Is 2011-12, 1988-89 all over again? The near farce over Salman Rushdie's non-appearance in Jaipur, whether in person or even in a videolink, would suggest so. Rewind to the late 1980s. A beleaguered Rajiv Gandhi government, its image dented by the Bofors kickback accusations, chooses to ban Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. India, in fact, had the 'distinction' of becoming the first country in the world to ban the book, perhaps before anyone in the country had even read it.
Worse, on February 24, 1989, barely 10 days after the infamous fatwa delivered against Rushdie by Ayatollah Khomeini, 12 people were killed in police firing in Bombay. The police claimed it was forced to open fire when a crowd of around 10,000 Muslims protesting outside the British Consulate began to turn violent.
It was also the year of the horrific Bhagalpur riots when more than 1,000 people were killed. The riots were part of a decade of violence with strong communal and sectarian overtones culminating in the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. It was also a period when the Congress government at the Centre pussyfooted on a variety of sensitive inter-community issues, from the Shah Bano case to opening the locks of the disputed shrine in Ayodhya.
The year 1989 was general election year, a year which marked the ascent of the BJP as a force to reckon with in national politics, as the secular versus pseudo-secular debate began to gather momentum. Riding the twin planks of anti-corruption and a defender of minority-backward caste interests, VP Singh was catapulted into prime ministership. Rajiv Gandhi's mighty majority of 1984 had vanished barely five years later.
Now switch back to the present. If then it was Bofors that hobbled the Rajiv regime, 2G has clearly had a similar impact on UPA 2. If Bofors scarred Rajiv's 'Mr Clean' image, the 2G scam has chipped away at Manmohan Singh's aura of personal integrity. A scam-tainted government has been desperately looking for a survival ticket. Like 1989, this too is a big election year: Uttar Pradesh is the biggest prize of them all. For more than two decades, the Congress has been steadily wiped off the map of India's most populous state. Now, with Rahul Gandhi at the helm, and with Digvijaya Singh as his Sancho Panza, the party has been hoping to effect a spectacular comeback. The only problem is that making big gains in a highly fragmented state — and taking on battle-hardened prize fighters like Mayawati and Mulayam Singh — is easier said than done.
When there are no aces left on the table, the Congress historically has tended to play one last card: the minority card. Which is why just days before the UP elections were announced, the Centre flagged off a 4.5% sub-quota for Muslims. If you can't provide them education, jobs, bank loans, or save them from the terror tag, what better way to reach out to UP's 18% Muslims than offer them quotas? The Sachar Committee prepared a report of 403 pages and presented it in the Lok Sabha on November 30, 2006. That report had exposed the pitiable condition of the Indian Muslim (on some parameters even below the Dalits and adivasis) and had spoken of the need for affirmative action. For five years, the UPA government did not act on many of the Sachar panel's recommendations, but then does so 48 hours before the UP poll process begins. If that is not cynical realpolitik, then what is?
A similar cynical statecraft has been on exhibition right through the Rushdie drama in the last fortnight in Jaipur. Like the Centre, the Ashok Gehlot government in Rajasthan has also been lurching from one crisis to another. One of its senior ministers is in jail, accused of conspiring to murder a Dalit nurse in a case that offers a deadly combination of sex, sleaze and power. Gehlot himself has been accused by his rivals of nepotism and corruption. In September last year, Gehlot faced even more criticism when a land-related dispute turned into communal clashes in Bharatpur's Gopalgarh village leaving 10 people dead - all Muslims. A minorities commission report blamed the police for firing on the crowd, including firing on a local masjid.
Gehlot, too, has been looking for redemption. Rushdie's planned arrival in Jaipur and a mysterious fatwa issued by the Deoband seminary provided just the opening his government needed. Instead of welcoming the acclaimed author to the Pink City, Gehlot pulled out the red flag. Every possible excuse was conjured up: from the threat of the Mumbai underworld (when in doubt, revive the D Company!) to the fear of mobs entering the venue. Instead of providing security assurances, the government did just the opposite: warning of dire consequences if Rushdie came to Jaipur. The government which could not protect the lives of ordinary Muslims in Gopalgarh is now claiming to have preserved Muslim 'sentiments' by ensuring Rushdie was not seen or heard in Jaipur.
So, are we really back to the dangerous politics of the late 80s? Well, not quite. The fact is that while our politics still drives wedges in civil society, this is also an aspirational India, which has either tasted, or seen, the benefits of 8% economic growth. The largest pool of Indians — Hindus and Muslims — don't want law and order disruptions to interfere in their drive for upward mobility. Yes, there will be mischief-mongers in both communities who will look to fish in troubled waters, but it is extremely unlikely that we will see the kind of large scale violence that afflicted the 1980s. At the same time, in an atmosphere of rising intolerance and weak governments, the Rushdie episode is a grim reminder that we still haven't fully succeeded in fashioning a liberal, multi-faith republic.
Rajdeep Sardesai is editor-in-chief, IBN 18 Network. The views expressed by the author are personal.