Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP from South Delhi, Ramesh Bidhuri, called a fellow MP, Danish Ali, ‘pimp’, ‘terrorist’, ‘militant’ and also used the words mullah and katwa – a pejorative word for a Muslim who is circumcised. The abuse was hurled across the floor of parliament. Bidhuri also demanded that Ali be thrown out of parliament. Sitting next to Bidhuri were two senior BJP leaders, Harsh Vardhan, former minister of health and also science and technology, and Ravi Shankar Prasad, former minister of law and justice and communications and information technology. Both of these senior members of the BJP were laughing throughout Bidhuri’s rant. Subsequently, the speaker of parliament, Om Prakash Birla, warned Bidhuri that such behaviour would lead to penalties in the future and he also expunged the abusive comments. The BJP has issued a show cause notice to Bidhuri but it remains to be seen if any action will be taken.
The outrage against this incident has come from the opposition but also from those who are sympathetic to the BJP. The latter seems more upset that the sanctity of the newly built parliament was violated rather than caring about the insults and tenor of the language. However, it should not be surprising that the provocative, virulent and prejudiced language used in public rallies by some BJP leaders has found its way into parliament. Of course, it is easier to dismiss public speeches as anomalous and rather more difficult to ignore what is said in parliament.
If Muslims can be called traitors and likened to pathogens, diseases and insects in public speeches by BJP MPs then why use the fig leaf of parliamentary procedure to pretend as if politics in India still adheres to some imaginary standard of public engagement? Why outrage at what Bidhuri said in parliament when this is precisely the language used in WhatsApp groups, local meetings, public rallies and occasionally on television by both BJP members and its supporters? What Bidhuri has done has inadvertently drawn attention to the fact that the lowest common denominator that binds the BJP’s politics is the spectre of the Muslim as the sub-human other, the perennial enemy, the cancer in India’s body politic.
In the past decade, the BJP realised that the exigencies of power meant that such odious views must be suitably camouflaged if not hidden entirely. So, with some help from spin doctors, the party mastered the art of speaking in tongues. This approach allows plausible deniability and also placates the conscience of those who support the BJP and believe that these bigoted voices are peripheral, radical and do not represent the party. If a party apparatchik or even leader does say something that causes too much outrage, then there is a light tap on the wrist or a studied silence, depending on what the wider fallout is. Often, international coverage of hate speech or incidents of communal violence catalyses some kind of anodyne response about how all Indians are equal and how the BJP works night and day for the good of all.
BJP can’t unlink itself from divisiveness
In fact, in July this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi actually sought to change the BJP’s perception vis-à-vis Muslims. He asked BJP workers to take out ‘Sneh Yatras’ or goodwill processions to reach out to Pasmanda Muslims. This referred to the most marginalised, oppressed and economically backward members of the community who are distinct from ‘upper-caste’ Ashraf Muslims. Ironically, it is the Pasmanda Muslims who are the biggest victims of mob lynching and other forms of communal violence. True to its word, the BJP actually fielded 390 odd Muslim candidates in the Uttar Pradesh municipal elections this year. This move was widely hailed as a pathbreaking moment in the history of the BJP as the leadership claimed they wanted to now provide representation for Muslims within the party even though the goodwill processions were postponed.
Explaining the PM’s desire for these public processions, senior BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad said, “Basically the Prime Minister talked of a new political culture where the political ecosystem transcends beyond battering and goes for coordination and affection. The sneh yatra is also about sadbhavna (goodwill) and samanvay (harmony) and positive politics.”
Perhaps Ravi Shankar Prasad would care to explain whether what he witnessed in parliament and his laughter were examples of the positive politics he spoke of earlier this year. While many people have called for action against Bidhuri, it would be worthwhile remembering that he is merely a symptom of a much larger malaise. In fact, in a way, his actions should sound the warning bells to those Muslims who genuinely believe that the BJP is making space for them. Even if the argument is made that Bidhuri’s views are peripheral or not representative then what will ultimately matter is what action is taken against him.
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh issued a statement saying, “I express regret if the opposition is hurt by the remarks made by the member.” The very fact that he ‘expressed regret’ to the opposition and did not acknowledge or apologise for the fact that the slurs implicitly targeted an entire community speaks volumes about how difficult it is for the BJP to fundamentally distance itself from a politics that is built on divisive foundations. Rajnath Singh is known to keep good relations with many senior Muslim leaders but even he had to give a very carefully worded statement in case of backlash from BJP supporters. Ultimately, Bidhuri’s outburst briefly – albeit inadvertently – showed the real face of the BJP, beyond the studied silences, the PR charm offensives and mercenary marketing.
The action the BJP chooses to take after Bidhuri replies to the show cause notice will speak volumes about whether the statements by the Prime Minister and the President of the BJP reaching out to Muslims were sincere or whether they were mere rhetoric. Then again, by taking strict action they may gain plaudits from certain quarters but will risk alienating their core vote. With elections around the corner, what happens to Bidhuri is ultimately going to be telling of whether the BJP wants to signal that it won’t tolerate such behaviour or whether it concedes that hate speech continues to be par for the course.
Ali Khan Mahmudabad is head of the Department of Political Science at Ashoka University.