Everybody has his or her version of the worst times in the history of modern India. For some it is the Partition. For others it is our defeat in the 1962 war against China. And still others talk about the destruction of the Babri Masjid and the violence that followed.
I have my own version, drawn from my recollections of dark times in our history. One is the Emergency, when it seemed that the lights had gone out for Indian democracy. During the Emergency, the Opposition was locked up, the press was censored, fundamental rights were suspended, dissidents were treated with great brutality and sometimes killed and the curse of dynasty, which now afflicts our system, made its first appearance.
<b1>A second dark phase is the massacre in Gujarat a few years ago. The Gujarat killings occurred at a time when India was ready to take its place on the world stage. Finally, we were being taken seriously as a democratic society that respected the rule of law and that had come to terms with religious diversity. Gujarat set us back because it allowed our enemies to say that Muslims were not safe in India. The police force and the administration were seen as functioning at the behest of Hindu communal forces and the world began to wonder if India was really up to potential superpower status.
In both cases, the events were masterminded by individuals. The Emergency — at least in its later phase — was the brainchild of Sanjay Gandhi, Indira Gandhi’s thug-like younger son. Sanjay had no patience with democracy and no tolerance for dissent. He pushed his mother into coercive measures that were alien to Indian governance, spoke openly of his contempt for democratic niceties and opposed Mrs Gandhi’s efforts to hold an election. (When she did overcome these objections it was only because mother and son thought that the Congress would win.)
Later when Indira and Sanjay were turfed out of office, Sanjay made yet another shameful contribution to Indian politics: he brought the cult of the goonda to the national mainstream and into the government buildings of New Delhi. His supporters would run riot in the streets, they would disrupt commissions of inquiry and fling furniture around — all this in the name of the Congress.
The Gujarat violence arose out of complex factors but one man came to epitomise the politics of hate. Perhaps Narendra Modi failed to impose law and order on the state because he had just taken over. Or perhaps he genuinely wanted to teach Muslims a lesson to appease his angry Hindu constituents who were outraged by his government’s failure to prevent the Godhra massacre.
Either way, his motives are not important. What is significant is that even after the world had condemned the massacres, Modi remained proudly unapologetic. Far from healing the communal divide, he went into the next Assembly election playing the Hindu card and seeking to subliminally link all Indian Muslims to ‘Mian Musharraf.’ There have been other communal massacres in Indian history. But rarely has one been symbolised by an arrogant demagogue who finds his glory in the rivers of blood caused by massacres in his own state.
Given that these are my two selections for the darkest phases in recent Indian history, what do you suppose my biggest fear is?
Well, it is a combination of the legacy of Sanjay Gandhi and the hatred engendered by Narendra Modi.
And now, as Varun Gandhi’s goondas riot in the streets of Pilibhit, protesting their master’s arrest for spreading communal hatred, we have both phenomena captured in one squeaky, roly poly package.
But at the end of the day, Varun Gandhi is not so much a politician as a surname. Were he not Indira Gandhi’s grandson, he would be just another fat boy trying to get ahead in the cesspool of Indian politics.
The reason he attracts so much attention and the reason the BJP — so-called enemies of dynasty — lavishes such affection on him is because he is a Gandhi. Better still, he is their kind of Gandhi. He may have the blood of Jawaharlal Nehru in his veins but he has the brain of Guruji Golwalkar, the charm of Sadhvi Rithambhara, the mendacity of Maneka Gandhi and the communal arrogance of Narendra Modi.
All this combines with the anti-democratic legacy of the first thug to achieve such prominence in Indian politics: Sanjay Gandhi.
Anybody who has observed the Varun Gandhi saga over the last fortnight will understand immediately what the BJP is up to. At first, it was embarrassed by the hatred embodied in Varun’s speech. Then, it realised it could have it both ways. It could say that the CDs of the speech had been doctored — without bothering to find any forensic evidence at all to support this outlandish claim. And it could promote Varun as a fatter-than-life, communal pin-up.
From then on, Varun has been no more than a puppet in the BJP’s hands. It was the party’s idea to ask him to go to Pilibhit and to court arrest. It was BJP workers who threw stones and ran amuck in the streets. And it is BJP ideologues who are trying to see if they can turn him into some kind of Hindutva poster boy by provoking violence and mayhem.
By any standards, this is a shameful strategy. Most BJP leaders of consequence — including L.K. Advani — were sent to jail by Sanjay Gandhi. They fought the 1977 election to defeat Sanjay and to restore democracy. In the 77-79 phase, when Sanjay supporters brought their goondagiri to the streets of Delhi and Lucknow, it was the leaders of today’s BJP who were the loudest in its condemnation.
And yet, here they are today, celebrating the legacy of Sanjay Gandhi and throwing in a dose of communal poison as well.
All this augurs badly for the future. Is this kind of cynical manoeuvering the level to which the BJP has now been reduced? Is the BJP without the statesmanship of A.B. Vajpayee no better than the Youth Congress of Sanjay Gandhi? And what kind of government will the BJP provide if this is how it functions?
The BJP thinks it’s being smart. No top leader is saying very much in Varun’s favour (except for Rajnath Singh who speaks first and thinks afterwards). The defence is being left to chhota mota spokesmen of the calibre of Balbir Punj, who are figures of no consequence and who can easily be disowned if things go very wrong.
But sometimes, it is possible to be too smart. Something like that seems to have happened to the BJP. The violence and goondagiri on the streets of Pilibhit make us wonder about the party’s reputation for discipline. The hate speeches leave us wondering about the BJP’s new-found moderation.
Think about this: if L.K. Advani can’t even rein in Varun Gandhi’s goondas, then what kind of Iron Man is he?
Either Advani doesn’t want to stop the goondas or Manmohan Singh was absolutely right when he described him as a weak man whose sole achievement was the destruction of the Babri Masjid.