Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his first electoral foray in Chhattisgarh Friday, attacking ‘urban Maoists’ and the main Opposition party, the Congress, at a rally in Jagdalpur, the headquarters of insurgency-hit Bastar district. That sounds unexceptionable. It isn’t, because what Modi said undermined some of the fundamental conventions of democracy.
Modi was unsparing when he referred to the ‘urban Maoists’, breaking into English to use this phrase in a speech otherwise delivered in Hindi. Though he did not mention anyone by name, he made it pretty obvious that the context he had in mind was the arrest of civil society activists in two batches during this year. He told his audience that these supposedly clandestine Maoists destroyed the lives of tribal children by operating a remote control though they appeared to be sensible, lived clean ‘air-conditioned’ lives, drove big cars and sent their children abroad to pursue their studies.
He was equally scathing about the Congress. This party should not be forgiven, he declaimed with what has become signature theatricality, because they supported the ‘urban Maoists’; whenever the government took action against them, the Congress sprang up in their defence.
Let us examine these wholly fanciful charges, without prejudice. To begin with, it is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Sangh parivar, more generally, and their fellow travellers who have coined this suggestively misleading (actually untruthful) phrase to describe activists, and others, who work closely for the uplift of tribal people, and to protect their rights, against a system, consisting of politicians, across parties, bureaucrats and entrepreneurs, who engage in their systematic rapine, to exploit the natural resources, mostly minerals and forest resources, that abound in the lands they live in.
These supposed Maoists rarely live five-star lives, certainly none of the 10 targeted this year as cogs in the CPI (Maoist) machine. In fact, all of them inhabit a terrain on the opposite end of the spectrum. They lead simple lives and have experienced deprivation even though many of them could have lived fancy lives. One is reminded also of the arrest, in 2007, and incarceration of Dr Binayak Sen for two years on charges of sedition by the Chhattisgarh government until granted bail by the Supreme Court.
With his qualifications, Sen could indeed have led a pretty fancy life as a paediatrician but chose to work with the tribal people of Chhattisgarh. His work was internationally recognised, including by the Madhya Pradesh government, which adopted a public-health system designed and operated by a group of people led by him.
The point is not entirely Modi’s decision to so obviously peddle an untruth. It also lies in the fact that it is entirely unbecoming of a prime minister to step into such disputatious territory when no charges have been proved, and in some cases even formally made out, against the accused or impugned, depending on your political vantage. If nothing else, it could well have the effect of vitiating proceedings against people who must be deemed, as matters now stand, innocent.
The charges against the Congress are equally ‘trumped up’. There is not even a scintilla of evidence that the party supports Maoist insurgents unless you count the statements issued by the party’s president, Rahul Gandhi, and other leaders protesting the draconian measures undertaken by BJP governments to stifle dissent in any form. It would be wholly contextual to recall Rahul’s ironical comment, made in August when five activists were held by the Maharashtra police in coordinated dawn raids in several cities spread over various states, to the effect that there was room for only one NGO in India: the RSS. There was so much of truth in that statement that it stung, provoking the usual hysterical reactions from the BJP.
The point is that such verbal protests cannot be construed as constituting support for the Maoists, unless one has a taste for pretty bizarre logical calisthenics. As a matter of fact, the Congress is as anti-Maoist, and anti-tribal people, as the BJP. A Congress leader, Mahendra Karma, was, in fact, responsible for forming the Salwa Judum group of vigilantes to take on the Maoists in 2005. The group was disbanded following a Supreme Court order passed in 2011, declaring it illegal and unconstitutional. Karma was assassinated by Naxals in 2013. The record will show that Congress leaders have suffered more at the hands of Maoists than those of the BJP.
There's more. While accusing the Congress of sabotaging the process of tribal uplift, Modi also claimed that only his party was committed to serving tribal people, while the Congress was interested only in dehumanising the underprivileged and poor by using them as vote banks, the nauseatingly familiar rhetorical charge deployed by the BJP in a variety of contexts. He also claimed that his government had done more in four-and-a-half year than what two previous, United Progressive Alliance governments had in ten years. This absurd claim overlooks, of course, the obvious fact that a BJP government has been in place in Chhattisgarh for 15 years, during which time, including in the last five years, there has been no perceptible improvement in the condition of tribal people. If anything, the incursions into and depredations on their lands and lives have intensified.
A common thread ties all these elements in Modi’s speech and make them consistent and comprehensible. This thread is woven from the unreconstructed desire and willingness of BJP leaders, in both the party and government, to stretch and manipulate facts to suit themselves without the slightest concern for their ‘truth value’. The duopoly comprising Modi and BJP president Amit Shah have put in place an institutional framework and promoted a political culture—one has to admit with singular, ruthless and frightening success—in which all that matters is winning elections and thereafter monopolising power, when the need arises by subverting every institution, convention and law available for manipulation.
This is a problem in and by itself. What makes this unifocal political frame of reference ineluctably dangerous is the contribution of people who hold important, sometimes constitutional, positions to make it work. When the prime minister bends his energies towards this end, democracy, however otherwise flawed, is irretrievably compromised. It is most alarming (unfortunate, in this context, would be too anodyne a description) that Modi, as prime minister, should systematically work towards engineering and embracing a system whose proximate objective and likely end is the destruction of liberal, constitutional democracy.
Perhaps such lamentation is pointless. It is widely known after all that the precise aim of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar that undergirds and nourishes it is the unmaking of all forms of liberal politics and the inauguration of a ‘golden age’ of majoritarian authoritarianism in which dissentient voices will be silenced: once and forever.
Updated Date: Nov 10, 2018 19:56 PM