Anything you say on Ram Janmabhoomi, triple talaq, Sabarimala, or Pakistan can and will be used against you by BJP to polarize the electorate on communal lines.
We are blessed with a ruling party today that believes in the power of the Big Lie – the Goebbelsian formulation that a lie can go halfway around the world before the truth can put its boots on. I have been a favoured target of the technique: I say something, my words are twisted or deliberately distorted, and the resultant straw man is assailed by a phalanx of spokespeople, party leaders and even ministers. And an obliging media gives their falsehoods a field day.
It happened again this week, after I had spoken at the Hindu’s LitLive festival in a dialogue with the cerebral Gopalkrishna Gandhi. In response to a question on Ayodhya from a gentleman who appeared to be a Hindutva supporter – and therefore someone who needed a direct response – I said: “As a Hindu, obviously, I am conscious that a vast majority of my fellow Hindus believe that that was the specific birthplace of Ram. For this reason, most good Hindus would want to see a Ram temple at the site where Ram was supposed to be born. But I also believe that no good Hindu would have wanted that a temple be built by demolishing somebody else’s place of worship.”
These words – which can be checked against a video recording of the event — were promptly twisted by the BJP into a false claim that I had divided my co-religionists into “good Hindus” and “bad Hindus” and asserted, absurdly, that good Hindus did not want a Ram temple at Ayodhya. I had manifestly said no such thing.
The mass hysteria that followed, with no fewer than nine television anchors devoting their evening discussions (and the best part of their days) to this completely fraudulent “controversy”, could only have happened in the debased environment that passes for news in India. The BJP knew what they were doing: they were using the Big Lie to attack the Congress party in the lead up to the Assembly elections in three Hindi-heartland states where the Ayodhya issue was expected to have an emotive appeal.
This is why, though I stand by my words, I now realise that in today’s India I should never have uttered them. Our media climate is one in which truth is no defence. It no longer matters what you say, or what you intend; it only matters what your political enemies can claim they heard. If your words can be twisted to mean the opposite of what you said, so much the better. People can then be whipped up into that much more of a frenzy against you.
The cynicism of the BJP’s attempts to polarize the electorate on communal lines means that anything you say on Ram Janmabhoomi, triple talaq, Sabarimala, or Pakistan can and will be used against you to further their divisive agenda. And the media, driven by an unprincipled and unethical quest for TRPs and traffic, will all too willingly be complicit in serving the ruling party’s malicious ends.
It makes no difference to the BJP that I was echoing what their own leaders had said at the time of the demolition of the Babri Masjid. L. K. Advani wrote that “It was the saddest day in my life… I have seldom felt as dejected and downcast as I felt that day.”
Atal Bihari Vajpayee, declaring “I am upset,” said in parliament that the “Ram Temple should not be constructed by deceit and trickery.” He exhorted those who had participated in the demolition to come forward, take responsibility for their actions and face the consequences. Advani spoke for both when he explained that “We in the BJP had all along declared that our goal was to construct the Ram Temple at Ramjanmbhoomi after respectfully relocating the mosque structure and that we would like to achieve this either by the due process of law or through an amicable settlement between the Hindu and Muslim communities.” We all know that is not what happened. Are Advani and Vajpayee not “good Hindus” to those BJP spokespeople and TV anchors who frothed at the mouth all day Monday?
Indeed, Vajpayee had put my case best in a famous poem extolling his pride in being a Hindu, which ended with these lines:
कोई बतलाए काबुल मे जाकर कितनी मस्जिद तोडी?
भूभाग नहीं, शत–शत मानव के हृदय जीतने का निश्चय।
हिन्दू तन–मन, हिन्दू जीवन, रग–रग हिन्दू मेरा परिचय!
[How many temples did we go to Kabul to destroy? We never sought territory, only wanted to win humanity’s hearts and minds. That’s the Hinduism I recognize.]
If Atal Bihari Vajpayee had heard those claiming to speak for the party he had sought to build as the epitome of much that is good about Hinduism, he would have realised there is no place in today’s India for the values and ethics of which he was so proud.
So, I should not have spoken. I should have recognized that our political discourse has been coarsened by opportunistic popular media to a point where constructive comment is whipped up into a “controversy” to increase ratings, with scant regard for the truth. We have become a democracy where well-meaning friends and well-wishers tell me I should not speak because I will never get a fair hearing. My words, they say, will be twisted to hurt the Party I serve, and thereby the values and principles I am in politics to protect. I lament that this is what democratic debate has been reduced to – and that I have given unprincipled and cynical politicians an opportunity to trash it, and me, once more.
The author is a Member of Parliament for Thiruvananthapuram and former MoS for External Affairs and HRD. He served the UN as an administrator and peacekeeper for three decades. He studied history at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University, and International Relations at Tufts University. Tharoor has authored 17 books, both fiction and non-fiction; his most recent book is ‘Why I am a Hindu’. Follow him on Twitter @ShashiTharoor.
For ThePrint's smart analysis of how the rest of the media is doing its job, no holds barred, go to PluggedIn.