It is difficult to think of political minds more astute than President Pranab Mukherjee. Known for his sharp intelligence, poise, mastery of party, governmental and parliamentary processes, and the ability to form relationships across partisan divides, he seems incapable of an unrehearsed political act. A veteran Congressman who has taken up residence at Rashtrapati Bhavan, Mr Mukherjee has been absolutely punctilious about his detachment from partisan considerations in line with the high office he holds. And so it is a measure of how grave the threat to personal liberties in India is — expressed in part by the lynching at Dadri over alleged consumption of beef and its unsavoury political aftermath — that the president has chosen to remind India now about tolerance and diversity.
Speaking at a book launch on Wednesday, Mr Mukherjee said that “we should not allow the core values of our civilisation to wither away” and reiterated that “over the years, our civilisation has celebrated diversity, plurality and promoted and advocated tolerance. These values have kept us together over the centuries”. That he has chosen to point specifically to these values speaks of his concern about their weakening hold in India’s public life. Mr Mukherjee is not alone.
Vice President Hamid Ansari, another important authoritative voice, underlined that the people of India gave themselves a Constitution that promised to secure to all citizens “liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship”. Noted writer Nayantara Sahgal returned her Sahitya Akademi Award, protesting that “India’s culture of diversity and debate is now under vicious assault”, as rationalists who “question any aspect of the ugly and dangerous distortion of Hinduism known as Hindutva — whether in the intellectual or artistic sphere, or whether in terms of food habits and lifestyle — are being marginalised, persecuted, or murdered”. The poet Ashok Vajpeyi returned his Sahitya Akademi Award, citing threats to fundamental rights. Former foreign secretary Shyam Saran has also written powerfully about the “deep fear for the future” owing to the targeting of minorities.
The NDA government must reckon with the implications of the pushback from both figures at the heart of the establishment and luminaries in the arts. Home minister Rajnath Singh has said that “strongest possible action will be taken against those who try to break communal harmony in the country”. The prime minister has also sought an end to communal politics. That resolve has to be demonstrable both in terms of law enforcement and the BJP’s strictures to its party leaders to cease divisive rhetoric. As the party with a measure of dominance in national politics, the BJP needs to set the tone on public discourse. It should not underestimate what the current climate does to India’s stability and reputation.