Did particular functionaries of the Narendra Modi government and supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party anticipate that their actions would contribute to a young PhD student of the Jawaharlal Nehru University becoming a folk-hero of sorts in a matter of days? If they did not, they have only themselves to blame. True, many could argue that the media attention Kanhaiya Kumar is getting is going to be ephemeral and that such transient instances of individual fame do not have a lasting impact on the country’s politics.
However, it can be contended that the exact opposite is true, namely, that the government, the BJP, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its students’ wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, were taken aback by the sudden surge in the popularity of the leader of the JNU Students’ Union affiliated to the All India Students’ Federation affiliated to the Communist Party of India. What started out as an attempt to not just silence, but also browbeat a bunch of student activists in a university that’s allegedly a bastion of Left-liberals by painting them as “anti-national” and pro-Pakistan supporters of Kashmiri separatists hell-bent on dismembering the Indian nation-state, has backfired.
The spin doctors in Mr Modi’s government also thought that the support of a section of the media, including television anchors like Rajat Sharma of IndiaTV, Sudhir Chaudhary of Zee News, Rahul Shivshankar of NewsX, Deepak Chaurasia of India News not to mention Arnab Goswami of Times Now, would be adequate to ensure that a large section of the middle classes and the urban chatterati remains faithful to the ruling regime. But the physical attacks on journalists in the Patiala House courts by lawyers owing allegiance to the BJP and the RSS — and the Prime Minister’s deafening silence on the matter — turned much of the rest of the electronic media against not just the outgoing chief of the Delhi Police but the government as well.
Media personnel in India (including this writer) wear their political affiliations on their sleeves. Journalists in India have never been each another’s bosom buddies. On the contrary, journalists have often been their own worst enemies. Still, the kind of “us versus them” polarisation that one witnesses in the country’s media at present is truly out of the ordinary, perhaps never seen before in the recent past within the journalistic fraternity.
The series of events that began with the suicide of Rohith Vemula in the University of Hyderabad and culminated with the arrests of Mr Kumar and other students of JNU have not just polarised the student community and the media in the country. They have provided an opportunity to all political forces not aligned to the BJP and the National Democratic Alliance it leads to come together on a common set of issues relating to real and perceived notions of patriotism, sedition and what constitutes a fundamental right of every Indian citizen, that is, the right to free expression subject to certain “reasonable restrictions”.
Many observers of the current socio-political scene have pointed out that this is precisely what Mr Modi wanted. The economy is not exactly in the pink of health despite what finance minister Arun Jaitley may claim. Investments by private firms are yet to take place. Many supporters of the government are extremely unhappy with the proposals contained in the Union Budget. Employment opportunities for the youth are not picking up. In short, the achche din (good times) promised by the Prime Minister before he was elected have not yet materialised.
Under the circumstances, it is argued that it helps Mr Modi to whip up sentiments along so-called nationalist lines. Former deputy prime minister L.K. Advani had sought to divide Indian society between those who were “pseudo-secular” and those who were not. Now’s the time to divide the country’s complex, heterogeneous, diverse and deeply-divided nation-state into two groups: those who are “anti-national” or bastard children of Bharat Mata and those who are “genuine nationalists”. By invoking the “enemy within”, the Prime Minister’s supporters hope to keep the Indian flag flying high.
But there are problems in following such a strategy. The big problem that the BJP and the RSS faces is its monolithic, authoritarian and majoritarian structure that leaves no room for the “enemy within”, or dissenters, to co-exist. All those who refuse to acquiesce to the Supreme Leader are painted as disgruntled elements who are cribbing because they have been denied a share of the spoils of power.
In this category are the four “angry old men” — Mr Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Shanta Kumar and Yashwant Sinha — and their well-wishers, Arun Shourie and K.N. Govindacharya. Also in this loosely-formed group are the likes of Shatrughan Sinha (who had the temerity to utter a few nice words about Mr Kumar) and Kirti Azad. It seems truly ironical to recall how, in June 2005, Mr Sinha had opposed Mr Advani for praising Mohammed Ali Jinnah in Pakistan by describing his statements as “unnecessary and avoidable”. Soon thereafter, Mr Sinha was removed from the post of party spokesperson.
It is also ironical that some of the most sarcastic remarks about the Prime Minister and the finance minister have come from Mr Shourie — presumably because he did not get the “plum post” he was supposed to be hoping for. He suggested that Mr Jaitley is more adept at managing headlines than the economy. To the accusation that Mr Modi had concentrated too much power in his office, Mr Shourie pithily remarked that the Prime Minister is not a section officer in the department of homoeopathy.
I never thought I would end up quoting him such a lot, and that too approvingly, but Mr Shourie could now re-phrase his comment about the difference between the BJP and the Congress — “the BJP is the Congress with a cow” — with the concluding line of a recent editorial published in the Economist which is no lover of Left-liberal cause, that the BJP is the Congress with a cow waving the tricolour.