In its eight years in office, the BJP has walked two tightropes. The first is its position on India’s Muslim population. As BJP supporters in the media proudly tell us, the party can win elections even if a single Muslim does not vote for it. Moreover, it may actually win more votes if it stokes anti-Muslim feelings and communalises the Hindu electorate.
So, the Sangh Parivar has no hesitation about attacking Muslims. Of course, these attacks are usually left to trolls and the so-called lunatic ‘fringe’. But just so that we know where the attacks are really coming from, the BJP and its spokespersons find coded ways of winking at these attacks.
During the Narendra Modi government’s first term, the chosen strategy was to attack Kashmiris and Pakistanis, who became the centrepieces of TV debates where BJP spokespeople foamed at the mouth. That approach has now run out of steam so a new strategy has evolved.
The spokespeople and party functionaries will still not directly attack Muslims. Instead, they will attack ‘invaders’. For centuries, they will declaim, Hindus have been oppressed and humiliated by Muslim conquerors. Hindu temples have been destroyed, Hindu gods have been insulted, etc.
Attack history, other Muslims
The invocation of historical wrongs does not emerge out of any real interest in history. It is simply a way of reminding Hindus that Muslims are really not as Indian as them. Muslims are the descendants of invaders. The only way they can prove their Indianness is if they condemn these invaders and offer reparations. They should open up their mosques for inspection and, if Hindus so decide, they should give them up so that they can be turned into temples.
Further, Muslims should surrender their heritage, agree that monuments built by Muslim rulers are evidence of oppression of Hindus, and they should applaud as BJP governments systematically change the name of every city that has a Muslim connection.
All this is intended to ‘other’ Muslims, to make them feel that they are descendants of terrible people and that they must make it up to Hindus.
Because the government stops short of actually attacking today’s Muslims – choosing instead to abuse Aurangzeb and other historical figures – it can claim that it is not anti-Muslim. All it is doing is righting the wrongs of the past.
This is not always convincing and it is clear that the BJP’s real concerns are not with history but with the present day. But it walks the tightrope between attacking historical Muslims while avoiding commenting on today’s Muslims or Islam itself.
Unfortunately for the BJP, not all of its spokespeople are as skilled tightrope walkers as its senior leaders. And so, two of its spokespeople recently fell off the tightrope, letting the mask slip and allowing their contempt for Islam to go on display.
Even when it should have been clear that this was a mistake, the BJP did not backtrack. Instead, it criticised the threats that these spokespeople faced (which were disgraceful and deserve to be condemned by everyone) while remaining silent about the original provocation by the Nupur Sharmas and Naveen Jindals.
No longer ‘internal affairs’
The second tightrope is the more difficult one to master. While there have been global criticisms of India’s attitude to religious minorities, the skill of our diplomats has seen to it that the Muslim world has not made any official protests.
There are sound diplomatic reasons for this. Assume, for the purposes of argument, that Saudi Arabia or Iran or Qatar is upset about coded attacks on Indian Muslims. They still cannot really object or comment because these are India’s internal affairs, areas in which no other nation has a right to object.
So, Prime Minister Modi has been able to brag that the Congress resents that his government has excellent relations with the Islamic world. The subtext is: If we were anti-Muslim, then why would Muslim countries be our friends?
Unfortunately, once you go beyond attacking Aurangzeb and lynching poor Muslims for allegedly eating beef and go on to attack Islam and the Prophet himself, you lose the right to claim that these are India’s internal affairs. And because of the naked hatred that its spokespersons displayed, the government fell off that second tightrope as well.
Hence, the current mess, the drastic action against the spokespeople, and the idiotic statements from embassies describing official spokespeople of the ruling party as ‘fringe elements’.
Can BJP change its colours?
So far, Islamic countries have suggested that they will move on once this storm has passed. But there is no doubt that they will be watching closely. India’s attitude to Islam and Muslims will no longer be treated as just another internal affair. Which is worrying for New Delhi because so many Indians live and work in the Middle East and our trade relations with the region are important to the economy.
So, what happens now? Does the BJP clamber back onto its two tightropes? Or will there be a fundamental rethink of the party’s attitude to TV news channels, which it currently treats like trashy social media, despatching nasty troll-like spokespersons of no political consequence to represent its point of view?
That’s not clear yet. But what seems likely is that any change will be strategic, not fundamental.
The BJP has come too far to change its basic message.
The author is a print and television journalist, and talk show host. He tweets at @virsanghvi. Views are personal.