The fictional adman Don Draper used to say: “If you don’t like what they are saying, change the conversation.”
It’s an art that the Modi-Shah BJP has mastered – nay, raised to an art form – particularly when elections are around the corner.
So, even as the nation grapples with issues of economic slowdown or lynching or banking crises, the BJP knows how to change the narrative. And ahead of the Maharashtra Assembly elections 2019, they did so brilliantly by announcing that the Centre would award the Bharat Ratna to Savarkar along with Jyotiba Phule and Savitrabai Phule.
While the saffron party has liberally appropriated Congress icons like Sardar Patel, Netaji Bose and PVN Rao; even the most ardent BJP supporter will admit that their pantheon of icons is a little light.
A Bharat Ratna for Savarkar would certainly change that perspective, and mainstream one of the BJP-RSS’ biggest heroes.
It’s a bold move on some levels, giving India’s highest civilian award to a man who was once accused of having a hand in Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, particularly given how Modi eulogises Gandhi during his foreign trips.
Yet somehow, the messaging has caught Congress unaware and trapped - to borrow a phrase from Manish Tewari - much like Anastasia Steele from Fifty Shades of Grey.
On social media, particularly among those of an anti-BJP persuasion – often mockingly called the Chrisislamocommie ecosystem by their detractors – Vinayak Damodar Savarkar is a caricature.
He is often mocked for his mercy petitions and knocked with #SoSorry jokes. He is called Very Sorry Worker or the butt of jokes like these:
“Which is the biggest contradiction of the world? "Savarkar is Veer"
Which is the biggest abuse to India? "Savarkar is a Freedom Fighter"
Which is the biggest Joke of the world? "Savarkar is a Nationalist"
While the Congress cannot control the reactions of Twitter warriors, their own leaders’ reactions suggest that there are too many cooks who have no clue what the broth is.
The grand old party – whose Maharashtra campaign has exhibited the energy of a snail returning home from a funeral on a lazy Sunday afternoon – reacted mockingly to the announcement, falling perfectly into BJP’s trap.
Manish Tewari reacted by suggesting that Bharat Ratna should next be awarded to Nathuram Godse.
Assam’s Debrata Sakia called it an insult to Mahatma.
Digvijaya Singh – the man who lost his election to a terror-accused – raked up Savarkar’s name in the chargesheet.
Amid this, former PM Manmohan Singh whose words now seems to carry more gravity than during his tenure, said that Congress wasn’t opposed to Savarkar, but his ideology, even remembering that Indira Gandhi admired him.
Savarkar’s grandson Ranjeet jumped into the fray and pushed the boat even further by claiming that Indira was a ‘follower’ of Savarkar, noting: “Indira Gandhi honoured Veer Savarkar, I strongly feel she was his follower because she brought Pakistan to its knees, strengthened army and foreign relations, she also did nuclear tests. All this is against Nehru and Gandhi's philosophy.”
It’s true that Indira’s muscular nationalism was far closer to Savarkar’s idea of India than Nehru or Gandhi’s.
Incidentally, this isn’t the first time Congress has been caught on the wrong foot vis-à-vis Savarkar.
Much of it was thanks to Left-leaning historians, who seem to take great pride in scaring away Congress’ nationalist voters.
In 2003, Shiv Sena leader and then Speaker Manohar Joshi had asked for Savarkar’s poster to be put in parliament.
The move was violently opposed by Sonia Gandhi – aided and abetted by Left-leaning historians – and she took a letter to then President Abdul Kalam to oppose it.
Yet, when she went to meet Kalam, she realised that senior colleagues like Pranab Mukherjee had backed the proposal to put up Savarkar’s portrait.
She would go on to berate the Cong leaders who had done it, but the damage was done, and the BJP pounced upon Indira Gandhi’s comments about Savarkar to target them.
Indira had famously said when releasing a postal stamp for him: “Savarkar's defiance of the British government has its own place in the freedom struggle."Indira’s comments had become a source of embarrassment for Sonia then and Manmohan’s remark now puts him on an ordinance-level difference with Rahul, who’s facing a case for calling Savarkar a ‘coward’.
Savarkar – a tall leader in Maharashtra
What the keyboard warriors and several Congress leaders miss, is that Savarkar is tall leader in Maharashtra - almost if not more - revered than Gandhi himself.
The Nagpur based RSS has spent a long time lionising Savarkar in the state, as a counterfoil to Gandhi himself.
Maharashtra’s history is full of nationalistic icons, Tilak prominent among them, who started the practice of community Ganesh Puja.
Seeped in that nationalistic mould are RSS icons, with Savarkar the tallest of them. Thus, although Maharashtra remained a Congress fiefdom for long because of its rural base, the state maintained a very distinct nationalistic hue, which is more aligned to the BJP-RSS ideology.
This means in the land of Shivaji, Savarkar remains a revered icon. Mocking him before the assembly elections is like trying to win in Bengal after calling Tagore or Ray a fraud.
Post the 2019 debacle, Congress should’ve realised that memes and jokes, particularly those that reflect the worldviews of a select elite coterie, isn’t the best way to get real voters.
But alas, if they could, they would’ve not been in such a dire strait right now.