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LS polls: Opposition's attempt at polarising electorate challenges narrative of secular-communal divide

Azam Khan’s son has said that the Election Commission of India (ECI) punished his father because he is a Muslim. According to Abdullah, son of the Samajwadi Party leader who is contesting from Rampur constituency in Uttar Pradesh, Azam was banned for 72 hours from campaigning not because of his despicable comments against BJP candidate Jaya Prada, but because of his religion.

There are two things at work in the charge leveled by Azam's son. One is an obvious attempt to polarise the electorate to eke out maximum mileage from ECI’s penal action. The second is more nuanced. It is a barely concealed outrage at ECI’s audacity to punish his father for saying something in a political campaign. Azam, incidentally, is a repeat offender. He was barred from campaigning during 2014 Lok Sabha polls as well.

 LS polls: Oppositions attempt at polarising electorate challenges narrative of secular-communal divide

File image of Samajwadi Party leader Azam Khan. Getty Images

During a rally in Rampur, the SP leader, who had a bitter falling out with his one-time protégé Jaya Prada, said: “For 10 years the person sucked the blood of Rampur, I held that person’s finger and brought the person to Rampur. I made her familiar with the streets of Rampur. I didn’t let anyone touch her. No dirty words were used. You made the person your representative for 10 years. Hindustan waalon, uski asliyat samajhne main aapko satrah baras lag gaye (understanding the person’s real face you took 17 years). I realised in 17 days that the underwear beneath is of the khaki colour.”

Abdullah’s justification, that his father did not take any names or gender isn’t true. The ECI was compelled to act after the comments triggered nationwide outrage. Azam wasn’t the only one who faced the ECI's ire. The commission, using powers conferred to it under Article 324 of the Indian Constitution, also barred Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath from campaigning for 72 hours for his remarks on ‘Ali vs Bajrangabali’ and banned BSP chief Mayawati for 48 hours for urging Muslims to vote in favour of SP-BSP alliance. Another BJP leader, Maneka Gandhi, also faced similar action for her comments against Muslims.

But the reaction by the different political parties to these penal steps by the ECI tells us something about the secular-communal divide in Indian political discourse that is cast in stone.

According to this narrative, the Sangh Parivar and its political affiliate, the BJP, is the harbinger of communal politics in India that is a threat to India’s “secular fabric” painstakingly upheld by the Congress party and various other regional outfits. Every political discourse rests on this axiomatic assumption. From talking heads in studios to lengthy columns in print and digital space, podcasts to books, journals and scholarly articles, the iron rule in Indian politics has survived and is not open to questioning, even if there are ample reasons to do so.

Part of this has to do with the unbridled power that the Congress has enjoyed since Independence that has allowed the party to create sustainable structures to uphold its ecosystem even when it is out of power and remain in control of all avenues of mind space. The ecosystem is resilient, fiercely loyal and can launch perception wars by manipulating the narrative. It controls the setup in education system, civil society and media by denial-of-platform mechanism: not allowing any rival ideology to take root. Sanitised history of Indian Independence has been force fed to generations, carefully weeding out any alternative reading of India’s Independence and progress.

This elaborate structure is only now facing some sort of a pushback. Political power hasn’t changed hands for the first time, but even when Congress has been out of power the political dispensation at the Centre worked within the super structure built by the Congress: as Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s NDA did.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a rally in Kathua, Jammu and Kashmir. ANI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a rally in Kathua, Jammu and Kashmir. ANI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sought to challenge this super structure by bypassing it, and he has found an unlikely ally in his endeavour: technology. The advent of social media has given a voice to the ‘silent majority’ and democratised political discourse. Naturally, power brokers don't like it. The axiomatic assumptions are still there, chiefly because the alternative voice is not mature enough having been subjected to decades of denial, but it is growing.

In this context, let us now see how the parties have reacted. Azam sounded defiant and angry, suggesting that he never meant to disrespect Jaya, who won from Rampur as SP candidate in 2004 and 2009 before falling out with SP leadership. Azam has said he will give up contesting if charges are proven: an incredible attempt to claim the moral high ground.

Mayawati dragged the ECI to court and tried to file a plea against the poll panel in Supreme Court, but the judges would have none of it and refused to entertain her plea.

The Congress, interestingly, remained quiet all through. Though it is not part of the SP-BSP alliance, none of the Congress leaders took umbrage at Azam's comments, his son’s justification or Mayawati’s call to Muslims. On Tuesday, Punjab minister and Congress leader Navjyot Singh Sidhu asked Muslims in Bihar’s Katihar to stay united, not to split their votes and ensure BJP’s defeat and Modi’s ouster: “I am here to warn my Muslim brothers. They (BJP) are dividing you. By bringing people like (Asaduddin) Owaisi in here, by making a new party stand for elections, they want to divide your vote for winning. If you people unite and vote unitedly then everything will overturn and Modi will be finished… This will be a sixer. Hit such a sixer that Modi is sent out of the boundary.”

Sidhu’s reference was to Owaisi’s AIMIM party that, Congress fears, will eat into its Muslim vote bank and benefit the BJP. The ECI is looking at Sidhu’s comments and a police complaint has been filed against him.

On Wednesday, Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot took potshots at President Ram Nath Kovind. The Congress leader claimed Ram Nath Kovind was made president because of his caste, dragging the highest office of the land into the dirt of caste and community politics.

While one Congress leader — a chief minister — demeans the constitutional head of India, his party colleague urges Muslims to vote out BJP. Elsewhere, BSP chief Mayawati plays the same game while alliance partner SP’s candidate and his son reinforce the communal divide. The BJP is guilty of the same crime, but the reaction of the parties has been vastly different.

If anything, the Congress and other Opposition parties have been more brazen in their approach to polarise the electorate on communal lines. If appealing to caste and communities are a violation of model code of conduct, then the ECI would be found sorely wanting because for every violation that is reported, 10 others are not and the commission seems to be sorely lacking in will and ability to check the menace that will become more acute as the campaign reaches its final stages.

The final point is about the secular-communal narrative. All parties, irrespective of ideology, are playing the same game. Instead of pointing fingers at one, it would be worthwhile looking at the system that encourages such behaviour from politicians. Outdated definitions must be challenged.

Your guide to the latest election news, analysis, commentary, live updates and schedule for Lok Sabha Elections 2019 on firstpost.com/elections. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram or like our Facebook page for updates from all 543 constituencies for the upcoming general elections.

Updated Date: Apr 17, 2019 23:42:26 IST

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