When a Desi 'Selfie' of an ink-stain can show the finger — in this case literally — to the Oscars and Ellen DeGeneres, winning on sheer coolness quotient, you know that democracy has arrived. In a country once notorious for the political apathy of its urban middle class, even Delhi has recorded the highest voter turnout in 25 years. Much like how lighting up in public came to be viewed with derision in the West, today in India the single most unfashionable thing you can do is to not vote. The Citizen is Angry, but not at all disconnected as she once was.
Irrespective of outcomes and political preferences, this should have been a celebratory moment for India. Yet, it is a time for circumspection and concern. While electoral rhetoric by definition thrives on abrasive attacks, this has been an especially contradictory and ugly campaign. Overtly, questions of governance, economics and leadership have prioritised the development debate over identity politics. But where it's needed, Religion has been used — with impunity and ruthlessness — as a weapon of divide and rule.
Much as it sounds re-assuring to argue that the dreams of 'aspirational' India are the driving force of a new post-identity politics, western Uttar Pradesh has busted the myth that economic growth is the best antidote to bigotry. After all, if the three staples of urbanisation are — the Mobile, the Mall and McDonalds — then Muzaffarnagar has them all. But behind the Golden Arches that gleam from a mile away on the four-lane highway and behind the sun-draped beauty and seeming calm of the sugarcane fields, it is a battle-zone. One where the wounds of the 2013 riots are still raw and where politicians deliver fresh injuries every day.
Sitting on a tiny mound of mud, outside a torn tent in Shahpur, Lalli's weather-beaten face is eerily impassive as she tells me about her 16-year-old daughter Sameena who has been missing since the riots. The Hindu 'pradhan' of the village initially sheltered her family, but when the numbers of assaulters swelled, he pushed them out and advised them to make a run for it. In the chaos, Sameena was left behind and her mother knows she couldn't have survived the brute force of the mob. Did she ever think of going back to look for her? It's not safe, she said quietly. The village — that was once home — is less than 5 kilometres away. There are at least 200 families here who live in hutments, under faded blue plastic covers or tiny, newly built brick tenements. Others have re-located to new neighbourhoods with 'compensation' money. But the displacement of the Muslim population is complete, as is their ghettoisation. Despite the state's abject failure to protect them or respect them in their tragedy, several families are ready to consider the Samajwadi Party (SP) again, because, as a villager said: "How many options are there for our community?"
In Jat-dominated villages that we visit, burnt down abandoned homes are testimonies to the unravelling of a social fabric. In one such village we meet Ashok, son of Mahindra Singh, who was among three village elders killed while returning from a Jat Sabha last year. As his son clutches the silver-framed photograph of a grandfather he will never meet again, I marvel at the absence of rage in Ashok's tone. "A tragedy happened last year; I don't want politics in my father's name." On the other side of a common boundary wall, his neighbours are much angrier. "I can never vote for a Muslim politician again," says Satinder, whose 'chacha' was among those killed. And did he previously? "Yes, I did. But that is no longer an option. We have no social connections left with them." In both homes, which once voted Ajit Singh, there's now a flag of the BJP on the roofs.
In this region, the religious polarisation has suited both the BJP and the SP perfectly. Their top leaders — Amit Shah and Azam Khan — even used exactly the same word as a battle cry when they called for 'Badla'.
Narendra Modi's silence on the riots and on the vitriolic campaign run in his name in West UP is problematic and disingenuous when juxtaposed with the manifesto in which Hindutva is a footnote and the main thrust is development. Equally, Rahul Gandhi's refrain of secularism sounds just as disingenuous given, the party's courting of a cleric who notoriously described Shabana Azmi as a "nachne gaane wali tawaif" on a show I hosted in 2001. If the riot-accused BJP candidates called for 'swabhiman' for the 'majority community' over 'sadak" then the sitting BSP MP, Kadir Rana, also charge-sheeted in the riots, drew inflammatory parallels with Partition and asked Muslims to vote for "the Izzat of the Quam". If Azam Khan foisted religious politics even onto the Indian Army and used words like "Goonda Number 1" for Amit Shah, Shah spoke provocatively of "beggars who have become Crorepatis from Butcher-Khanas". Then, of course, there was the Congress candidate from Saharanpur, Imran Masood, who threatened to "chop Modi into pieces" and Mulayam Singh, who argued that rape is a boyish rites of passage. No wonder he showed such little empathy for the women who were raped in the riots last year.
Every party has fished in these troubled waters to shore up the numbers, playing to fear, prejudice and victimhood. The buzzword in India's political heartland is "consolidation" — a tepid and polite cloak for the vicious divisiveness that has driven the campaign in the Muzaffarnagar region. That this has happened less than three hours from the national capital is a reminder of how parties are able to allot Good Cop, Bad Cop roles as needed. In New India, old biases and insidious politics are closer home than we think.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, NDTV
The views expressed by the author are personal