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New Delhi: The Narendra Modi government is currently facing one of its biggest diplomatic crises following an international outcry over remarks against the Prophet by two official spokespersons of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
Such has been the pressure on the Union government that the BJP – which has made anti-Muslim rhetoric its primary political plank – was forced to not only remove both the spokespersons from their official positions but also issue multiple clarifications on the matter.
For a government that has mastered the skill of scoring political brownie points from even its supposed failures, the situation it has found itself in at the moment is extraordinary.
But what should have been an opportune moment for the opposition to push the Modi government harder was lost. Instead, the country saw tepid – if not ordinary – responses that failed to put the BJP and its affiliates on the mat.
The vindication that the opposition parties and sections of civil society have found in the controversy is perhaps natural, given the way they have been outclassed by the BJP in terms of political tactics and strategy over the past few years. Yet, the fact that their criticism of the government was confined to the same old rhetoric reflects both a lack of imagination and leadership in the ranks of the opposition.
Immediately after the Modi government’s diplomatic defence that hinged on blaming the hateful remarks of prominent BJP leaders Nupur Sharma and Naveen Kumar Jindal on “fringe” elements, opposition forces were quick to ask the most-obvious question – how can official spokespersons of a ruling party be dismissed as “fringe”.
FRINGE is MAINSTREAM. Backed by none less than @AmitShah. Is this why cops still haven’t arrested anyone? Suspension is a sham. Chota Savarkars were smug because of govt support. If Genocide Sansad gang was punished, BJP spokies wouldn’t have insulted Prophet PBUH on natl TV 1/2 pic.twitter.com/DKLKNrkYkK
— Asaduddin Owaisi (@asadowaisi) June 5, 2022
Who are BJP kidding? This spokesperson tried to pass off 2002 Guj riots photo as WB riot in July 2017 & Kolkata Police filed non-bailable case against her.
Serial hater, lauded & propped up by her party.
Middle East heat just got too much for MEA to handle this time.
— Mahua Moitra (@MahuaMoitra) June 5, 2022
But having struck at that very loophole, they seem to have missed what could have been a great political opportunity to effectively confront the saffron party in domestic politics.
While pointing out that BJP spokespersons were not “fringe”, Rahul Gandhi and other leaders from the Congress, along with those in Trinamool Congress, Left parties, and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) constituents hit out at the saffron party for incentivising bigotry that caused India’s isolation in the international arena.
Most felt vindicated that their criticisms against the ruling party have been noted internationally, ignoring the fact that 40% of the electorate who chose to hand the BJP two successive victories with a comprehensive majority would likely double down on their support in the face of this “international pressure”.
Divided internally, India becomes weak externally.
BJP’s shameful bigotry has not only isolated us, but also damaged India’s standing globally.
— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) June 6, 2022
Similarly, the critical section of civil society mostly scoffed at the Modi government and the BJP for bringing disrepute to India.
Indian minorities, who have been the biggest victims of BJP’s exclusionary politics, restricted themselves to pushing the government harder to initiate legal action against Sharma and Jindal, despite the fact that their protests and demands have mostly been defanged with the use of state violence in BJP-ruled states.
This cocktail of lethargy and wishfulness in the opposition ranks was in sharp contrast with the BJP’s clever doublespeak and the Sangh parivar’s own ‘opposition’ to the Modi government. Despite having been caught completely off-guard this time around, the BJP and the Sangh responded to the situation in a more hands-on manner.
While the Modi government extolled the Indian republic’s values of plurality and diversity in its official statements to tackle the international backlash, the BJP quickly extended its helping hand to it by making statements in the media saying that all its official spokespersons have been “warned” against criticising any religion, its symbols or religious figures. The BJP top brass also said that “for no provocation (in television debates or elsewhere), can they violate the party’s ideals”.
At the same time, the Sangh parivar unleashed an army of social media users to lampoon the Modi government, in what appeared to be an organised attempt to politically contain any opposition within the spectrum of the political Right. Hindutva foot soldiers crowded social media platforms with a multi-layered campaign against the Modi government that, to a great extent, deflected attention away from any genuine opposition criticism.
Some said it was “cowardly” on the part of BJP to have axed its own spokespersons, others said it was “shameful” for the Modi government to have caved in to the pressure of “Islamic” countries, while some called for a boycott of Arab countries.
The larger takeaway from such a campaign is two-fold.
The binary on the basis of religious affiliations that the BJP has successfully created remains the most important node of Indian politics. The “enemy” is still the Muslim. By emphasising the backlash from Muslim-majority countries, the Hindutva activists advanced, yet again, the misleading perception that any political assertion by Hindus in Hindu-majority India will be countered only by “Islamism”, of which every Muslim, irrespective of nationality, is a follower.
Nuances like rivalries and conflicts within the Arab countries or even Saudi Arabia and Iran – the BJP’s bigotry managed to bring Riyadh and Tehran on the same page – are lost in the midst of such a cacophony.
By highlighting the diversity of views within its ranks and foregrounding its majoritarian ideology even in the midst of a governmental crisis, the Sangh parivar has effectively kept its majority support intact. In fact, the narrative that the “Hindu assertion” that Modi initiated under his leadership in 2014 faces the biggest threat from Islamists – both within and outside the country – has only hardened among supporters of Hindutva in the face of the ongoing backlash in the Islamic world.
The Sangh’s hardline campaign parivar and the calculated soft moves by the BJP both positioned the saffron party as the most dominant political force, if all aspects of electoral choice are taken into account.
The business-as-usual approach by the opposition has only helped the BJP cement its political dominance despite the massive damage it has caused to India’s democratic credentials internationally. This could have become an occasion when the opposition parties and civil society could have offered an alternative constitutional and secular nationalism to Indian people by contrasting it with the nationalism of the BJP. The occasion could also have been an apt moment to strike an emotional chord with people.
The opposition doesn’t tire of speaking about constitutional nationalism but may have missed one of the most significant moments in driving home its point. Only last month, the Congress in its much-touted Chintan Shivir spoke about its intention to reach people with its own brand of nationalism and contrast it with BJP’s “exclusionary and divisive” nationalism. But it has been lazy enough to let a crucial moment like this – when India is being cornered globally over the BJP’s bigoted politics – pass.
Over the past few years, we have seen spirited advocacy of constitutional nationalism during the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests and the year-long farmers’ agitation.
But the same civil society groups that held the flag of constitutional nationalism high during these protests resorted to casual, or faith-based, responses at a time when their vision of nationalism needed to have been effectively communicated.
Only one opposition voice, that of Telangana Rashtra Samithi scion K.T.Rama Rao, stood out in a string of uninspiring responses from the opposition.
The son of Telangana chief minister K. Chandrashekar Rao – ‘KTR’, as he is popularly called – unequivocally showcased his nationalist credentials by asking the prime minister a pointed question: why should India kneel in front of the international community for the sins of BJP’s spokespersons?
Modi Ji, Your silence was deafening & shocking when BJP MP Pragya Singh hailed assassination of Mahatma Gandhi
Let me remind you sir; What you permit is what you promote
The tacit support from top is what emboldened the bigotry & hatred that will cause irreparable loss to 🇮🇳 pic.twitter.com/VSgHd6P2Hh
— KTR (@KTRTRS) June 6, 2022
Barring KTR, no opposition leader attempted to build a political narrative that could have challenged BJP’s exclusionary nationalism. Rather than merely gloating over what is indeed a rare “told you so” moment, this was also an occasion for the opposition to speak in a united voice and present a convincing cultural and political alternative to the BJP.
If at all any opposition unity has to inspire Indian people ahead of 2024 Lok Sabha elections, it can be stitched together only in moments like these, and not when elections are around the corner.
By now, most opposition forces have realised that only by advancing an alternative vision of nationalism – one which the founders had espoused after independence but which was never really adhered to as a free India aged – can BJP’s brand be diminished. But more often than not, they are shamed by BJP’s political alertness.
History records how Mahatma Gandhi turned moments of crises for the British government into opportunities to supersede social contradictions like religion, caste and regional background that could have derailed the freedom struggle. On the basis of pure political acumen, he successfully mounted a pan-Indian, non-violent, and self-respecting nationalist movement. Opposition leaders, today, never fail to invoke him in their speeches, but none has shown even the slightest sign of emulating his political model to take on the Modi-led BJP that has contrastingly turned its exclusionary credentials into its biggest strength.