It was an awkward déjà vu. Hindu hardliners coming out all guns blazing against Aamir Khan was a reminder of a similar row three weeks ago with Shah Rukh Khan at the centre of fundamentalist ire for voicing concern about the state of the country.
The only difference between then and now is the whacking the BJP received at the polls in Bihar – a defeat that proved that not all, especially the poor that we seem to take for granted, were willing to be converted into venom-spitting Virat Hindus.
The rout was followed by soul-searching and public admissions, even by former VHP and RSS ideologues, that the party had paid for wavering from the development routine, that sectarianism was probably not the right strategy. But three sentences from Aamir Khan have now made the ruling party forget its hard-learnt lesson.
The Adityanaths and Prachis are out in full force, asking Aamir to go to Pakistan, Syria, Turkey and all the names of Muslim-majority nations the right-wing fringe knows. The Shiv Sena has called Aamir a snake while senior ministers used that ultimate bogey to try and shut down any criticism – that he was scaring people and defaming the nation. As if comparing India to Islamic State-ravaged Syria isn’t defamation.
The barrage of unchecked ire coming Khan’s way proved, alarmingly, that the reconciliatory tones after the Bihar debacle were mere platitudes – that the BJP plans to run its cultural Hindutva project alongside its economic liberalization.
Throughout the Bihar campaign, the BJP tried to polarise – Hindus against Muslims, Upper castes against Lower castes, beef vs no beef. Even the Prime Minister tried to pit the Dalit and other backward classes against the Muslims by raking up the quota debate. It didn’t work because the voters realised they needed peace and jobs more than a cow for mother.
But the Aamir Khan row shows the lessons of Bihar will be discarded by the time polls in Bengal and Assam roll around. People who spew hatred at the actor for ‘insulting’ Bharat Mata think it’s legitimate for a sitting governor to say the country belongs to a particular community – as if that isn’t an insult of our pluralist history.
But these statements aren’t by accident – especially in poll-bound Assam --nor are they drying up. I suspect by next year, eastern India will be abuzz with rumours of cow slaughter – a great ruse demonise communities unfriendly to the BJP and stoke latent Hinduism among the Bhadralok? BJP leaders will try to delegitimise Muslim votes by calling them illegal Bangladeshi immigrants and polarise Assam by making it an us-versus-the invaders debate.
By the time its poll time in Uttar Pradesh, the Adityanaths and Prachis will be out in full force, talking about not just the Ram temple, but temples, cows, conversions and creating a Muslim/lower-caste bogeyman that will help the BJP triumph.
The BJP may well win some of these upcoming elections, helped by a dispirited and discredited Congress that is still seething because its soft, polished communal agenda was taken away from it.
But that won’t change the fact that the BJP has shown it is willing to abandon its “Sabka Vikas” slogan at the first opportunity to polarise. Comments by saffron leaders and ally parties – who have even compared Aamir to a snake – have made it very clear that some -- beef eating or lower caste or both -- people are not “worthy” enough to live in this country.
Bihar showed that we cannot take the rural poor, the Mahadalits, the landless labourers for granted – that the underprivileged understand the meaning of inclusive development as well as the India Habitat Centre lecturers. Its well-paid Twitter brigade may well be ready to defend the mythical reputation of the Hindu Rashtra but the vast majority of Indians are not ready to abandon their dal – or beef – at the altar of Bharat Mata.
Three decades ago, the BJP was propelled to the political mainstream on the back of rampant sectarianism of the Ram Temple movement that made villains out of our 17 crore Muslims. The Aamir-Shah Rukh controversies show that the party hasn’t forgotten its history and is willing to hark back to it for electoral benefit, howsoever tattered it may leave the country in its wake.