You can tell when an election campaign has begun by the proliferation of inane allegations and name-calling. The next general election is over 10 months away, but the excesses of campaign sloganeering are already evident in the BJP equating Indira Gandhi with Hitler, and the Congress responding that Narendra Modi is crueller than Mughal emperor Aurangzeb.
I was among the sternest critics of Indira Gandhi when she was alive. Without doubt, she smashed democratic institutions, including the judiciary, bureaucracy and media, to stay in power after the Allahabad High Court struck down her election. She cynically misused the Constitutional provision for an Emergency by claiming, falsely, that Opposition politicians were inciting armed rebellion and making governance impossible. After throwing them into jail, she amended the Constitution to make her election proof against judicial scrutiny. Yet, like many dictators, she miscalculated. First, by throwing all Opposition politicians into jail she created a unity among Opposition that had never existed earlier. Second, her press censorship was so effective that she had no idea how great public resentment was against Emergency excesses, especially forced sterilisation. Therefore, she opted for a fresh election, expecting to win easily, but being trounced instead.
Doubtless, she was authoritarian. But calling her Hitler is silly. Did she declare war on all neighbouring countries and threaten to take over the world? Did she imprison entire communities in concentration camps? Did she murder six million people in gas chambers?
Of course not. Every dictator is not a Hitler. Tyranny has many shades, and those who cannot distinguish between them are incapable of analysis. In Indira Gandhi’s time, the Third World had few democracies and dictators galore — Suharto in Indonesia, Chiang Kai Shek in Taiwan, Kenyatta in Kenya, Nyrere in Tanzania, Mobutu in the Congo, Kaunda in Zambia, to name just a few. Many of them decreed oneparty rule with a non-replaceable leader, arguing this was necessary to prevent chaos and the collapse of governance.
Why doesn’t the BJP compare Indira Gandhi with some of these? Because it seeks not accuracy but carefully crafted name-calling, with an eye on the coming elections. Its aim is not just to tarnish the Congress, it is also to turn the tables on constant Congress claims that the BJP is a fascist party and Modi is a potential Hitler. Political tacticians will tell you that the best response to a rhetorical attack is to turn the same rhetoric around to attack your foe. The BJP has done just that.
Similar logic drives the Congress accusation that Modi has been crueller and more tyrannical than Aurangzeb. This, again, is silly. Did Modi kill all his brothers order to attain power, as Aurangzeb did? Did Modi imprison his father for life? Has Modi declared that people of religions other than his own must pay a religious tax, as Aurangzeb did? Has he shifted his capital to the Deccan to better deal with rebellions there?
Of course not. Modi is a duly elected leader in a democracy, not a dynastic prince like Aurangzeb. But the Congress seeks to turn around the BJP’s rhetoric against dynasties to attack the accuser. The BJP has long jeered at the Congress for being a dynastic outfit with Rahul Gandhi as a “shehzada”. By comparing Modi with a Mughal prince, the Congress seeks to divert the attack on its own dynasty.
Moreover, the Congress worries that the BJP has succeeded in portraying it as so pro-Muslim as to lose even moderate Hindu votes. To erase this pro-Muslim image, Rahul Gandhi has started visiting sundry temples, and is claiming to be a Shiva worshipper. The same message is conveyed by the party, now claiming it sees Aurangzeb as a cruel tyrant.
It was very different a few years ago, when the Modi government renamed Aurangzeb Road in New Delhi as Abdul Kalam Road. At that time, the Congress protested, calling Aurangzeb a major historical figure. It now wants to compete with the BJP through soft Hindutva, and so castigates Aurangzeb even more strongly than the BJP.
Congress spokesman Abhishek Singhvi has written a column quoting praises heaped on Hitler and Nazism by former RSS chief Golwalkar. Doubtless the BJP will hit back by quoting the many pro-Hitler statements of Subhash Chandra Bose, who lived for years under Hitler’s protection.
India deserves an election campaign based on actual issues facing voters, not bogus historical debates and name-calling. Employment, inflation, farm distress, the awful state of healthcare and education, the pollution and filth that choke cities, all merit spirited debate. Forget Hitler and Aurangzeb.