The politics of the prejudiced

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Published: Tuesday, 20th November 2018

Sharad Yadav has put it rather well. In an interview to PTI, he said the Prime Minister is chasing the Congress with a lathi day in and day out rather than working to keep the promises he offered to the electorate. There is (or was) a lot to beat the Congress with but this cannot turn into an obsession, not a game to be played four years after the BJP was elected and the Congress was decimated. This obsessive hatred from the BJP is targeted not at the Congress alone and is not spewed by the Prime Minister alone. Varying shades of leaders and chosen nominees of the BJP are living out their versions of extreme prejudice directed at all sorts of people, positions, policies and institutions. The result is an unending bout of meaningless growling that sucks out all energy from public debate, reducing everyday conversations to confrontations that are ugly, loud and can only turn away people from engaging with any of the issues of the day.  This lowering of the standards of engagement is a fall far greater than can be imagined because it is so all enveloping that it is almost like the medium we are swimming in. It’s everywhere.

This obsessive hatred from the BJP is targeted not at the Congress alone and is not spewed by the Prime Minister alone. Varying shades of leaders and chosen nominees of the BJP are living out their versions of extreme prejudice directed at all sorts of people, positions, policies and institutions.

This is worse than the comical television show that has one man screaming every day at prime time.  On that show, you know what you get. It’s designed as a safe space for make believe, like a circus that you can watch for some time and have some fun. But outside the circus tent, the world is the same sane place. Lions and monkeys, even if tamed and trained, found inside circus tents do not roam the streets. Today, it looks like we have let loose all kinds of creatures on the main thoroughfares of the polity.  

There are of course the attacks on Jawaharlal Nehru. There is dislike for all those who have studied abroad, worked there and now serve in India, like some on the board of the Reserve Bank of India, who are now challenging the government. There is anger against the JNU and its youth leaders, students who have nothing more than their enthusiasm, time and the romance of being anti-establishment.  This is part of a long list of those hated. There is also the movement against names of roads and cities. There is the new coinage like “urban naxals”, slipping into everyday lexicon because it is so often aired from many senior quarters, including the Prime Minister, who said earlier this month,  “The urban Maoists who live in air conditioned homes in the cities, look clean and whose children study abroad, remote control the adivasi children in the Naxal-dominated areas." He went on, "Will you forgive such people? These people will not win Chhattisgarh. I appeal to you to ensure that BJP wins all seats in the Bastar region. If anyone else wins, it will be a blot on Bastar's dreams," he added.

There is also the movement against names of roads and cities. There is the new coinage like “urban naxals”, slipping into everyday lexicon because it is so often aired from many senior quarters, including the Prime Minister, who said earlier this month,  “The urban Maoists live in air conditioned homes in the cities (and)...remote control the adivasi children in the Naxal-dominated areas.

Last week, the respected journalist Vidyadhar Date attended the Lit fest in Mumbai and had this to report: “A panel discussion on 200 years of Marx at the Tata literature festival this evening was marred by utterly intemperate utterances against Karl Marx by Sanjeev Sanyal, principal economic adviser to the Indian finance ministry. He called Marx an evil thinker and inventor of a bloodthirsty religion and went on and on... In terms of language, it was seen by many as a shocking performance for an academic.” The column found the attention of Mohan Guruswamy, who was quick to add: “To vilify you just need to be foul mouthed. To understand requires knowledge and intelligence. There is plenty of the former in the present dispensation and little of the latter.”

It is of course not the argument here that Marx cannot be criticised or that the Congress must be spared its many sins, including all kinds of atrocities against the very groups it seeks to champion and stand for. It is possible to be a trenchant critic of all that the Congress has done over the last so many years but the flavour of that debate doesn’t have to be foul.  In fact, those interested in making a genuine case against the Congress and in favour of a very different path for India, must have an interest in making their arguments carefully, responsibly, respectfully and with due caution. Not doing so means there is really no agenda at work other than to throw some rocks and stones in a game of one-upmanship as campaign rhetoric peaks. This will put off those for and against the BJP alike. It is strange that a party so keen on being strategic about its communications cannot see how aggression, stirred up and mired in prejudice, mixed with a lack of curiosity, knowledge and humility, can turn away even supporters.

The angry men of the BJP need to refer to the powerful words spoken by Henry Fonda in the 1957 classic, ‘12 Angry Men’. As he reasons with the men angry and ready to send a boy to the electric chair for a murder he may have never committed, Fonda stands alone for reason and argues: “It's very hard to keep personal prejudice out of a thing like this. And no matter where you run into it, prejudice obscures the truth.”

As the actor Henry Fonda notes in the 1957 black and white classic 12 Angry Men: “It's very hard to keep personal prejudice out of a thing like this. And no matter where you run into it, prejudice obscures the truth.”It's very hard to keep personal prejudice out of a thing like this. And no matter where you run into it, prejudice obscures the truth.”

Prejudice of the kind at work today brings to us extreme situations as words flow into actions. It leads to crisis after crisis, the kind that we are seeing at work at the RBI, which had a crucial board meeting on Monday, and of the kind at the CBI, where the Director and the Joint Director are at loggerheads – in both cases with the government on one side and institutions on the other.  That crisis has brought us into more uncharted territory, the kind seen when States like West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh withdraw the mandate to let the CBI operate in their States. Extreme prejudice of the BJP is bringing extreme prejudice against it and its way of working and in the end that will contribute to the undoing of the party.

(The writer is a journalist and a faculty member at SPJIMR. Views are personal) (editor@thebillionpress.org)