Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not known for empathy. So, it was hardly surprising that he has skirted all mention of the Lakhimpur Kheri tragedy so far. He did not utter a word of sympathy for the victims even during a recent visit to Lucknow, just a few hundred miles from the spot where a car owned by Union Minister Ajay Mishra’s son mowed down four Sikh farmers, resulting in violence in which four more persons were killed.
He was similarly silent when the second wave of Covid 19 scourged the country and led to innumerable deaths and immeasurable suffering. At that time, BJP aides explained that his silence was strategic, that Modi believed in action, not words. He was working silently to bring the pandemic under control and step up the vaccination drive to inoculate as many as possible in the shortest period of time, we were told.
Modi & Bhakts Are At a Loss of Words on Lakhimpur
His aides said he would speak only after his efforts showed results. Now that the worst is over and the pandemic seems to be ebbing, Modi is unstoppable. At every possible opportunity, he boasts of the manner in which his government tackled the outbreak and showed the world that India is second to none in managing a health crisis and vaccinating its huge population.
Unlike then, aides and bhakts seem to be at a loss for words today to justify Modi’s silence on the deaths at Lakhimpur Kheri. An Assembly election in which Modi and the BJP have huge stakes is round the corner in UP. It’s not just bad politics to avoid even a fleeting show of grief for the victims at this time — it also suggests that the incident has put Modi in a quandary, prompting him to seek refuge in silence.
Several factors are at play here to pose a dilemma even for a leader who prides himself on being decisive. One is the blatant anti-farmer mood in his party. Top leaders like Minister Ajay Mishra himself and Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar have not minced words in criticising farmers for continuing with their protest against the new farm laws. Khattar ran into trouble when a video captured him urging people to "pick up sticks" and give a befitting reply to the protesters.
The Recurring 'Khalistan' Reference by BJP Leaders
In fact, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh have been epicentres of clashes between farmers and the police who are obviously acting at the behest of their political masters to deal roughly, even violently, with the agitators.
It is strange that a Prime Minister who boasts of wielding the proverbial iron fist has not used it to snuff out these voices. Does he hold similar views about the ongoing protests?
From all indications, the Modi government is convinced that the farmers’ agitation is politically sponsored by forces opposed to it. It may not be the Congress per se, or any other recognised political party. But government circles feel that international forces are at play to weaken Modi through these protests.
This is a major reason for the government’s adamance that the laws are non-negotiable and its dilatory tactics on negotiations. It is interesting how the word "Khalistan" keeps popping up in off-the-cuff remarks by BJP leaders and bhakts.
Yogi-Modi at Loggerheads?
Another cause for waffling on the Lakhimpur Kheri tragedy is the Yogi-Modi politics in Uttar Pradesh. It is no longer a secret that the two leaders are at loggerheads, however much they may heap praise on each other in public. Modi is acutely aware of the Brahmin angst in UP over Yogi’s blatant pro-Thakur bias in the way he runs the administration.
The most recent example is the incident in Gorakhpur where a businessman was murdered in a hotel apparently by UP police officials. One of the policemen named in the FIR is Ramgarh Taal SHO Jagat Narayan Singh. He is a Thakur and is yet to be arrested. There are suspicions that he has protection from the very top because of his caste.
To blunt the anger of the Brahmins, the Modi-Shah duo is trying to promote members of the community. Some were inducted into the Modi government in the last expansion; some were inducted into Yogi’s government soon after that.
Ajay Mishra, whose son is accused of ramming his car into a group of farmers and killing four of them, is a Brahmin from Kheri itself. He also happens to be the minister of state in Amit Shah’s home ministry.
Maintaining an Equilibrium
It is obvious that Modi is caught between a rock and a hard place on the events in Lakhimpur Kheri. It is imperative that the BJP strikes a fine balance between the Brahmin and Thakur communities, especially on the eve of a crucial election. It is equally important that Modi prevents the simmering tension with Yogi from boiling over into open war.
However, maintaining the political equilibrium in UP and holding onto the rainbow social coalition of castes that has helped the BJP dominate the state since 2014 comes at a cost. The farmers who were killed in Lakhimpur Kheri were Sikhs. This will not only have an impact in Punjab which is also going to polls early next year, it is bound to create ripples in the Terai region of UP where Sikh farmers form a sizeable percentage of the voting population.
The first sign of impending trouble for the BJP is the Twitter attack by party MP Varun Gandhi. He has held his party leaders responsible for the deaths in Lakhimpur Kheri for which he and his mother Maneka Gandhi was hurriedly dropped from the BJP’s National Executive.
Varun’s compulsions are clear. His Lok Sabha constituency is neighbouring Pilibhit where Sikhs form the second-largest voting bloc. The buzz in UP is that he may be headed to the Congress.
Is it any wonder that Modi is silent on the Lakhimpur Kheri tragedy?
(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. She tweets @AratiJ. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)