Weight of words

PM strikes the right notes. His party needs to hear there will be no impunity for those who make the wrong noise

In his speech in Central Hall in Parliament on Saturday, the first after being elected leader of the BJP-led NDA, Prime Minister Narendra Modi struck a heartening note of magnanimity. Among other things, he said the new government would make efforts to earn the trust of minorities, and of those who disagree (with the BJP-NDA). He urged the newly elected MPs to puncture the “myth” or illusion of fear among the country’s minorities: “The way the poor have been cheated, the minorities have been deceived the same way…”. He spoke of owning even those who express strong opposition to the BJP, “jo hamara ghor virodh karte hain, woh bhi hamare hain”. These are statements of inclusive intent. But it will take more for them to reassure.

PM Modi’s words will need to be heeded by his own partymen and Sangh Parivar footsoldiers, who will need to acknowledge both what the PM said and didn’t say: Minority fears and insecurities are real, they are no illusion or myth. Admittedly, they are a grave, throbbing left-over from the deceptions and abdications of earlier governments that called themselves secular. But, in the last five years, they have been made up of, and stoked by, a majoritarianism unleashed and emboldened by the NDA victory of 2014. This “us versus them” strain, deepened by the top BJP leadership’s silences and complicities, was also mirrored in its 2019 campaign: Be it party president Amit Shah calling (the mostly Muslim) Bangladeshi immigrants “termites”, or PM Modi himself referring to Rahul Gandhi’s decision to contest from Wayanad in Kerala as an escape to a minority (as opposed to a majority dominated) constituency, or the BJP’s choice, endorsed by its top two leaders, of Sadhvi Pragya Thakur as the candidate from Bhopal. It may well be that campaigning is different from governing in the second term. It could be that the overwhelming mandate of 2019 — ironically, facilitated by this kind of rhetoric— makes room for generosity and inclusiveness of the kind that could be heard in the PM’s first speech to his MPs. But it will need constant mindfulness from the top BJP leadership.

It will have to own the responsibility to curb the party’s worst instincts vis a vis minorities and those who disagree with it. The next time a BJP MP or MLA resorts to hate speech, or justifies mob violence, the next time the party uses its mandate as a weapon to disrespect the political opponent or subdue the autonomous institution, they will need to be told that there are penalties to pay. Going ahead, at the very least, there must be no impunity for flouting the PM’s words on the Saturday after he won a famous mandate.

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