Plebiscite on prejudice?

Print edition : September 11, 1999

This is the country's dirtiest, most personalised, election campaign. By launching it, the BJP has confronted India with a choice: for or against bigotry, pro- or anti-exclusivism, for or against sexism.

"ITALIAN opera singer", "cafe crooner", "kaalmukhi" (someone who brings ill-luck), "dirty widow", "upri" (interloper), "matric-pass" (college dropout), "Pope ki cheli" (The Pope's disciple), "Monica Lewinsky"... The vilest of abuse, the choicest of epithets. It is almost impossible to believe that our sensibilities could be so deadened as to make all this foul personal calumny and disgusting political slander seem like "normal" campaigning in a general election in a country that cla ims to be a more or less civilised democracy. It is even harder to imagine that someone as decent and infectiously polite as Manmohan Singh could "provoke" his rival to resort to downright obscenity, by challenging the professor to remove his turban and prove he is a true Sikh! The conclusion is inescapable. This is without doubt India's dirtiest, most personalised, vilest, campaign since elections in some form or other were organised in this country.

Even Atal Behari Vajpayee, supposedly the BJP's most gentle, moderate, "civilised" face, has stooped to the level of agitating the "foreign origins" issue after having solemnly promised any number of times that he would not do so. Not only did he say (Lu cknow, August 27) that Sonia Gandhi should not hold high office, for the reason of her origin. He has also been a passive spectator to the delivery of foul personal attacks on her in meeting after election meeting. His belated, half-hearted, August 30 st atement calling for "restraint" and gender-sensitivity in campaigning does little to redeem the damage.

BJP leaders like Vajpayee's most trusted Minister Pramod Mahajan, having taken their cue from the Prime Minister himself, have surpassed themselves in slander campaigns. Mahajan's outrageous comparison of Sonia Gandhi with Monica Lewinsky - doubly confir med by his denial - is perhaps the most offensive assault on decency in public discourse which we have recently witnessed. It was quickly followed with George Fernandes' vituperative remarks on Sonia Gandhi on August 28 in Bellary. Fernandes reduced Gand hi's entire "contribution" to India as giving birth to her children, two amongst our population of one billion. Mahajan's and Fernandes' remarks have rightly excited strong condemnation from scholars, political leaders and feminists. There is every reaso n why they must be categorically condemned for their deep-seated male- supremacist prejudice.

First, it is utterly insulting to any civilised mind that Sonia Gandhi, who is a full-fledged Indian citizen, should be put in the same category as Monica Lewinsky, or Bill Clinton or Tony Blair - merely because of her foreign origin. It is even worse th at she should be personally targeted for vilification in this gutter-level campaign at least partly because she happens to be a woman, and a white woman at that. It is hard to dissociate the strongly sexist innuendoes that are being deploye d in this campaign from the fact of Sonia Gandhi's gender. This is itself part of a larger phenomenon - of women like Rabri Devi, Jayalalitha and Sonia Gandhi being singled out for particularly sharp sexist barbs.

(Even M.Karunanidhi has indulged in this, predicting that Sonia Gandhi and Jayalalitha's equation will be worse than the 13 month-long Vajpayee-Jayalalitha relationship because now both allies are women, who are bound to give each other a hard time.) App ellations like "crooner" and "kaalmukhi" (or their masculine equivalents) are not used against men. It is telling that Fernandes chose to diminish Sonia Gandhi to a mere bearer of children - a reproductive machine, a passive receptacle, without ag ency or personality. He did not do this even to Rajiv Gandhi, no favourite of his. Evidently, such insults are reserved for women alone.

However, there is a special "white" angle to the reviling of Sonia Gandhi. This derives from the widely prevalent middle class prejudice that white women typically have "loose morals", that they are quintessentially either saints (for example, Mother Ter esa, Annie Besant or Meera Behn) or (more usually) sinners (Monica Lewinsky). This makes the latter fair game for all manner of sexist attacks. Such views are so common that even the Chief Minister of one of our most progressive States, Kerala, once pour ed scorn over the outrage that the rape of two white women in the State caused. What's all the fuss, he asked. For whites, rape is common, normal, it's like having a cup of tea.

The Sonia Gandhi-Lewinsky comparison was no aberration or accident. It captured a stereotype, the polar opposite of the Bharatiya Naari, the hallowed, artificially constructed "Indian" (read, Hindu) woman of pure character and unblemished personal ity. This sees the white, foreign, mleccha woman as sullied, spoiled, immoral, at best a sex object. We should feel offended at this not only because the president of India's oldest party is being equated with a former White House intern, nor so m uch because "Indian motherhood" is being slighted, but because the equation implicitly reviles Lewinsky (rather than the older, more powerful, more "responsible" Clinton) for having had a sexual relationship. This amounts to revictimising the victim. It is the kind of mindset that regards the rape victim as the guilty party - an "impure" woman who "must have done something" to bring that outcome about.

This mindset is typical of the Sangh Parivar. Indeed, a former president of the BJP's Mahila Morcha, Mridula Sinha, is on record as saying that wife-beating and domestic violence against women have "two sides": often the woman herself "provokes" it. The same attitude characterises the Parivar's adherence to the "Aryan" values of the Manusmriti, some of its leaders' defence of sati (they include former vice-president Vijayaraje Scindia and J.P. Mathur) and the demand repeatedly made by a number of VHP (V ishwa Hindu Parishad) leaders that women be banned from reciting the Vedas or performing sacred rituals.

Beneath this gutter-level campaign, then, are deep-rooted sexist prejudices and hatreds characteristic of the Sangh Parivar's male-supremacist ideology. Clearly, this has rubbed off even on Fernandes. He now uses the same language as do such well-known P arivar ideologues as Arun Shourie - for example, terming all Congress members hijras (eunuchs); hijras are here contrasted to real, virile, strong, brave, males. All other sexual identities are considered inferior, low or unauthentic. The whole id ea of womanhood here is suffused with male-chauvinism of the dirtiest variety, of the kind that "respectable" middle class bhadralog people are supposed to be too embarrassed to vent in public. The fact that the Mahajans and the Fernandeses no lon ger feel so restrained, and that they know they could speak in that vein in the presence of Vajpayee, is testimony to the debasement of our political discourse.

Some of these vile sentiments now being vented have a distinctly contrived quality about them. They appear manufactured. They represent very little spontaneity, and are calculated to create and fan prejudice and appeal to primordial identities. It is har d to believe that Fernandes really thinks that Sonia Gandhi's claim to being Indian is primarily predicated upon her wearing a sari and learning some Hindi, as he alleged. It is also difficult to believe that the attack on her comes from a mainly pers onal, as opposed to a political, assessment of her. This makes the BJP-NDA (National Democratic Alliance) campaign all the more reprehensible. At its heart is an attempt to tug at notions of national "loyalty" and put people on the defensive. Those who disagree with the government's handling of Kargil have been equated with Pakistan - by Vajpayee himself. This is grossly unfair. Indeed, this dirty campaign highlights the need for laws and norms against hate speech. We must drastically reduce our "tolerance" of hate speech.

Clearly, however, the worthies of the NDA think that all means are justified by the end they have set: defeat their secular Centre-Left opponents. Once you sever ends from means, anything can be rationalised. Indeed, why stop at verbal attacks? Even viol ent disruptions of the opponent's campaign are permissible.

Within this framework, politicising Kargil, communalising the armed forces (through "Sindhu Darshan", VHP leaders' visits to army hospitals and distribution of Ramacharitamanas, flooding the Defence Ministry with lotus-shaped raakhis) is permissib le. As is character assassination of your opponents. Scoring low-level points in the manner of the small-town criminal lawyer can become a higher priority than grappling with substantive policy issues. Programmes can be relegated to the background. What matters is creating symbols, charging emotions, playing with identities, false or real.

The present election campaign confronts us all with a stark choice, a choice imposed by the decision of the BJP-NDA to go for broke: to concentrate on issues of identity and "authenticity", rather than substance. We are not being asked to decide which al ternative policy course we favour, whose programmatic perspective we find more convincing, whose claim to provide decent, stable governance is more credible. We are not asked to choose candidates for what they do. Rather we are being asked to vote for who or what they are or claim to be: Indian or foreign, Hindu or otherwise, like us or against us. Their trade-marks, promoted through the clever marketing of images and icons, are calculated to play on "affinities", however irrational .

This gives this election a singular character. Only in 1984 were issues of identity - at that time, national "unity" and the grave "threat" to it highlighted through barbed-wire fences - played up in such a significant fashion. Their deliberate use in th is campaign is even more cynical. They compel us to take a stand on prejudice: against false patriotism, manufactured nationalism, Kargilised identities. Therefore, we must refuse to set aside issues of real relevance - whether food security or education , or our right to minimum public services, and to be protected by the law of the land. Such issues must not be sacrificed at the altar of "national security" and macho symbols of "national strength", themselves divorced from flesh-and-blood people.

This depraved identity politics is not just a massive diversion of our attention from our needs and priorities. It is an assault on our sensibilities: we are being asked to cater to xenophobia, legitimise male supremacism, privilege narrow sub-identities , and suppress plurality. We can no longer be ordinary people going about their worldly business, or people committed to a larger project of humanisation and deepening of this democracy. We are asked to wear our Mera-Bharat-Mahan badges on our sleeves, a nd fool ourselves that our real problems are not about hunger, deprivation, inequality, corruption and bigotry within our borders. Rather, the problems are presented as caused by them: those monsters across the border.

In this sense, this election is a plebiscite on prejudice. True, it is an extremely complicated affair - with regional parties as well as national ones offering a range of black, white and (largely) grey options. The BJP's opponents are divided. T he Congress is not playing its cards well. The Third Force has taken a knock with the vanishing of the Janata Dal. No one is presenting dazzling new, fresh alternatives. And yet, at its core, the choice is starkly simple. Either we succumb to the politic s of false identities and manufactured "pride", and vote for the NDA. Or we reaffirm our real priorities, re-emphasise our true concerns as citizens, return to programmatic issues, and vote for secular, pluralist, democratic parties. At the end of the da y, it is an either-or choice.

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