The vote-bank politics seems to take a heavy toll of decent values and principles. Failure of one party to exploit the baser instincts of voters can only result in another equally unprincipled rival to take advantage and walk away with the election. Some such thing is happening in the Hindi heartland as the country nears another round of State and parliamentary elections.
The first shocker came from Jharkhand. The Union Minister for State for Civil Aviation and the BJP MP from Hazaribagh is seen garlanding eight cow vigilantes out on bail for having killed a Muslim cattle trader on suspicion of him slaughtering a cow. Convicted by a fast-track court and given life terms, they were released on bail and their sentence suspended till the pendency of their appeals against convictions. On their release, they were feted by the minister at his home in his constituency. Now, it is not that Sinha did not anticipate the sharp criticism his action would invite. If he still chose to do so, and allowed himself to be photographed for the rest of the world to see, it is because on balance he believed that winning the next election was more important than to be seen being politically correct. For the record, Sinha defended himself, arguing that if you believe in the rule of law, you will have to presume them to be innocent till their appeals in a higher court were finally settled.
Being a highly educated man, you cannot say Sinha cannot indulge in nice-sounding sophistry, according pride of place to due process. But this is about political messaging, about signalling as to which electoral constituency you are keen to nurse for retaining your seat in the next parliamentary poll. Ultimately, it is about the kind of issues and concerns that determine the voting behaviour of the masses. An exceedingly bright and educated man like Sinha has to stoop low so as to pander to the basest instincts and prejudices of his voters. So debased is the national political discourse, and so divided the electorate on communal lines, that the space for the middle ground has shrunk vastly. In the highly polarised society, the aggressive ownership of the concerns of the majority community by the BJP seems to have become its ticket to electoral success. In the election year, the divisions on religious lines are set to become sharper still.
A day later, in the neighbouring State of Bihar, another central minister, Giriraj Singh, most blatantly made common cause with those held for inflaming communal passions and spreading rumours against the minority community. While meeting the activists belonging to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal in jail, Singh apparently broke down, saying that though the BJP was part of the ruling alliance, it was helpless in preventing their arrests. He accused the Nitish Kumar Government of being partial towards the Muslims while taking punitive action against Hindus alone. Nitish Kumar criticised Singh for questioning the impartiality of the district administration and found it unacceptable that a central minister should be extending support to those found to be vitiating the communal atmosphere. A few weeks earlier in Kathua, two BJP members of the Mehbooba Mufti Government were seen lending support to the accused in the rape-cum-murder case of a minor girl. Here again, the populist concerns of the ministers came to the fore since the local people aggressively defended the Kathua accused, claiming that they were victims of a conspiracy to allow the minority community, including the illegal Rohingya immigrants, to settle and change the demographic character of Jammu against the Hindus.
Seen in the backdrop of the lynchings on false rumours about child-abductors or cow-slaughters, the growing atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion among sections of the people should be a cause of great concern. No police force can maintain peace 24×7 in every nook and cranny of the country. Goodwill and harmony in the society is incumbent on the political class at various levels desisting from fanning prejudice and distrust for its own narrow electoral ends. Unfortunately, politics has become so cynical that it has obliterated the fine line dividing right from wrong, legal from illegal. Indira Gandhi rewarded a Youth Congress activist who had hijacked an Indian Airlines plane in the days of the Morarji Desai Government with a ticket for the UP Assembly. When winning elections becomes the only concern of politicians, fuelling baser passions of voters is inevitable. In this context, blaming social media for spreading fake news becomes secondary to the politicians’ need to pander to the popular prejudices. The answer to this low-grade politics is education and awareness. But is it? Look at the way Donald Trump walked away with the US presidential poll, appealing to the baser instincts of people whom his rival Hillary Clinton called ‘deplorables’. Politics is dirty everywhere, be warned.