Blog: The Lakhimpur Lesson – Hate Speech Finally A Liability For BJP?

It could be easy to forget, amid the political white noise around the Lakhimpur violence, that the initial trigger was a hateful speech by a Union minister. The farmers crushed to death that fateful Sunday afternoon were amongst those who had gathered to protest comments made by Ajay Mishra, Minister of State for Home, in which he warned that he would “sort (them) out in 2 minutes” the agitators opposing the farm laws, now nearly a year old.

While Mr Mishra’s inciteful language is hardly new to Indian politics, the fact that it was made by a minister in charge of internal security, no less, and that he still remains in office indicates a dramatic shift under the present BJP dispensation when it comes to hate speech. And as the spiraling fallout from Lakhimpur demonstrates, that shift may no longer always play to the ruling party’s advantage. 

Until not long ago, hate speech, though politically profitable, had to be deployed judiciously, especially by parties which had ascended to power. Not only is it bad form for lawmakers to make hateful comments that violate the law, the potential unrest it can trigger can make the ruling regime appear incompetent. This precarious tightrope was sought to be managed by dialing down the hate by those appointed to high office, and largely outsourcing divisive comment-making to fringe characters or outfits. Ruling parties in the past tried to maintain the slow drip of hateful rhetoric at the right dilution, enough to meet the desired outcome (deflecting public attention from misgovernance, firing up the base and so on), but without tipping the scales of hate so far that it could undermine their claims of providing stable governance.

Under the present BJP, however, that precarious balance has been breached. Hate is no longer confined to the fringe.

The slow drip is now a tidal wave. The galaxy of haters making anti-Muslim comments or threatening violence (or sometimes both) now routinely includes Union ministers, Chief Ministers, state ministers, MPs, MLAs, Governors and party bosses – the very men and women meant to ensure the observance of law.

According to estimates by an NDTV project tracking hateful commentary by high-ranking political figures, ‘VIP Hate’ has witnessed an explosive jump of 790% in the first five years of the Modi government compared to the preceding five years of the UPA.

And in Modi 2.0, it has gotten worse: the average monthly hate speech by high ranking figures has risen by 80% compared to Modi 1.0. Of the total of 315 hateful comments counted by us during the past seven years, 264 or 84% of all comments have come from top BJP functionaries versus 16% from high-ranking members of other political parties.

Because of the BJP’s other break from convention – its ‘strongman’ approach where mistakes are rarely conceded publicly – virtually none of the saffron party’s ‘VIP Haters’ have faced legal or other consequences, even as their words have led to disastrous repercussions for others, Lakhimpur being the latest instance.

This volcano of high-level, unpunished bigotry so far has done little to hurt the BJP’s political prospects; in fact, it could be argued that the party’s ever-ascending electoral graph parallels its outsize contribution to India’s hate wave (despite the obvious contradiction of members of a government claiming to be tough on law and order routinely breaking the law themselves).

The most egregious example of this was the Delhi state election of 2020, in which Home Minister Amit Shah, in charge of India’s internal security, and also the reporting authority for Delhi’s police force, directed – and participated in – one of the most communally-charged campaigns by the BJP in recent memory. Leader after leader – reportedly at Mr Shah’s behest – drew aim at the multiple sit-in protests against the CAA/NRC that had sprung up across the city. A leader who now serves as Union Minister chanted “Desh ke Gadaron ko Goli Maro Saalon Ko (shoot the traitors)” from the stage. A BJP MP warned that the protestors of Shaheen Bagh would rape and kill the sisters of Delhi’s citizens. Mr Shah himself asked voters to press the button for the BJP with such anger that it “should send a current to Shaheen Bagh”, dislodging the protestors who had gathered there.

While this hateful campaign did not result in electoral success – Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party won the capital resoundingly – the BJP ended up with a higher-than-expected 39% voteshare, which several analysts ascribed to a ‘hate bump’. 

The Delhi campaign and result however also provided a glimmer of how unchecked, unpunished hate speech can backfire for the ruling regime. When the capital city, unsurprisingly, erupted into communal violence two weeks after the virulent campaign ended, the Home Minister was nowhere to be seen. Instead, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, tasked with overseeing India’s wider strategic-security concerns, had to play a sort of mohalla peacemaker, walking through the riot-hit lanes of North East Delhi to calm tempers between Hindus and Muslims.

It speaks to the BJP’s stranglehold over the public conversation that the backlash from Mr Shah’s temporary vanishing act in the middle of the worst rioting the national capital has seen in decades did not last long, nor significantly dent his ‘Mr Law and Order’ image.

But with Lakhimpur, the BJP is fighting a more tenacious political fire ignited by its latest VIP Hater. (It did not help that in neighboring Haryana, the BJP’s Chief Minister ML Khattar, another constitutional head, added his own scoop of oil to the flames, urging a crowd of listeners to take “tit for tat” action against protesting farmers ). Varun Gandhi, the BJP MP from UP’s Pilibhit, which neighbours Lakhimpur, has been public with his criticism of his party’s handling of the imbroglio. (Mr Gandhi himself was filmed making virulent speeches ahead of the 2014 elections in which he threatened violent retaliation against Muslims.) Others in the party have chosen to express their disquiet anonymously – one nameless BJP functionary reportedly told The Indian Express that as a result of the mishandling of Lakhimpur, ‘raita phail gaya hai (the mess has spread)’.

Could this, then, finally be a lesson to the BJP, that when hate is let out of the bottle, it becomes impossible to ensure that it will only be directed at politically-convenient targets at politically-convenient times? It seems highly unlikely that Minister Mishra (or Chief Minister Khattar) would have risked making threats of violence against a crucial constituency like farmers in election season were it not for the extraordinary climate of impunity towards hate enabled by their party superiors.

Initial indications suggest otherwise. Two days after the violence, in blissful indifference to multiple conflicts of interests, Mr Mishra got to present his defence not at a local police thana but at North Block, to his boss, Home Minister Shah. In effect, two high functionaries tasked with maintaining national law and order, and belonging to the same political party, confabulated over how to contain the fallout from the involvement of one of them in a cycle of hate speech and cold-blooded murder. If anyone has been penalised by the party, it is Varun Gandhi, who, along with his mother, has been dropped from the BJP’s national executive.

There are indications that the BJP may yet act against Mr Mishra; even if it does, it would be naive to assume a dramatic shift in the party’s approach to hate speech. It has too many first-hand dividends from the politics of hate to significantly scale back. But even the rare concession of dropping a hate-spewing Union Minister, if indeed that happens, suggests that Lakhimpur may be the first real test of the political limits of the BJP’s new normal, of brazening out the consequences of hateful incitement by high-level government figures.

(Sreenivasan Jain is Group Editor, NDTV)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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