At a recent rally in Maharashtra’s Wardha, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took to the stage to publicly decry Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s decision to contest from Wayanad in Kerala, by suggesting that he was “running away from majority-dominated areas” to “take refuge in areas where the majority is in minority”. Inspired, his colleagues were quick to parrot their leader’s line with BJP president Amit Shah calling Wayanad a place ‘where when a procession is taken out, you cannot make out whether it is India or Pakistan’ and Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath remarking that the Congress believes that ‘Ali (Prophet Mohammed’s son-in-law) will help them in the polls…..but we think that Bajarang Bali (Lord Hanuman) will help us’.
Not that this is the first instance where Modi has targeted the Congress president or the party in such a manner. At an earlier stage when he publicly derided Rahul Gandhi, then vice president of the party, as a princeling, he did not use the Hindi term ‘Rajkumar’, preferring the Persian and Urdu ‘Shehzada’ instead, as if to further damn Gandhi by association with Islamic terminology. When Rahul Gandhi was appointed as party president in December 2017, Modi insinuated that his appointment would mark the beginning of an ‘Aurangzeb Raj’ in the party.
More frequently, Modi has not shied away from labelling the Congress as a party of ‘Muslim men’ (and also an ‘anti-Hindu’ party) and has on multiple occasions reiterated his hollow accusation of ‘minority appeasement’ that he so often mocks the Congress for.
To be sure, Modi’s deplorable obsession with peddling this divisive cocktail of communal messaging is not a new trend and has been documented several times in the last decade. But it is still remarkable how pronounced his bigotry gets when an election is around the corner.
In the immediate aftermath of the 2002 Godhra riots, when the state went into elections, as the BJP’s CM candidate, Modi openly suggested that there was an active collaboration between Muslims in Gujarat and Pakistani chief ‘Mian’ Musharraf. Then in September, while campaigning during his Gujarat Gaurav Yatra, on the note of family planning, Modi mocked Muslims in his state with his ‘hum paanch, hamaare pachees’ comment—suggesting that Muslims were out to multiply their numbers to reverse their minority status in the state. In the 2009 and the 2017 campaigns, the ‘Mian’ barb was resurrected, this time as ‘Ahmed Mian’, a reference to the faith of Congress leader Ahmed Patel. As recently as last week, at a rally in Kathua, Modi attacked Jammu and Kashmir’s former chief ministers thus: “I will not allow the Abdullahs and the Muftis to divide the country.”
Even constitutional authorities have not been spared: Modi has not previously demurred from targeting the Election Commission of India itself. In the 2002 campaign, when the EC, wary of the communal tensions in the state, refused Modi’s call for early elections, as the CM, the latter launched a barely veiled tirade against then Chief Election Commissioner J.M Lyngdoh, highlighting his Christian background and suggesting that he was favouring minorities in the state by not calling for early state elections, prompting a sharp dressing down from his own party colleague and then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
This is not just a diatribe about how Modi and his BJP have lowered the level of political discourse in India; it is to point out how exactly they do it. In cricket nowadays, the umpires use a “soft signal” when they are unsure of a verdict on an appeal but want to convey to the TV umpire what they really think. This is exactly what Modi is up to: he actively signals his bigotry to his base without necessarily being overt about his distaste for minorities.
During the 2015 Bihar assembly elections, there was his exhortation not to vote for the RJD, twisting its leader Lalu Prasad’s words to say he had ‘insulted Yaduvanshis’ by calling them ‘beef-eaters’. Two years later, in Uttar Pradesh, there was his ‘kabristan-shamshaan’ comment and his ‘if there is electricity during Ramzaan there should be electricity during Diwali’ (innocuous enough till one recognises the implicit communal message packaged within). In the same year, during the 2017 Gujarat assembly elections, Modi repeatedly accused his predecessor Manmohan Singh and former Vice President Hamid Ansari of colluding with Pakistan with the aim of defeating the BJP in the polls. Both statements were designed with the specific intent of polarising the electorate prior to the elections. In 2018, in the midst of the Karnataka state elections, Modi hit out at the Congress’ ‘celebration of the jayantis of Sultans’, a reference to the celebration of Tipu Jayanti in the state.
This brings us to the foundational paradox of Narendra Modi that I have documented extensively in my own book, The Paradoxical Prime Minister. It is striking that the Modi who assured a gathering of Muslim leaders in 2015 that even if they were to knock on his doors at midnight, he would respond, is the same Modi who refuses to wear a Muslim skullcap when one is presented to him (while cheerfully donning all manner of exotic headgear wherever he goes). Silence is also a weapon of soft-signalling: when he refuses to condemn instances of communal violence, he implicitly condones it.
The Modi who has effusively embraced Muslim heads of state in the Arab world, is the same Modi who keeps Indian Muslims at arm’s length. Never before 2014 had a political party in India won a majority at the Centre without a single Muslim representing it in the Lok Sabha, till Modi’s BJP achieved that dubious distinction. This was all the more astonishing in that 71 of its seats in the Lower House came from Uttar Pradesh, where nearly a fifth of the state’s population are Muslims. The very fact that the BJP finds itself unable to put up electable Muslim candidates in any constituency speaks volumes about the party’s attitude to Muslims and of the attitudes of Indian Muslims to it—as well as of the views of its core voters, whose bigotry would not predispose them to vote for a Muslim, not even one contesting on their own party’s symbol.
Modi needs to stop this divisive and infantile practice. The incumbent of – and again aspirant for — the country’s top post must be above such bigotry. As Rahul Gandhi has shown he understands, his language should demonstrate an appreciation that a Prime Minister of India must be a leader of all Indians and not one with an ostentatiously-displayed blind spot for certain minorities. Our country deserves better than the BJP’s torch bearer for bigotry that Modi has become, a position from where he has sadly lost the moral integrity to lead this nation.
Dr Shashi Tharoor 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 18 books, both fiction and non-fiction; his most recent book is The Paradoxical Prime Minister. Follow him on Twitter @ShashiTharoor. Views are personal.