It’s a game of wits between a rabble-rousing TV host and a genteel chief minister. This isn’t an ordinary game. Who wins this round will have deep, longstanding repercussions on the future of the Shiv Sena-led coalition government in Maharashtra.
Republic TV’s Arnab Goswami is daring the Uddhav Thackeray government: do you have the guts to take me on? This dare has to be seen in the context of the BJP’s goals in the state.
For all its alleged Chanakyaniti, the BJP was defeated in the post-election games in Maharashtra. Despite being the single largest party, and doing everything it could, including waking up the President of India at 5 am, it lost the plot to Shiv Sena, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Congress. Uddhav Thackeray became chief minister.
Not having a BJP CM in any state is unacceptable to home minister Amit Shah. The humiliation of losing Maharashtra to a rag-tag post-poll coalition is worse. To be outfoxed by a nice Uddhav Thackeray, an ageing Sharad Pawar and a comatose Congress is not something Amit Shah is going to forget.
The BJP is itching to gain power back in Maharashtra. And before it can mount a coup, it has to do everything to can to weaken and delegitimise the Uddhav Thackeray government.
Arnab Goswami’s dare to Uddhav Thackeray has to be seen in this light.
An attack dog
Founded in 2017, the Goswami-led Republic TV was incubated by Rajiv Chandrasekhar, a Bengaluru politician and entrepreneur who was at the time associated with the BJP-led NDA coalition. He has since resigned as Republic TV director, and has been rewarded with a Rajya Sabha seat and is now a member of the BJP.
Day in and day out, Republic TV, on its English and Hindi channels, acts as an attack dog of the BJP on the opposition, liberals, and just about anybody who is critical of the BJP or its majoritarian, anti-minority agenda. In other words, Republic TV is a weapon in the hands of the BJP.
To be fair, it is not the only channel to be thus deployed. There are way too many. But Republic TV is a leading light, especially given that vast amounts of money must have been poured in the distribution game to give its English Channel high TRP ratings. As various channels compete for high ratings and access to the Narendra Modi government, they keep going down the rabbit hole of peddling majoritarian hate to impress the masters in Lutyens’ Delhi.
Arnab, the BJP weapon
Arnab, the BJP weapon, is being used now to singularly target Uddhav Thackeray, to destabilise and delegitimise his government. The praise that Uddhav Thackeray has been winning as a balanced, serious, governance-oriented chief minister is clearly not going down well with the BJP. Bringing down Uddhav Thackeray is an important BJP project, and Arnab seems to be part of that strategy.
In allying with the NCP and the Congress, Shiv Sena has given up on anti-Muslim politics, and is limiting itself to non-violent Marathi identity politics. Creating communal tensions in Maharashtra is thus key to making life difficult for Uddhav Thackeray. It is meant to force him into taking a ‘secular’ position that weakens his position before the Shiv Sena cadres. Furthermore, the resulting Hindu-Muslim polarisation will help the BJP gain ground.
It is this desperation to communalise the political discourse in Maharashtra that the lynching of two sadhus and their driver in Palghar by a tribal mob (‘of the same faith as the attacked’) was immediately given a Hindu-Muslim angle by the formidable BJP-allied troll armies. When the salivating communal vultures were silenced by a mature video put out by Uddhav Thackeray, Arnab Goswami went in another direction: Why is Sonia Gandhi silent? What if the victim had been Muslim? Whataboutery, the favourite weapon of the Muslim-bashing hate-mongers.
Just before this, we had seen Arnab Goswami communalise the gathering of migrant labourers at Bandra railway station. He had asked: Why did they gather before the Jama Masjid of Bandra?
Uddhav Thackeray’s Catch-22 situation
If Uddhav Thackeray goes after Arnab Goswami, it may be a victory for Arnab Goswami and the anti-Muslim at large. They can’t play victim over the death of two Sadhus (because the killers weren’t Muslim), so they’ll play victim over Arnab Goswami. The biggest enemies of free speech will suddenly start talking about press freedom.
The personalised attack on Sonia Gandhi is also a way of creating tensions between allies Shiv Sena and Congress. The Congress may want Uddhav to turn the heat on Arnab, and Arnab will thus get to play martyr. Already, he’s won round one of this game with alleged Congress hooligans chasing his car and attacking it. And he has already blamed Sonia Gandhi personally for it.
If Uddhav chooses to look the other way and let Arnab carry on with his inflammatory speeches in the name of press freedom, it will make Uddhav look weak. It will again establish the supremacy of majoritarian hate politics that the chief minister has disowned.
In politics, perception is reality. And power has its own logic regardless of anything else. If you look weak, the balance of power tilts against you. If Uddhav Thackeray doesn’t act against Arnab Goswami, he will be bowing before his dare. Arnab Goswami, the BJP and majoritarian hate politics will have won.
There are enough and more grounds to take strong legal action against Arnab: the potential breach of peace his speeches could cause; causing enmity between communities; spreading rumours that could cause panic during an epidemic. These are all violations of laws in force. And taking legal action against Arnab Goswami on these grounds would be legally valid. The spirit of the law demands so.
Appeasement hasn’t been working
From driving M.F. Husain out with legal harassment to summoning The Wire editor Siddharth Varadarajan to a police station in Ayodhya during a lockdown, majoritarian forces regularly use legal harassment as means to silence their critics. By contrast, liberal leaders in power rarely ever use the law against communal hate mongers. Thanks to this inequality, majoritarian hate-mongering carries on with impunity.
Arnab Goswami, for instance, seems to be pretty sure Uddhav Thackeray won’t have the guts to take legal action against him. At the most, a few FIRs and running around police stations or courts, all of which he’ll turn into a spectacle to his own advantage. In the worst-case scenario, Lutyens’ Delhi will save him.
Liberal leaders and governments have been practising a policy of appeasement before the majoritarian Right. They are afraid that taking on the monster head-on could make it bigger. But look how the monster keeps growing ever bigger despite this policy of appeasement. Majoritarian forces thrive on appeasement from the other side because the public can see the appeasement is coming from weakness, not strength.
Uddhav Thackeray needs the courage to look the monster in the eye, or be devoured by it.
The author is contributing editor to ThePrint. Views are personal.
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