Identity politics is not new to India. But they acquire menacing proportions on the eve of elections. All parties, to varying degrees, are guilty of it. Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s temple hopping and his janeu (sacred thread worn by Brahmins) status gets wide publicity. Parties like the BSP, SP, RJD, INLD, DMK play casteist and parochial politics for electoral gains. Even a progressive party like the CPM has now fallen prey to identity politics.

Among all, BJP takes the cake. Perhaps, for the first time in Independent India a person of the stature of Prime Minister has stooped so low couching communal messages in his election speeches caring two hoots for the Election Commission. If Pakistan has been a metaphor (since the 2015 Bihar election) for divisive dialogue, the gloves are now off as blatant communal card is being played without any scruples.

Leveraging the acquittal of the accused in the 2007 Samjhauta Express blast case by a trial court, PM Narendra Modi tried to drive a wedge between the Congress and the majority community flagging the “Hindu terror” epithet allegedly coined by the Congress over a decade ago. Stung Congress spokespersons insist that the expression was invented by then home secretary R.K. Singh, now a BJP union minister.

Last December, the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad, under the BJP government had charge-sheeted 12 persons linked to a radical Hindu outfit. On March 8, 2017, an NIA special court in Jaipur convicted three ex-RSS pracharaks in the 2007 Ajmer Dargah blast case” (courtesy Fact check: Indian Express).

It is quite clear that the Prime Minister has been trying to intensify Hindu majoritarian impulses for electoral gains. To accentuate the “Hindu” narrative, Modi, addressing a rally in Wardha last week alleged that Rahul Gandhi chose Kerala’s Wayanad Lok Sabha constituency as a backup seat because “….Leaders of that party are now scared of contesting from constituencies dominated by the majority population.

That is why they are forced to take refuge in places where the majority is in a minority.” (Wayanad population is evenly poised between Hindus and non-Hindus). If the preposterous suggestion is taken at its face value the Congress should not be contesting the 450-odd Parliament seats it is contesting across the country and the Grand Old Party would not have won elections in Madhya Pradesh (Hindus 90 pc) Rajasthan (88 pc) and Chhattisgarh (87 pc) last year.

While BJP’s attempt at religious polarisation is understandable, what is saddening is that even an agnostic party like the CPM is also trying to communalise the poll campaign. Soon after the Congress announced Rahul’s candidacy from Wayanad, CPM’s Malayalam mouthpiece “Deshabhimani” in an editorial tried to stir up the communal pot. “Rahul is eyeing the minority votes more than the Congress votes in Wayanad,” the editorial said.

And to cash in on the divisive fault lines, it accused Rahul of “falling at the feet of the Muslim League”. At the same time the editorial tried to slight the Congress before the Muslim voters saying: ”…….the Congress had failed to implement the reports of the Ranganath Misra Commission and Sachar Committee on minority welfare…..Rahul Gandhi said he is a Brahmin and Shiva bhakt. Rahul Gandhi visited 30 temples when he participated in 26 public meetings during the Gujarat elections.”

The CPM had not resorted to such personal attacks on Congress leaders even after their bitter parting of ways in 2008 over the Indo-US nuclear deal. The criticism then was mainly on neo-liberal economic policies. Until recently hardliners led by Prakash Karat and Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan had stridently opposed any alliance with the Grand Old Party. After sustained deliberations in several politburo and central committee meetings the CPM grudgingly allowed its Bengal unit to forge poll pact with the Congress but that understanding collapsed due to local turf wars.

With Modi firing the opening communal salvo at Wayanad and CPM following suit, God’s Own Country is set to witness the most polarized poll campaign sullying its image as a progressive, liberal society known for its famed communal harmony. To be fair to Rahul, over a decade ago soon after he took charge as AICC general secretary, he did speak against identity politics; but after the advent of Modi at the national scene and the subsequent decimation of Congress, Rahul had little choice but to play “Hinduism” card as against BJP’s toxic “Hindutva”.

Though his critics call it soft Hindutva his supporters term it “smart secularism”. Rahul minders say that even as he openly embraced Hindu identity he took care not to lapse into majoritarinism and that is why he also makes trips to mosques, gurudwaras and churches and talks about inclusivity. Being the Prime Minister, more than Rahul Gandhi and the Marxists, it is Modi whose image is taking a beating thanks to his unbecoming comments.

Taking the election rhetoric to a new low, the PM addressing a rally in Meerut recently coined the acronym ‘sharab’ (alcohol) to describe the Opposition. Sapa (Samajwadi Party) ka ‘sha’, RLD (Rashtriya Lok Dal) ka ‘Raa’ aur Baspa (Bahujan Samaj Party) ka ‘ba’, matlab sarab”(means alchohol), he chortled with infantile delight. “SP, RLD, BSP, ye sarab aapko barbaad kar degi (This sharab will destroy you),” he added.

From a “development icon” in 2014 who sold slogans such as “Ache Din and Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas”, Brand Modi appears to have regressed into an insular head. If the retrogression is deliberate to cover up governance deficit it may not work in the long-term.

On Monday 210 writers from across the country appealed to the citizens to vote against “hate politics” and for an “equal and diverse India” and a week earlier 100 filmmakers issued a joint statement appealing the pubic to vote the BJP government out. They are neither urban Naxals and nor can Nehru be blamed for their action. If they are “manufacturing” dissent will be known on May 23.

Kay Benedict is an independent journalist.