What ‘teaching a lesson’ in Gujarat means

Bharat Bhushan

Union Home Minister Amit Shah pressed the “refresh” button on the Gujarat communal riots of 2002 in his campaign speeches in the state. In several public meetings – at Deesa (Banaskantha district), Mahuda (Kheda), Vagra (Bharuch) and Naroda (Ahmedabad) – Shah claimed that those responsible for the riots in 2002 had been “taught a lesson” and “akhand shanti” (eternal peace) established in Gujarat by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

“Nobody has the courage to indulge in communal riots now,” he declared with finality at Naroda while campaigning for party candidate Payal Kukrani, the daughter of 2002 Naroda Patiya massacre convict Manoj Kukrani who was awarded life imprisonment and is out on bail currently.

Clearly, the BJP and its supporters are not shy about their alleged role in the riots. Shah had no hesitation in telling voters in Vagra, which has a significant Muslim population, “This land has seen a lot of communal riots – curfew and stabbings. … In 2002, these people at last showed courage. Isn’t that so? One by one, they were sorted and put in jail. It has been 22 years and not once was there a need to impose curfew.” He is praising people who showed “courage” and those who “sorted” out a target group “one by one”.

Why does the BJP compulsively turn to dog-whistle politics of the threat from minorities after ruling the state for 27 years? Fear-mongering by no less than the Union home minister of India cannot be dismissed as election season hyperbole.

Fear as a motif is central to the political narrative of the BJP today. It is the key to control and consolidation of political power. Its efficacy, both for electoral mobilisation and for everyday governance under the current dispensation, cannot be overemphasised.

During elections, the BJP uses fear as a failsafe option to make voters think as a community or a group and polarises them away from the Opposition. The national security paradigm is another device to herd voters behind the BJP, which is projected as the last line of defence between a secure India and its perceived enemies. This is especially useful when the economy, social cohesion, and employment prospects may not be sufficient to enthuse voters.

That is why Pakistan (equated with both terrorism and Islam) has become the leitmotif of the BJP under Prime Minister Modi in all his election campaigns, with the border state of Gujarat being no exception. In 2017 a fake narrative was launched in the Gujarat assembly polls that Pakistan wanted Ahmad Patel as Chief Minister of Gujarat. This time around, a Central minister, Kailash Choudhary, has claimed that Pakistan wants BJP’s defeat and a Congress government in Gujarat – as if Pakistan does not have enough governance woes of itself to want to focus on the state’s elections.

Protecting national security is Prime Minister Modi’s theme, whether he is referring in his election speeches to the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, the Pulwama terrorist strike and India’s ‘retaliation’ by airstrikes over Balakot in Pakistan or even demonetisation. It is not too far back to recall that Prime Minister Modi solicited votes in the 2019 general elections in the name of soldiers, telling first-time voters, “Can your first vote be dedicated to the veer shaheed (brave martyrs) of Pulwama (terror attack)?” Unfortunately, this time the BJP cannot ask for votes in the name of the Indian soldiers bludgeoned to death by the Chinese at Galwan in Ladakh because the chinks in the national security armour against a much stronger enemy would become all too apparent.

Love and affection of the people are not what the BJP leadership seeks. One cannot imagine its top leaders being referred to with relatable and affectionate honorifics given to Jawaharlal Nehru (Chacha Nehru), Lal Bahadur Shastri (Mama Shastri), Indira Gandhi (Indira Amma), Tau (Chaudhary Devi Lal) or even Bapu (Mahatma Gandhi). Fear and affection do not usually go together.

The state’s instruments of intimidation deal with political opponents. Media investigations show that there was a sharp rise in the number of cases filed by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) against Opposition leaders since the BJP assumed power in 2014 – of the 121 political leaders who came under the ED’s scanner since then, 95 per cent (115) were from the Opposition. Contrast this with the agency’s record under the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government between 2004 and 2014, when only 26 investigations were launched against political leaders, including 14 from the Opposition. In the case of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), 124 political leaders came under its lens since 2014, and 95 per cent of them (118) were from the Opposition. The BJP, however, chooses to draw a different and somewhat incredulous conclusion from this data –that the present government is harsh on political corruption.

It is no longer Opposition politicians, uncompromising political dissenters or grassroots NGOs who face the stick from the government under a raft of non-bailable laws; the media and corporate world are also fearful. Last week Indians witnessed the embarrassing spectacle of a media baron abjectly singing paeans of praise for a leading minister. Was it a coincidence that this show of sycophancy coincided with reports of a takeover bid on his media empire by one of the country’s leading businessmen? It is not surprising that corporates with shaky finances are fearful of the future at a time when political leverage seems crucial in swinging the acquisition of companies and infrastructural projects by the regime’s cronies.

Over the last eight years, inducing fear has become the defining characteristic of the BJP’s political messaging. This can feed voter paranoia and put electoral adversaries at a disadvantage by projecting them as the fount of conspiracies. Therefore, what is being said in the election campaign in Gujarat flows from this larger approach – of using fear to maintain political power.