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A daily dose of venom for a ‘hit’ on May 23?

Patralekha Chatterjee focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies. She can be reached at
Published : May 2, 2019, 1:24 am IST
Updated : May 2, 2019, 1:24 am IST

Think Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “chowkidar” campaign and Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s response “chowkidar chor hai”.

Congress President Rahul Gandhi
 Congress President Rahul Gandhi

Does venom make for a box-office hit in poll time? The answer will be known on May 23.

But meanwhile, get used to a daily dose of venomous speeches, amplified through the social media, that makes the ongoing election campaign nothing like what we have seen before in India.

It’s a given that in a high-stakes battle, political rivals will relentlessly criticise one another. Words and phrases will be weaponised. Think Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “chowkidar” campaign and Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s response “chowkidar chor hai”.

But much of what we have been experiencing of late, even before the elections were announced, is far worse than standard bad-mouthing of competitors. It’s a series of statements that ooze poison and is meant to dehumanise not only the opponent, his/her supporters but also any ecosystem perceived to be advocating different values. The words and phrases used are visual. They are meant to induce fear, hatred and loathing against specific groups of people and ideas.

A telling illustration is BJP president Amit Shah’s use of the word “termites” while talking about illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Every country regulates its borders and action is taken against those who enter illegally. But what is the political thinking behind repeatedly conflating alleged illegal migrants from Bangladesh with termites as Mr Shah does?

Addressing a rally in West Bengal’s Raiganj last month, Mr Shah alleged that the Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress government was only interested in appeasing “minorities”, meaning Muslims. He went on to say: “The illegal immigrants are like termites. They are eating the grain that should go to the poor, they are taking our jobs. The T of TMC stands for Tushtikaran, (appeasement), M for Mafia and C for Chit funds.” The BJP president said his party would find these “termites” and throw them out, adding that citizenship would, however, be granted to every Hindu and Buddhist refugee.

The termite imagery is one of Mr Shah’s top favourites; he has used it in several rallies in the past. Interestingly, Mr Shah’s use of “termites” to whip up passions isn’t original. Last year, Newsweek reported that in the United States, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan posted a clip of a speech in which he compared Jews to termites and claimed both white and Jewish people were working against him.

Another example -- at a recent rally in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath, one of BJP’s star campaigners, said: “I also want to say, if Congress, SP (Samajwadi Party) and BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party) have faith in ‘Ali’, we have faith in ‘Bajrang Bali’.”

In March, addressing a rally in Saharanpur, Mr Adityanath quipped: “The son-in-law of (Jaish-e-Mohammed chief) Azhar Masood has entered the constituency and he speaks the language of the terror mastermind.” The reference was to Imran Masood, the Congress candidate from the constituency.
At the heart of such venomous speech is “dog whistle politics”. This is made up of statements which may sound simply crude and tasteless to a lot of people, but to the target groups, they have a coded meaning and resonate well.

The analogy is to a dog whistle, which emits sound in the ultrasonic range, which human beings can’t hear but dogs can.

In the Indian context, dog whistle politics has often meant constant invocation of hatred directly or indirectly against specific communities who are being held as the “other”. Minority groups have been hit.

The venomous and exclusionary speeches are happening in the backdrop of an alarming polarisation of society. It is no longer about just those contesting elections. Anyone whose worldview is different from the majority and who is vocal risks being stigmatised as an “anti-national” by venom peddlers. The Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), which works in the area of electoral and political reforms, recently came out with some interesting data. Looking only at candidates contesting in the fifth phase, ADR found five with cases over hate speech registered against them.

Exclusionary and venomous speech are not the monopoly of any one political party, though some have been more guilty than others. The Election Commission recently pulled up Mr Adityanath for his Ali-Bajrang Bali remark and halted his campaign for a few days as punishment. It slapped a three-day halt on BSP leader Mayawati, who in a speech had urged “especially Muslims” not to split their anti-BJP votes. Samajwadi Party’s Azam Khan is facing more stringent action for saying Jayaprada, his female BJP opponent, wore “khaki underwear”, a vulgar reference to the uniform of the RSS. Maneka Gandhi, minister for women and child development in the outgoing government, was also banned by the EC from campaigning for two days after a video emerged of her telling a group of Muslims to vote for her in the Lok Sabha polls, or else they would not receive any
help when she emerges victorious.

A recent remark by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a rally in West Bengal’s Srirampore raised eyebrows: “Even today, Didi, 40 of your MLAs are in touch with me”. It was widely seen as an attempt to taunt chief minister Mamata Banerjee with the prospect of a revolt in her Trinamul Congress party. Mr Modi followed it up with statements which promised “to wipe out her party drop by drop” from the state and told her that “you will not find a place to flee to”. The BJP is keen to make inroads into West Bengal. The Opposition parties see this as an attempt at horse-trading. Trinamul Congress’ parliamentary leader in the Rajya Sabha, Derek O’Brien, sneeringly countered that not a single MLA would jump ship.

But the larger question pivots around the “why” behind the daily dose of venom in stump speeches and elsewhere in this general election? One theory is that this is the “language of the street”; politicians are seeking to weaponise catchwords and phrases to galvanise core supporters and stoke their pre-existing prejudices. But if a daily drip-drip of poisonous speeches, hugely amplified through the social media, including WhatsApp, can be legitimised in the name of the language of the street, do we risk reducing the general election in the world’s largest democracy to a street brawl?

This Indian summer is super-hot for more reasons than just the weather. If our leaders keep using venom to provoke their cadre in this manner, they should be held responsible for the consequences.

Tags: rahul gandhi, narendra modi