The Puppet Master and the Politics of Ventriloquism

Inhabiting their echo chambers, the audience sees what the inaccessible prime minister wants them to through his various puppets.

The hallmark of the BJP’s strategy can only be described as the politics of ventriloquism. The Puppet Master (PM), the sutradhara of old Sanskrit epics, throws his voice while his various puppets say different things suited to who their audience is and what they want to hear. Arun Jaitley and Piyush Goyal talk to the elite of Delhi and Mumbai; Yogi Adityanath and Sakshi Maharaj appeal to the Hindutva votebank; a few token Muslims like Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi and Zafar Sareshwala give the illusion of inclusivity; Anupriya Patel creates links to the OBC community in UP; all while a Dalit president maintains a studied silence.

Meanwhile, the inaccessible, and unquestionable puppet master enjoys both distance and deniability and the audience, always enthralled and distracted by the story being woven, sees what he wants them to. His ‘show’ is helped by the fact that as many people now consume news through social media as they do from traditional media. The inherently siloed nature of social media means that all his various audiences are able to selectively hear what they want, as long as they continue to inhabit their echo chambers: closed Facebook pages, WhatsApp groups and curated Twitter lists. All this while they are silently targeted on the basis of calculations as to what they want to hear.

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However, the first cracks appeared this week when the PM may have gone off script to talk about radar, emails and digital cameras in a way which suggested that he may not know much about weather, the internet, or how history works. But, little has changed for the faithful.

The Bharatiya Modi Party

The BJP is now the BMP – Bharatiya Modi Party. Its ideology is not just Hindutva but also Moditva. BJP leader Swami Prasad Maurya’s daughter Sanghmitra Maurya describes this in her book – Moditva ka Maane, or the Meaning of Moditva. And Amit Shah puts it most succinctly: Modi is fighting every seat in the current elections.

A BJP desperate to shake off its retrogressive image over the past five years has relied on Narendra Modi to do this. However, the compulsions of realpolitik and the reality of a vote consolidated through chauvinistic religious nationalism has meant that it has also had to give space to people who are openly communal and casteist.

While on this issue, the Janus-faced PM has largely remained silent or at best spoken in platitudes about how the BJP cares for everyone, he continues to speak in tongues: capitalist development for industrialists, sops for the middle class, handouts for the farmers and chest-thumping religious nationalism for those who form the BJP’s core support group. It does not matter if the interests of these groups are at direct loggerheads – industrial behemoths vs small traders; agricultural conglomerates vs small farmers; traditional religious communities vs millennials. The net result of this has been a schizophrenic economic policy and social messaging that sounds like the tower of Babel.

The constant appeals to first time voters using a rap video, among other things, illustrates this well. The young people in the video, and in particular their clothing, would have been attacked as un-Indian and immoral by members of the very party that was asking for their votes. How many of these young women would like to meet senior BJP leader Yogi Adityanath, who says that “women are like energy, if they are not controlled they can be destructive and worthless.”

UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath. Credit: PTI.

Disconnect between words and actions

The carefully constructed images on social media stand in direct contradiction to the reality of the BJP on the ground. Even in their rallies, the rhetoric before the PM and senior leaders arrive is very different from what they speak about. While in Gujarat, the PM was famous for speaking in Gujarati before the press arrived and then switching to Hindi, while also changing the tenor of his speech.

Some weeks ago on Easter, Modi tweeted about the ‘sacrifices of Lord Jesus Christ’ while Christians in West Bengal and UP have been the targets of groups like the Hindu Yuva Vahini and the Bajrang Dal. A few months ago in Chapar in Sultanpur district, Pastor Om Prakash’s congregation was beaten by members of the Bajrang Dal and was made to lick their assailant’s feet. Those who lynch Muslims are garlanded for their deeds by sitting MPs while the PM feigns concern. The examples are countless, but as the election progressed, the rhetoric of the PM and his puppets became explicitly communal and casteist.

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Amit Shah declared that the BJP will ensure implementation of the NRC in the entire country and will remove every single infiltrator from the country, ‘except Buddha, Hindus and Sikhs.’ A few days later, Maneka Gandhi threatened on camera that if she found out that Muslims didn’t vote for her, then she would have to think twice before helping them get jobs. Yogi Adityanath spoke of the sons of Babur and the politics of the shamshan (cremation), qabristan (cemetries), Diwali and Ramzan, echoing Modi’s words from the 2017 election. Ranjeet Bahadur Srivastav recently assured voters in Barabanki in UP that voting for Modi would ‘destroy’ the Muslims, whose morale had been broken over five years anyway.

Over five years, the BJP has normalised violence against both minorities and lower castes to such an extent that showing ‘Muslims their place’ is now a fallback reason for voting them back to power. Similarly, a distinct narrative has emerged wherein SC, ST and OBC groups have been the target of the BJP’s mixed signalling.

The PM speaks of Dalit empowerment while a BJP minister, Anupama Jaiswal likened Mayawati to elephant dung. Varun Gandhi took a dig at the Samajwadi Party leaders saying that those who collected cow dung are now driving big cars. He also said he can make his opponents to untie his shoe laces. Election rhetoric aside, the BJP has also normalised violence against lower castes and minorities over five years.

A universal solution for everything

Perhaps this is why the BJP’s campaign so far has been a heady mix of likening the opposition to Pakistan, pretending to be the army, making light of the nuclear button and crying foul about how Hinduism is somehow in danger, while promising that Modi is a universal solution for everything and especially for putting Muslims in their place.

There have been no promises of better days, unlike the 2014 elections. With the declaration of Sadhvi Pragya as the BJP candidate in Bhopal, there is no doubt as to where this election has been heading. Sadhvi Pragya’s comments lauding Gandhi’s killer Nathuram Godse as a hero elicited a delayed condemnation by the PM. He said that he would never forgive her but despite the supposed outrage, she remains the BJP candidate from Bhopal. An increasingly desperate BJP has been intent on fighting this election on the thing that it knows best: communal polarisation. Amidst all this, the only thing that remains certain is that even the most masterful Sutradhara’s show must eventually come to an end.

Ali Khan Mahmudabad is national spokesperson of the Samajwadi Party, an Indian historian, political scientist and poet, who writes regularly for the Urdu, Hindi and English press.