The unconscionable lynching to death of Mohammed Akhlaq in Dadri over rumours of alleged beef consumption is likely to haunt the BJP and the Modi government for a long time. It is not going to become a non-issue just because the home ministry has issued a statement expressing "concern" over "incidents with communal overtones" across the country, "including the recent unfortunate incident at Dadri, UP."
Asking states to show "zero tolerance" towards such incidents is obviously the right thing to do, but it simply won't do the BJP and its government's "communal" image any good. The Modi government needs to internalise two important facts of life in a media-saturated world: perceptions are reality; and once formed, perceptions are almost impossible to change in a hurry. It has to build its politics by recognising these two points as a given.
Brain psychologists tell us that human beings take just seconds to form an impression about people they meet - and impressions are difficult to change once formed. So first impressions are often our last. This kind of stereotyping was essential to human survival in the distant past, when the ability to distinguish between friend and foe, predator and prey was needed to trigger a fight or flight response.
Just as human first impressions tend to linger long after events prove our judgments to be wrong, political parties and organisations too benefit or lose out from people having developed initial perceptions about them. The BJP is thus stuck with the "communal" label, whether it likes it or not, and regardless of its actual acts of communalism or otherwise.
"Facts" do not matter much for perceptions, for people and media tend to fit the "facts" to support existing perceptions rather than change perceptions depending on where the facts point.
This is why the same incident will be viewed differently depending on when - or under whose watch - it happens. A Dadri incident, if it had happened during a Congress regime, would have been treated as an aberration; during BJP rule it will be treated as a vile act that the BJP is directly responsible for even if it happens in a state ruled by a "secular" party like the Samajwadi Party.
"Church incidents" become "church attacks" during BJP rule, but similar "attacks" on Hindu temples - even 20 times the number of church attacks - will be seen as just random events. 2002 will be seen as a major communal riot because it happened under Modi. But an even bigger riot of 1969 gets a footnote in history, for the BJP didn't exist then. A massacre of Sikhs in 1984 or an Assam communal killing in 2013 will be seen as regrettable but not symptomatic of Congress politics because Congress owns the label "secularism".
One can rail against a biased media, but media is made up of human beings subject to the same perception biases as individuals. This is why a New York Times - reportedly a paper devoted to fair journalism - can get away by choosing persons with the "right biases" against the Modi government to write coloured pieces that are a blot on fair journalism. But the reverse is also true: try reading a Sangh parivar-leaning journal and see how much fairness you get about reporting on the minorities or issues that it considers core to its ideology. Fairness is not a trait human beings exhibit consistently. It exists only when a person has no stake in an event, or someone invested with an unusual amount of conscience.
It's also worth noting that the Indian English media ecosystem has been cultivated over decades by the Congress-Left political dispensation, and is thus more likely to accept long-term perceptions about the BJP and Narendra Modi than what the government would like it to believe.
Perception biases take a very long time to correct, and political parties are not creatures of the long-term.
This is not in any way to suggest that the BJP and the Sangh do not have people who are bigoted and deserve to be put behind bars or banned from making stupid statements of the kind put out by Sakshi Maharaj, Mahesh Sharma or Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti. Public perceptions are not formed in a vacuum - they have some basis in reality.
The problem is perceptions cut both ways: they help as much as they hinder. Take a simple issue like the beef ban. While all liberals will be shocked that a modern party can espouse such illiberal ideas, the same illiberal ideas also appeal to a conservative group within society. The tag "communal" helps the BJP garner some votes from people for whom a Hindu identity matters, just as the "secular" label helps the Congress and some regional parties win minority votes even though "secular" and "communal" parties have the same kinds of people in them. The difference is only the label on the bottle.
The BJP should not forget Kargil and Kandahar. Even though these were its failures (intelligence failure and mishandling of a hijack) it could emerge without a stain from them because the BJP is also perceived to be "nationalist". Lapses in its nationalist credentials are treated as aberrations.
The Congress, despite being the original party of nationalism, has lost this label. It is also clear that the Manmohan Singh regime mishandled the Italian marines issue precisely because it felt handicapped by being perceived as being run by an Italian-born person. The Italian label has stuck to Sonia Gandhi despite her living as an Indian for decades. Perceptions linger despite our best efforts.
The bottomline is simple: If the Modi government wants to change perceptions about itself, it has to show a long-term commitment to it, and also be prepared to steadily abandon its base among sections of conservative Hindus. This is a tall order, for it means the party having to give up the bird in hand for two in the bush.
Just as Rahul Gandhi is not going to earn the "communal" Hindu vote by occasionally surfacing in Kedarnath and claiming he felt "fire-like" energy at the temple there, Modi is not going to be viewed as "secular" by talking in general about "sabka saath, sabka vikas", or even by meeting groups of Muslims here and there assuming them or fair treatment. It took him 10 years to wash off the 2002 stain, and even now it is not entirely gone.
Perceptions change only over the long-term, and they require hard work and a willingness to lose what you gain from your current perceptions. Is Modi ready for the hard slog?
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Updated Date: Oct 07, 2015 09:14:20 IST