Arundhati Roy has written an open letter to Penguin India in which she asks what “terrified” them into taking the book The Hindus: An Alternative History off the stands even before there was a “fatwa or ban,” even though the “fascists are campaigning… but are not in power.” The answer seems obvious. It was not fear of a legal battle — Penguin might have easily won that. It was not fear of bad publicity — Penguin could have only benefited from the inevitably larger book sales. No, it was fear of the mindless violence that certain bands of fanatics are capable of unleashing.
The quietness with which this surrender took place was about accepting beforehand that a certain kind of ideological climate could possibly soon come to hold sway in the country, and realising that any voice-of-reason argument the publisher might extend would certainly be drowned in the clamour of righteous indignation that was bound to rise.
In the run-up to the elections, one of the more noticeable aspects of offline and online political debate has been the extreme aggression on display. When the Aam Aadmi Party’s Prashant Bhushan suggested a referendum in Jammu and Kashmir on Army deployment, a right-wing mob attacked his office and vandalised it. When the Tarun Tejpal incident came to light, a bunch of right-wing activists attacked Tehelka’s (now former) managing editor Shoma Chaudhury’s house.
Shouting down critique
In online activity, it is impossible to avoid noticing the extreme hostility of the right-wing voice. Despite other political parties pitching in — the Congress’ Amaresh Misra, for instance, notoriously threatened a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporter on Twitter: “We know where you live, Shilpi” — nobody else has been able to keep pace with the right’s sheer efficiency or decibel levels. It is not so much that these voices are simply defending their hero, which is correct and laudable; it is that they are unanimous in wanting to silence any voice critical of NaMo, ruthlessly trolling down the merest hint of disagreement.
I found an amusing online game recently, a Right Wing Insult Generator. Each time you refresh the screen, a new string of abuse is generated — sickular, anti-national, gay-sex loving, anti-Hindu pacifist, Taliban-lover, Paki stooge, anti-development troll, Maoist, Trotskyist tree-hugger… it is quite a hilarious list. What is not so hilarious is that all these words and phrases are gleaned by the key-word generator from actual comments on actual websites. Disagreement is vital in a democracy, but the problem here is with tone. How does one engage with yobs?
The rationale behind such efficiently channelled and PR-generated hostility is obvious. Aggression and machismo are useful tools to project Narendra Modi’s image as an alpha male — a man who represents a robust and rejuvenated BJP against an emasculated Congress, led by weaklings. This is the campaign from which the brash online supporter emerges. He is no accident but a carefully nurtured persona who has been taught that it is weakness to respond to an argument with mere counter-argument; one must destroy the arguer. Accommodating opposing ideas is considered submission, as is allowing the existence of films, art or books that question your belief system.
The strategy is to play to a kind of willing Indian who has often suffered from a slight inferiority complex on the world stage; the Indian who imagines he must now shout to be heard, one whose national pride is at stake at every turn. The voices representing this personality must be über masculine and willing to take up arms to defend honour, religious beliefs, sexual mores — anything that is perceived to be under threat. To this personality, any Gandhian talk of non-violence sounds wimpish; Iron Man Patel makes a far better icon.
As election strategies go, this is just fine. It makes sense to create such a personality in the face of the much softer, weaker and ineffectual Rahul Gandhi. It makes sense because Indians want to be seen as strong, as waiting in the wings to grab power and become world leaders. The problem arises when the violence spills over from theory into practice quite so quickly and willingly. When verbal assault so often becomes actual violence — stones hurled, chairs smashed, women mauled, books burned — the stance is harder to ignore. Worse, it doesn’t take much to provoke these reactions. They have been seen in the past spanning a range of issues — from art exhibitions to history books.
Demos in a democracy
To create an aggressive image in order to win an election might be good strategy but what happens afterwards when the boring job of governing must be done? It will be difficult to cork all this overflowing testosterone back into the bottle when ordinary administration and law and order concerns become important. Something the AAP found out when it went all guns blazing into Delhi’s Khirki Extension to flush out a drug and prostitution gang. Even in a democracy, you cannot actually let the demos rule — something that the AAP will soon discover.
By adopting aggression as its guiding principle, the right wing is playing with the kind of Frankensteinian monster that it will never be able to control. It will inevitably attract rightist groups from the lunatic fringe who will take umbrage at everything. From couples celebrating Valentine’s Day to women dancing in pubs, a dozen innocuous puppy dogs will come in the way every day, and in a real democracy, they cannot be run over by supporters already seething with so much rage.