Mukul Kesavan


The stock response of the Bharatiya Janata Party to the argument that Godhra makes Narendra Modi politically untouchable is “What about 1984?” There are several inadequate comebacks to that question and the best of them is that no one should use one pogrom to justify another.


I once heard this used to good effect by the columnist, Aakar Patel, in a television discussion. This answer has the virtue of not being party-political nor attempting in some grotesque way to demonstrate that the pogrom permitted and encouraged by the Congress government in

Delhi in 1984 was morally less horrible than the pogrom that occurred on the BJP’s watch in Gujarat in 2002.


The problem with this response, though, is that it doesn’t answer the questions that fly in close formation behind the “What about 1984?”question, namely, “Why is the BJP worse than the Congress?” and,  “Why is Narendra Modi any worse than Rajiv Gandhi?” specially given the latter’s infamous comment, “When a big tree falls, the earth shakes,” which seemed,  retrospectively, to rationalize the systematic killing of Sikhs in the days that followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination.


These are important questions regardless of who asks them. The fact that they are often asked by Narendra Modi’s unlovely supporters isn’t a good reason for not taking them seriously.


It has been nearly thirty years since the earth shook, and for those who didn’t live through the horror of those days as reasoning adults, it is worth rehearsing the hideous significance of 1984 in the history of the republic.


There had been communal violence right through the early history of the republic with mostly Muslims at the receiving end. The complicity of the lower echelons of the state apparatus in this violence — Uttar Pradesh’s Provincial Armed Constabulary was notorious for its institutionalized animus against Muslims — was widely recognized. But the scale on which Sikhs were killed, the participation of Congressmen at every level, the total complicity of the police and the fact that the butchery happened in the country’s capital, in Delhi, made 1984 a watershed in the history of the republic.


In a previous column, I wrote about Modi doubling down on the Gujarat killings by refusing any expression of regret or responsibility and also by continuing to sponsor individuals like Maya Kodnani who had taken an active part in the violence. In this context, we should remember the way in which Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress exploited the Delhi pogrom by running a fear-mongering election campaign that suggested that 1984 was a feature not a bug.


I remember a Congress advertisement that unsubtly suggested that Indians ought to vote for the party of firm governance if their taxi-drivers made them nervous, this, remember, at a time when Sikhs drove taxis in large numbers in Indian cities. I remember the Congress’s election doggerel: “Chunauti nayi, ek sandesh,/ Mazboot hai haath, akhand hai desh.” This, roughly translated, encouraged voters to vote for the ‘Hand’ (the Congress’s election symbol) if they wanted a government capable of preserving India’s unity. The use of the word,  akhand, to indicate the unity and integrity of the nation was significant: the Congress, unprecedentedly, was using a word from the Sangh Parivar’s playbook, stealing the idea of a majoritarian “akhand Bharat”.


Similarly, the reluctance of the Congress to purge itself of members accused of participating in the 1984 pogrom, its willingness to field them as parliamentary candidates and to appoint them to ministerial office, doesn’t add up to a record that can be virtuously contrasted with the BJP’s and Narendra Modi’s brazenness after Godhra.


Nineteen eighty four  had two major consequences. First, it radically undermined the Congress’s claim to being a secular party that respected the political tradition of pluralism pioneered by its colonial avatar and consolidated by Nehru in the early years of the republic. The willingness of the Congress under Indira Gandhi to use sectarian issues for political ends had been evident before 1984 but the party’s willingness to sell its pluralist soul for immediate political advantage was most vividly illustrated in the days and months after her death. The Congress, after 1984, stood out more and more clearly as a party that couldn’t even be accused of not having the courage of its convictions because it didn’t have any convictions at all.


Pluralism and its traditional opposition to majoritarianism became labels that the Congress used for brand management in particular political contexts, not as principles that shaped its political agenda.


The second consequence of 1984 was that Indira Gandhi’s assassination sealed the Congress’s long transition to dynastic rule in blood. The rhetoric of martyrdom that debases the political utterances of the Congress faithful dates back to that time. From being a great pan-Indian party that made a subcontinent cohere into a republic, the Congress after 1984 regressed into a de- natured dynastic rump.


Let us return to our question, namely, “What makes Modi and the BJP worse than the Congress and its dynasts, given the horror of 1984?” The answer is simple and unedifying. The Congress, by a kind of historical default, is a pluralist party that is opportunistically communal while the BJP is an ideologically communal (or majoritarian) party that is opportunistically ‘secular’. The difference between the Congress and the BJP doesn’t lie mainly in the willingness of the former to express contrition about pogroms it helped organize; it is, perhaps, best illustrated by the fact that twenty years after the 1984 pogrom, the Congress assumed office with a Sikh at the helm who served as prime minister for two terms.


Try to imagine a BJP government headed by a Muslim ten years from now. It doesn’t work even as a thought experiment. And the reason it doesn’t work is that the BJP’s ideology is essentially the encrustation of prejudice around an inconvenient and irreducible fact: the substantial and undeferential presence of minority communities in the republic, specially Muslims who, for the Sangh parivar, are the unfinished business of Partition. The idea that the BJP might appoint a Muslim head of government (as opposed to, say, the nomination of President Kalam to titular office) is unthinkable.


It doesn’t follow from this that Manmohan Singh’s prime ministership is a sign of the Congress’s political virtue; it isn’t. It is, if anything, a symptom of the dynastic dysfunction that has diminished the Congress. But the reason his prime ministership is possible is that the Congress isn’t ideologically committed to anti-Sikh bigotry (despite 1984) in the way that the BJP is committed to Hindu supremacy and the subordination of Muslims. That’s why Narendra Modi so excites the sangh parivar’s rank and file: the Gujarat Model is the BJP’s test run for India, and it isn’t the economics of it that sets the pulses of its cadres racing.


So the reason the dynastic Congress isn’t as dangerous as Modi’s BJP is dispiriting but straightforward: while the Congress is capable of communalism, it isn’t constituted by bigotry. With Modi, even when he’s talking economics and good governance, we get the “burqa of secularism” and Muslims as road kill. It’s not his fault; from the time that Golwalkar sketched out his vision of an India where religious minorities were docile helots, bigotry has been Hindutva’s calling card.

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