'Time' magazine’s cover calling Divider-in-Chief is a far cry from its 2015 cover featuring the PM, calling him a 'global political star'. The difference is stark. It raised many eyebrows in the din of mammoth general elections entering into the final phase.
To begin with, the Western media must be appreciated for often objectively looking at rising majoritarianism, creeping authoritarianism, and increasing violence in India, perhaps more critically than Indian media at-large. And this has hurt India’s image globally, and rightly so. You can’t even dismiss it as Western media’s bias against India, for these are the same publications that had previously named Narendra Modi as one of the most influential leaders in the world, eulogising him as the ‘reformer-in-chief’. This criticism certainly punches holes in the BJP narrative that Modi has strengthened India’s global image.
When a foreign magazine with the influence that TIME enjoys calls the Indian Prime Minister a “Divider-in-Chief,” you can’t dismiss it as compulsive cynicism of a few. Ideally, such a mirror should have been held up to the country by its own media. Unfortunately, most of it has been busy pandering to the Modi cult, carrying interviews and puff pieces on Modi and BJP president Amit Shah. The national media insistently ignores the fact that instead of campaigning on issues that affect the life of the people of the country, the duo has been talking about everything else – from religion and nationalism and pride to former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s holidays and unproven cases of corruption.
The “Divider in Chief” jibe must hurt because it is true. It is difficult to recall another election where the people have been so divided as a conscious strategy. It is true that in democratic polities there is a natural process of division when citizens choose their rulers from competing candidates. But when the ruling dispensation shapes the debate in terms of labeling all those who oppose them as traitors to the nation, and spares no institution from this toxic process of polarisation, then we have a problem.
Consider how the Modi campaign has divided both the Army and the Navy in this election campaign. In a bid to shore up the government’s credentials, the Indian Army has officially denied that there were any strikes on camps across the Line of Control before September 29, 2016, the date of the Modi government’s self-proclaimed surgical strike. Modi himself referred to any strikes conducted earlier as a “video game.” This came after acclaim by the Congress party that there had been six surgical strikes conducted during the tenure of the Manmohan Singh government. Other observers, too, have listed out such strikes. The veterans who conducted these strikes have expressed their resentment at the government’s stand. It is well known in the defence circles, that cross-border strikes have been authorised since the time General B.P. Joshi was the army chief in the mid-1990s.
The BJP mis-represented the September 2016 cross-LoC raid as a “surgical strike” and so now, its government blandly claims that none have occurred before this hallowed event. To cut a long story short, what has the BJP achieved with this debate, apart from the votes it hopes it will get by politicising the bravery of soldiers? It has divided the army on political lines and questioned the bravery and dedication of an entire generation of army personnel who, at great risk to their lives, carried out cross-LoC strikes in 1990s and 2000s.
Last week, Modi followed up his “success” with the Indian Army by dividing the Indian Navy as well. The occasion? His throwaway claim that former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi along with foreign nationals, including relatives of Sonia Gandhi had used the aircraft carrier INS Viraat as personal taxi for a holiday by compromising national security in the process. But the charge was firmly refuted by the captain of the Virat at the time, RADM (retired) Vinod Pasricha. In essence, then, the prime minister’s thoughtless remarks have ended up dividing the navy as well.
Encouraging divisiveness is written into the BJP’s DNA. It is most strongly manifested when it comes to the country’s minorities, especially the Muslims. It has systematically excluded them from its electoral calculations and made Muslim-bashing a means of rallying its supporters. The country has gone through one division on account of religious polarisation in 1947. Geographical areas where Muslims were a majority were separated to create Pakistan. In the ensuing partition, millions were displaced and hundreds of thousands lost their lives. Even then, the BJP continues its politics of division.
In Jammu & Kashmir, it has adopted a hard line which has resulted in a sharp rise of violence, and is pushing the population to a prolonged war of attrition. In Assam, BJP is championing a process which will selectively disenfranchise Muslims. In other places it has used selective violence related to ‘cow protection’ to intimidate them. The danger of this cannot be overstated. There are 200 million Muslims in India today – too large a number for even the worst Hindutva fanatic to think they can be thrown out of the country – and this number will grow to 311 million, according to the Pew Research Centre. The purpose of this enumeration is to point out that if communal divisiveness is encouraged, the country won’t be divided this time; the social, political and economic fabric of its heartland will simply be shredded.