In any civilised country, Yogi Adityanath would have been in jail, or at least facing serious hate speech charges that the authorities would pursue with diligence. In today’s India, he is being talked about as a possible minister in the Union Cabinet. Reports suggest he would prefer to be the chief ministerial candidate in the Uttar Pradesh polls in 2017. It’s possible that by keeping him in Delhi they hope to “pacify” him and stymie his ambitions. Whatever be the case, the good Yogi — Wikipedia calls him a politician and a priest — is destined for higher things and may soon hold a constitutional post. This is the man whose mission in life is to “purify” those who belong to religions other than Hinduism. He wants Hindus to marry Muslim girls who can then be converted. He once compared Shah Rukh Khan to Hafiz Saeed.
Yogi Adityanath’s communally charged provocations are not new. He and his Hindu Yuva Vahini storm troopers were involved in fomenting tension in Uttar Pradesh in 2007 after he was arrested for breaking a curfew. The subsequent rioting led to the burning of homes, buses, mosques and trains. What has changed now is that Yogi Adityanath is no longer a troublemaker but a player; he was used by the BJP for the September 2014 byelections, and he duly fulfilled his mandate by giving communally charged speeches that prompted the Election Commission to send him showcause notices, and an FIR being filed against him. Yogi Adityanath is not one to be demurred by such things; they only serve to spur him on further and, in turn, show his lumpen followers that he is above the law. Such faith is doubly confirmed when he is mentioned as a putative Union Cabinet minister.
One would imagine any Prime Minister would be wary of admitting such an unsavoury character into his Cabinet. Indeed, one would have thought he would not have even been given a ticket to contest the Lok Sabha polls. Today, his possible appointment is being blithely discussed. In the run-up to the 2014 polls and after Narendra Modi’s government took office, we saw elements associated with the BJP and the larger Sangh Parivar making the most outrageous statements. It was no longer deemed necessary to hold back one’s communal views in public; the more offensive it was, the more attention it got. The ferocity of these utterances left everyone shocked; it’s not as if such people didn’t exist before, but now they were part of the establishment.
At the time, any attempt to ask why the PM, who seemed to command his entire party with an iron grip, did not intervene was met with: “Do you think he should respond to every statement made by his party members?” The party chief too remained silent. Since then, no one is even asking that question any more. It’s as if we have all got used to this debasement of public behaviour. Instead of repeatedly pointing out that the likes of Yogi Adityanath be made accountable for what he says, we are discussing his political elevation. This is the “new normal”, and we seem to have come to terms with it.
The utterances of Subramanian Swamy have to be seen in this context. He has been in public life for years, even decades. His views were known, as was his habit of making wild allegations. He somehow kept himself in the news, even though his political significance steadily diminished. Five years ago he wrote his controversial article calling for Muslims to be disenfranchised, and lost his lecturing rights at Harvard. Instead of being banished into the political wilderness, he was made a Rajya Sabha member. Now he is at the front and centre of public life — a man with a profile as high as the Prime Minister’s. It was his assault on RBI governor Raghuram Rajan, and the lack of any kind of cogent rebuttal by the government, that led to the much-respected Reserve Bank governor declaring he was not interested in a second term. For the Prime Minister to now weakly upbraid Mr Swamy (without naming him) and hail Dr Rajan’s patriotism is a bit rich.
The damage has been done and Mr Swamy has emerged as the man whose remarks have consequences. It is poetic justice of sorts that the man who was cheered on for attacking the Gandhis has now trained his guns at senior ministers. Yogi Adityanath may be a rustic politician and Mr Swamy may be a Harvard-trained economist, but under the skin both are the same — communal in the extreme and with a destructive ability to turn a crude phrase. And there are more where these two come from, and we are not talking of the well-organised troll army here. As a nation and society, from being initially alarmed at this sudden burst of coarseness in public life — recall our collective disgust at the “Ramzaade haramzaade” remark by a junior minister — to now simply shrug and move on shows how inured we have become. It barely makes a blip in the news cycle; if anything, the Swamy example shows invective and innuendo are guaranteed to get maximum publicity and even reward.
Going back from here will not be easy. Public figures set the tone and are expected to be role models of civility and graciousness. Previous regimes may not have been perfect, but it would not be wrong to say that we did not see discourse at such low levels as we are seeing now. Any suggestion of this sort invites abuses from those who are blind devotees of the current dispensation, which kind of proves the point one is making. Yogi Adityanath and Subramanian Swamy — and so many others of that ilk — have large followings. We will see their tribe only grow in the coming years....