The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the larger Sangh family face a critical question in the wake of the Nupur Sharma controversy: change course and moderate the message or stay the course and brazen it out because this, too, shall pass?
Yes, it grates that instead of listening to countless appeals from their own citizens to stop the everyday toxicity, the government acted only in response to pressure from Muslim countries where democracy and debate are not in fashion. But the sheikhdoms know how to use their muscle – they made the BJP watch its own show bomb slowly at the box office.
In Washington, Muslim activists are busy organising “briefings” on the situation in India to gain more traction on Capitol Hill.
Hindu groups are angry for a different reason. The sidelining of Nupur Sharma and Naveen Jindal is seen as abdication, not course correction.
The diaspora stands further divided. Starting from 2015, the BJP’s overseas supporters had begun using the term “Hindu Americans” instead of Indian Americans.
A significant percentage of voters in western societies, which are themselves battling racism, gun violence and police brutality, want their governments to treat minorities fairly and humanely.
In Washington, Muslim activists are busy organising “briefings” on the situation in India, using the bonanza of fiascos – the latest being the demolition of an activist’s home in Prayagraj – to gain more traction on Capitol Hill. Their anti-BJP campaign morphed into an anti-India campaign some time ago.
Hindu groups are angry for a different reason. The sidelining of Nupur Sharma and Naveen Jindal is seen as abdication, not course correction. Some have started talking in terms of “naram dal” (soft groups) and “garam dal” (tough groups) to distinguish between real Hindutva leaders and others. They don’t want to discuss the high stakes involved in India’s relations with Arab countries.
'Hindu Americans', Not Indian Americans
The diaspora stands further divided, a process that started around 2015 as BJP’s overseas supporters gained new energy and began using the term “Hindu Americans” instead of Indian Americans. The long-term impact of such fracturing of the community cannot be a net positive for India’s goal of harnessing their power.
It’s obvious that the BJP’s domestic agenda is impacting India’s foreign policy goals and outreach. The message from the Arab world was clear: enough is enough. As statements poured in to condemn Sharma’s provocative outburst against Prophet Muhammad, the government had no choice but to take action.
The BJP suspended Sharma, the national spokesperson, and expelled Naveen Kumar Jindal, former chief of BJP’s Delhi media unit, who had jumped into the controversy to add insult to injury. Both were temporarily deemed “fringe elements” by innovative spin doctors, a feint that was a second self-goal.
India is currently in the grips of competitive outrage. Effusive celebrations of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s eight years in office have been marred by the very forces his politics unleashed. It was only a matter of time before the fire at home would spread and singe Modi’s carefully cultivated relationships abroad. The illusion that India’s internal politics could be firewalled from outside interference has been shattered.
BJP's Free Agents of Chaos and Violence
Governing India requires an exquisite balancing act at the best of times, and these are the toughest of times where support from, solidarity and “sambandh” (relationship) with international partners are of paramount importance. Editorial writers have suggested that cold calculations, if not good sense, should force the BJP to rethink.
It seems some amount of rethinking is afoot, or the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief, Mohan Bhagwat, wouldn’t have advised caution. He recently told supporters that there was no need “to look for a Shivling in every mosque” and create a new dispute every day.
But more such messaging by Modi and other top leaders is needed to prevent further embarrassment. To put the genie back into the bottle will be tough if not impossible, but what about some discipline?
Creating an impenetrable aura around Modi may have worked initially to inspire awe among the untrained and unrestrained supporters. But over time, they have become free agents of chaos and violence. They cross red lines with aplomb without a care in the world, leaving a mess for overworked diplomats to clean up.
Modi and his top advisors may want to conduct a series of “chai pe charcha” with grassroots supporters and second- and third-tier leadership to rein in the ugliness. The current state of affairs is unsustainable. The IT cell has surely monitored and sent the “feedback” on social media in favour of Sharma and Jindal.
Far From 'Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas'
Western governments understand to some extent that Hinduism is resurgent in India as they watch their own societies struggle with White supremacy, racism and police brutality. They can’t preach beyond a point, except to read out the press release on tolerance. But we should note that a significant percentage of voters in western societies want their governments to treat minorities fairly and humanely.
In India, the dominant narrative seems to be to crush critics, marginalise minorities and use the bulldozer. This is not the “Vishwa Guru” (world leader) template that India can sell to others. Right now, the government is fighting to save the jobs of nearly 9 million Indian citizens working in Gulf countries. They are critical to the Indian economy – they send a hefty $35 billion in remittances. Around 40 million family members back home depend on those workers.
Here’s the thing. The BJP could have actually done “sabka saath, sabka vikas” and included India’s 200 million Muslims in the project of a resurgent India. More than 90% would have joined hands to rebuild, reconstruct and reimagine India. Inclusion doesn’t mean “appeasement,” it means cohesion and strength.
But if the starting point is abuse, insult and violence, it’s natural for Muslims to go into their religious cocoon. After eight years of badgering and demonisation, the Islamist elements are strengthened, Friday prayers have become more politics than worship, and Muslim women are more prone to the Saudi hijab than the good old dupatta.
Can Modi Clear the Toxicity?
The less said about TV anchors who excel in multiplying hate, the better. The liberal media – self-conscious and self-righteous as many of its members have become – would also do well to introspect and figure out new ways to engage and convince rather than preach to the converted with a daily dossier on government failures.
India’s international partners want the country to get its act together and move forward instead of being mired in a million mutinies. If Modi won’t use the bully pulpit and his mandate to clear the national windscreen of toxicity, India could recede into the rear view mirror for others.
(Seema Sirohi is a senior Washington-based journalist. She can be reached at @seemasirohi. 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.)