Sunday, April 27, 2014

Rhetoric of hate

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, April 27, 2014

This general election for the 16 Lok Sabha will be remembered for many reasons. It is being seen as a dramatic departure from past elections because of the presence, influence and use of the media; because of the focus on a handful of personalities rather than any issues and because polls are predicting a dire outcome for India’s oldest political party.

Apart from these factors, what this election stands out for is the sickening depths to which some of the election-speak has sunk — from attacking critics and minorities and virtually asking them to leave the country to suggesting that men who rape women should be forgiven because they have made a ‘mistake’.

Admittedly, many of these remarks have been amplified because of the omnipresence of the media that is waiting to pick up anything that can be spun out into a controversy and into endless debates on television channels. It is fascinating to watch politicians either deny what they have said although they know it has been recorded, or have their spokespersons attempt to explain their controversial comments.

Thus, for instance, the recent rabid anti-Muslim comments by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s Pravin Togadia were dismissed by the Bharatiya Janata Party spokespersons as having no relevance to the BJP’s stance because he was not a member of the party. That the VHP is a part of the larger Sangh Parivar is conveniently brushed aside. In another talk show, a journalist with known sympathies to the BJP, described the comments as “rather reckless” and suggested that they could not be linked to the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi because Togadia had a “visceral hatred of Modi” and was a “wild unguided missile”.

Despite such dismissive remarks or denials, it is evident that the electronic media, with its obsessive coverage of the election campaign, has put on record the regressive attitudes of many men in political life, attitudes that will have a bearing on how the future India shapes up.

Some argue that all this is just election talk, that after May 16, once results are out, life will revert to ‘normal’. But what will be ‘normal’ if such verbal violence and viciousness have marked the campaign leading up to the final result? Is it not inevitable that if you have political parties justifying such hateful rhetoric, then the politics of revenge and retribution will also be justified in the future?

Look at Mumbai, a city that until 1992 was known for a certain level of tolerance of difference — political and religious. Of course, there have always been concentrations of certain communities in different areas of the city. But by and large, much of the city had a mixed population of Hindus and Muslims and other religious groups as well as people from different regions. It was a given that everyone had a right to the city.

Since 1992 and the post-Babri Masjid communal riots, the city has gradually changed. One reason for this change in the city was the hate speech that was doled out virtually every day. The late Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray minced no words. His editorials in his newspaper Saamna were vicious as they targeted the minorities. Although civic-minded individuals objected, and even took the paper to court, the language did not change. Overtime it infected the minds of a large section of those consuming the message every day.

As a result, when in addition to the hatred of Muslims, the Shiv Sena and its breakaway group the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) turned on “North Indians”, a euphemism for the people from Bihar and UP who migrated to Mumbai, there was little protest against such campaigns. Today, Mumbai is a city that is deeply divided and there is barely a whiff of its famed ‘cosmopolitanism’.
So if we hold that hate-filled political rhetoric and its dissemination through the media has an impact on people’s mindset, one only has to look at Mumbai over the last two decades and more.

Election-speak has also included several regressive remarks on issues concerning women. Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh’s remark about rape — and that it was a ‘mistake’ by some young men — generated considerable heat. But what is worrying is the mindset it represents, one that too readily blames women for the violence they face, one that will not accept women as equal partners, one that believes that women should remain culturally bound to norms that deny them a voice.

This time women constitute 47.62 per cent of the electorate. Women voters have already established that they go out in larger numbers than men to vote. We will have to wait and see whether they judge their candidates and the parties they support on the basis of their attitude towards women’s rights.

As we wait for May 16, we need to consider whether there can be anything like ‘normal’ after such an election season where hatred, mockery and insensitivity have become virtually a norm.

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