BJP’s official Twitter handle recently tweeted a quote from Amit Shah’s speech, which explicitly declared that if the party came back to power, it would implement the Citizenship bill for the entire country and would act against all infiltrators who were not Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist. This is about as clear a statement as can be about how the party views people from different religious denominations. An objective ‘nationalist’ view would perhaps have no problem in acting against all ‘outsiders’, but to then segment them on the basis of religion and to go out of one’s way to leave out Muslims and Christians is to establish a clear hierarchy of religions. The inclusion of Buddhists in this list is politically significant, for it tells us that the main focus is not so much on denying citizenship to all alleged infiltrators, for many ‘outsiders’ from neighbouring countries can potentially be Buddhist, but in identifying who this government see as friends and enemies.
That the party feels this way is hardly a secret, and the only thing surprising about it is in the baldness of the statement. In the past, the top leadership has tended to communicate the same in indirect terms, but this time there is less dog whistle, more foghorn. What makes for interesting reflection is to dwell on the reaction that this position elicits among potential voters.
There is a group that is not small in number, which supports this view explicitly and enthusiastically. These include both those that feel directly victimised by the alleged influx of ‘outsiders’ in their opportunity-scarce regions, and those that are believers in the larger narrative of Hindu victimhood. There are also those on the other end of the spectrum that oppose this view vehemently. They see it as bigotry of the worst kind and a betrayal of the spirit of the Constitution. The ones in the middle are the interesting lot. In an urban setting, you run into them everywhere. They often lead liberal lives, and have quite possibly supported other parties in the past.
When talking about the merits of this government, they wax eloquent about the leadership qualities of Modi, of the international image of India under his watch, and about a few programmes that they admire. They also rail against Rahul Gandhi, complain bitterly about the dynasty and criticise the widespread corruption that was rampant during the tenure of the earlier government. They live in mortal fear of Mayawati becoming the Prime Minister and are deeply anxious about a coalition government (unless it is headed by Modi). One could choose to agree or disagree with these views, but these are perfectly legitimate ways of evaluating different political options.
But a curious thing happens when the question of religious polarisation or discrimination is mentioned to this lot. Nothing. This is a subject that just doesn’t make the grade. Even when they criticise the government, and by now, there are enough people who talk about the misguided nature of demonetisation or the absence of real reforms, the subject of lynching or discrimination just does not come up. If the subject is forced upon them, it is either made little of (you know how media today pounces on any and every little incident), dismissed as marginal (every party has lunatics, can’t take them seriously), presented as the norm (these things have always happened in the country, but now people with agendas amplify them), attributed to electoral compulsions (in order to win elections, they have to say all kinds of things, they don’t really mean it), sidestepped (after all every option comes with a downside — we don’t live in a perfect world, and anyway what option do we have), or justified (you can’t deny that Islam is the source of so much terrorism in the world today, or they did conquer and persecute us, you know). In most cases, however, this is a subject that simply slides off the rails of the conversation without leaving any mark behind.
At its heart, what emerges is that this subject is simply not part of the factors that are deemed to be relevant in making one’s electoral choice. It belongs in another world, and happens to other people. It is an abstraction; in their imagination of the country, many other issues precede this in terms of priority. It is somebody else’s problem and it certainly is not allowed priority over what are seen as more pressing issues — economic growth, India’s standing in the world, corruption and having a leader who looks and behaves like one. There is a weary impatience that surfaces when subjects like these come up, for they are inconvenient and dredge up questions that they do not wish to address.
More fundamentally, there is no great disagreement with the view itself. While it is not the primary reason why they support the government, the party’s position on this subject meets with their tacit approval. It gets framed as a form of strength, or clarity, and becomes part of the larger persona of Modi that is found to be so attractive. Casual majoritarianism works lightly, and operates through a veneer of reasonableness. Of course, everyone is equal, but it takes two to tango.
Whether it is Shah’s statement or the Ali/Bajrangbali binary promoted by Yogi Adityanath, it is clear that explicit demarcation of people on religious lines is now a reality of our times. This is not a sideshow, nor mere electoral gambit, it is a foundational belief of the ruling party that has now been unambiguously articulated. To many, this is not news, but for those in the middle, it should make one thing clear. Whether one acknowledges it or not, today one’s vote is a sign of whether one supports overt discrimination in the name of religion or is standing against it. There is no sidestepping it.