishikant Dubey, the BJP candidate from Godda Lok Sabha seat, following Giriraj’s beef statement. Though he alone made the statement at the election meeting, Gadkari and Dubey too have been named because they were present on the occasion. firs were also registered at the Patna Airport police station and in Bokaro for Giriraj’s April 18 go-to-Pakistan statements.
BJP’s change of tack has come after it realised the Muslim vote was going to RJD even as it retains the Yadav vote.
While senior party leader Sushilkumar Modi, who as deputy chief minister of the state a few years back allowed farmers to kill nilgais if the animals grazed on their farm produce and standing crop, tweeted his disapproval immediately, none in the saffron party took exception to Gadkari’s comment on caste being in Bihar DNA, as though it did not exist anywhere else. It was left to the rival Congress, RJD and JD(U) to voice their protest, though Gadkari was quick to clarify while talking to the media that he meant “political DNA.”
“This is downright condemnable,” says state Congress vice-president and media incharge Prem Chand Mishra. “Not only Giriraj and Gadkari, even the party’s prime ministerial nominee, Narendra Modi, does not hesitate in calling political rivals Pakistani agents and in raising the issue of beef export.” It was indeed in Giriraj’s constituency, Nawada, that Modi first raised the dubious bogey of the Pink Revolution. Though meant to woo the Yadav voters, RJD chief Laloo dubbed it “nonsense” and asked why Modi himself wears leather shoes and sandals.
CM Nitish Kumar recalled that it was Giriraj, who as animal husbandry minister in his cabinet (till June 16 last), had approved the setting up of modern slaughterhouses across Bihar. Giriraj, he also said, was a meat-lover.
“I am a pure vegetarian. But I know that the majority of BJP leaders are non-vegetarians and prefer to kill animals to satisfy their belly,” he said while releasing his party’s manifesto on April 5. Modi, however, was quick to defend his statement in an abp News programme at night on April 22, that no particular community is engaged in the meat export; indeed, several Jains too are involved in the business.
To which critics promptly responded: why did he opt to raise this particular issue here in Nawada, where the Yadavs are a substantial presence, and not in Gujarat where Jains are in a good number? Even Giriraj’s statements, they assert, are an echo of what Modi has been saying elsewhere. On March 26, for example, Modi had at an election rally in Hiranagar, Jammu, barely 5 km from the Pakistani border, said: “Three AKs—AK-47, A.K. Antony and AK-49 (Arvind Kejriwal, who was CM for 49 days)—had emerged as Pakistan commanders on the Indian side.” Giriraj’s comments were an extension of this Pakistani agent theme.
Modi has also been at pains to emphasise his backward caste origin in almost all his speeches in Bihar, saying the BJP is no longer a party of the Banias and the Brahmins. Why blame Gadkari alone then for his casteist remarks?
Patna-based political observer Ajay Kumar questions the very timing of such statements. “Gadkari and Giriraj started polarising the already polarised atmosphere ahead of the April 24 election when seven constituencies of northeast Bihar go to poll. Five of these seats have fairly large Muslim voters but are held by the BJP. The remarks should be seen in the light of JD(U) nominee Akhtar-ul-Iman withdrawing from the electoral battle in Kishanganj.”
Iman, till February 24 an RJD MLA, switched loyalties to CM Nitish’s JD(U). The latter quickly made him the party’s candidate against sitting Congress MP Maulana Asrar-ul-Haq. But perceiving the electoral battle too tough against the Maulana, who too is a Surjapuri Muslim like him, Iman pulled out on April 15 to “avoid the division of secular votes”, as he put it.
The BJP has fielded Dilip Jaiswal as its candidate from Kishanganj, a constituency which has 70 per cent Muslim voters—9,89,773 out of a total of 14,13,962. Kumar thinks this is because the BJP assessed that it did not do too well in the election for the 13 constituencies on April 10 and 17. “So why not polarise the electorate further on caste and community lines?”
It is also perhaps why the BJP has been gradually shifting its slogans from development and corruption-free India to ones that appeal to the Hindu votebank. The emotive beef export issue is of a piece with this strategy, intended to split the Muslim-Yadav combination, which never seems to fail, including this time perhaps.
Modi’s distancing himself via tweets from the statements of the likes of Giriraj is seen as just for public consumption.
The party had initially thought that, like in the 2009 Lok Sabha and the 2010 Bihar assembly polls, the Muslim vote would split between the RJD and the JD(U), as would the Yadav vote. Midway, though, the BJP strategists realised that the Muslim votes were going overwhelmingly to the RJD, and the Yadavs have not deserted the party in a big way either. And together the Muslims and Yadavs form about one-third of the state electorate.
In fact, the self-obtained tactical sense of the general Muslim electorate has caught the poll pundits off-guard, as several community leaders and organisations have been repeatedly telling them to vote for JD(U). Even on the morning of April 17, the day seven constituencies, including prominent ones like the Patna Sahib and Pataliputra, went to polls, Maulana Anees-ur-Rahman Qasmi, general secretary of the Imarat-e-Shariah, a Muslim religious organisation more than 90 years old, in a statement issued to English daily Hindustan Times applauded “the developmental vision” of CM Nitish.
Though the statement was ostensibly a mere clarification for a report published the previous day in the daily, the Maulana said: “Nitish has a solid core base and his vision is very clear. He is committed to the development of the state as well as the country. People of all castes and creed, including a majority of Muslims, support and stand by him (sic).”
The very next day, however, Rehan Ghani, editor of the Urdu daily Pindaar, in his column Do Tok strongly criticised the Maulana for supporting the ruling party so brazenly. This when Pindaar, till a few days back, like several other regional dailies, was considered a mouthpiece of the state government.
Urdu journalist-turned-social activist Naiyer Fatmi was more forthright while talking to Outlook: “Never in the history of the Imarat-e-Shariah has such an appeal been made on election day. This is simply reprehensible. Maulana Anees-ur-Rahman has lowered the prestige of the institution.”
It was only a day later that Giriraj, while talking to some mediapersons in Patna, accused the ‘Pakistan-prast’ (pro-Pakistan) elements in the country of opposing NaMo. While some regional channels highlighted his remarks, several dailies and news agencies ignored it. He went on to reiterate the same in Deoghar later in the day and then tweeted on April 19 that he stood by what he had said.
“Giriraj and Pravin Togadia’s utterances as well as Rajnath’s statement on infiltrators are just the logical extension of Modi’s anti-Pakistan and anti-Muslim posture. Hindutva is coming in the garb of development. But now they all stand exposed,” says Satya Narayan Madan, a political activist since the JP movement days.
There is no question, therefore, of the party taking action against Giriraj or anyone else, he adds. Madan and others are of the view that Modi’s April 22 tweet distancing himself from the remarks of hardliners is only tactical, meant just for public consumption.
As Indians vote in the hope of getting rid of corporatisation, criminalisation, communalisation, caste-based polarisation in the country, the irony of the electoral battle is that the message of the father of the nation has been nearly forgotten by the key players of the country. Modi seldom misses an opportunity to eulogise ‘lauh purush’ Vallabhbhai Patel—the Congressman during whose home ministership the RSS was banned—but he could not find enough iron to build the world’s tallest statue of Mahatma Gandhi, also a fellow Gujarati.
Were Gandhi to visit Champaran today, he would remain aloof from this great struggle for power politics. He may return to his birthplace travelling all alone on the Silchar-Porbandar East-West Corridor, once again cutting through Uttar Pradesh but bypassing the hustle and bustle of Delhi.
After all, he spent August 15, 1947, in Calcutta, leaving the reins of the nation in the hands of Jawaharlal Nehru.
Formerly with the Times of India, Patna-based Soroor Ahmed is a columnist in The Telegraph