The manner in which leaders of the principal political parties have traded allegations in the last few days over the tragedy of the Muzaffarnagar communal clashes reflects an increasing trend of competitive irresponsibility. This latest round started with the Congress vice-president, Rahul Gandhi’s reckless comments that some of the Muzaffarnagar riot victims were being cultivated by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate. He quoted Indian intelligence sources; this was a grave impropriety in itself, raising the disturbing question as to how a person outside government could have had privileged intelligence briefings. More damagingly, his words have had the effect of questioning the national loyalty of Muslims. As is well known, the minority community has been subjected to periodic tests of its loyalty, especially during election campaigns when competitive communalism is on the ascendant. As the Sachar Committee report on the status of Muslims pointed out, the community carries the double burden of having to prove its loyalty to this country while being subjected to the unfair perception that it is the recipient of policies of appeasement by political parties.
Presumably, Mr. Gandhi meant to draw attention only to the unaddressed sufferings of Muslims post the communal riots in Muzaffarnagar and highlight their vulnerability. Yet, by his awkward and ill-thought conceptualisation of this concern, he ended up offending the sensibilities of the very community he was trying to reach out to in the context of the upcoming elections to five State Assemblies. The BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi’s attempts to capitalise on Mr. Gandhi’s egregious mistake seemed to be designed to underscore the theme of “the national security risk” by his repeated references to this theme. While seeming to be sympathetic, Mr. Modi’s expressed outrage over the remarks appeared synthetic. The credibility gap for Mr Modi’s secular credentials remains a challenge that he needs to overcome. His overture to Muslims is seen as less about inclusiveness and more designed to break down the resistance of secular forces in the larger national arena. Some months ago, a participant at one of Mr. Modi’s Muslim outreach programmes pointed to the paradox of the BJP’s website continuing to carry literature suggesting that Muslims carried divided loyalties. The BJP has still to remove the offensive material. Trading of charges is a part of election discourse. But surely Mr. Gandhi and Mr. Modi need to be aware of the dangers of crossing the line on such emotive and potentially explosive issues as national security and Muslim patriotism. This country requires a constructive debate especially during these crucial elections, on critical issues of livelihood and development, and could do without such debilitating arguments that take the discourse nowhere.