Within a day of the diplomatic storm that broke out over remarks made by suspended BJP national spokesperson Nupur Sharma on Prophet Muhammed, during a TV show aired on May 26, another video clip of her went viral. This one was from 2008, when she was the Delhi University Students Union (DUSU) president from the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the RSS. It was about a reported incident of a protester “spitting” at a former Delhi University Professor S.A.R. Geelani. Mr. Geelani had been given the death sentence by a trial court and later acquitted by the Supreme Court in the 2001 Parliament attack case. Ms. Sharma’s moment on television came when she, along with other students, stormed into a faculty seminar on the topic “Communalism, fascism and democracy: rhetoric and reality”, to protest against Mr. Geelani’s participation.
She was called on Times Now (the same channel that broadcast her remarks on May 26th appearance) where she defiantly stated to a younger Arnab Goswami who had called her out on it, “I am not going to apologise... I will take a stand. The whole country should spit on him. Who invited him to the university to speak on terrorism?”
For Ms. Sharma and many in her cohort that had joined the BJP in various capacities, this aggressive questioning of what the BJP termed “appeasement politics” in words and in actions was par for the course in a party that prized a muscular assertion of Hindutva, particularly since it politically backed the Ramjanmabhoomi movement at its Palampur resolution in 1989.
Ms. Sharma’s outspokenness and her law degrees — graduation from Delhi University and Master’s from the London School of Economics (LSE) — put her on a good track for career advancement within the party, which was slowly coming out of the Vajpayee-Advani era. Under Narendra Modi, the party would end a three-decade-long coalition era and bring to life the idea of a unified Hindu vote.
In 2015, Ms. Sharma was asked by the party to fight the Assembly election against Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. While no one expected her to win, the contest brought her to the national spotlight. Then, she first became the spokesperson for the Delhi BJP and later in 2020, the national spokesperson.
Her aggressive style was appreciated by television channels, which stuck to organising gladiatorial debates on prime time between aggressive panellists of divergent views, where strong language was the order of the day.
The May 26 debate, entitled The Gyanvapi Files, came and went without attracting much attention. It was only after a clip of Ms. Sharma’s comments on Prophet Muhammed went viral that things became dire. Violence broke out in Kanpur, and Muslim groups took out protests. When West Asian countries started reacting, the BJP decided to take action, with more than a gentle nudge from the government. Indian Ambassadors termed Ms. Sharma and Naveen Kumar Jindal, another party leader, “fringe elements”.
Her suspension, even as she received death threats from extremist groups, has created a churn among the social media warriors of the BJP. She was seen to be abandoned by a party that encouraged plain speaking. The BJP will have to work to convince them that the action taken was inevitable.
For the BJP and the Sangh Parivar, Ms. Sharma’s career graph is a moment of reflection coming as it does following a significant speech by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat telling Hindu society to “not look for a Shivling under every mosque”. BJP president J.P. Nadda said the resolution of the Gyanvapi Mosque issue was to be through courts and the Constitution. Much is being spoken of making the party’s rank and file pivot from polarising rhetoric to selling the good works of the NDA government. This will, after eight years of pushing the political narrative in one direction, require much unlearning and a massive human resources exercise on rewards and punishment.
If it is indeed the case that the Sangh Parivar wants a calmer public discourse on Hindu and Muslim identity politics, then Ms. Sharma’s case is more than just a random disciplinary action, but a singular act that may decide many things in the BJP in the time to come.