Close on the heels of an open letter to Narendra Modi by 49 former bureaucrats about the “terrifying state of affairs” in India, has come yet another missive by as many as 637 academics in India and abroad who have voiced similar concern. Not only that, but they have also underscored the “profoundly distasteful efforts of rationalisation and the deflection and diversion that have been so much in evidence in the reactions of your party’s spokespersons in the media”.
The reference was apparently to a BJP spokesperson’s characterisation of the Opposition’s allegations of rape as part of a campaign which focussed on different issues on different occasions, crying “minority, minority” at one time, or “Dalit, Dalit” on another and “women, women” on a third.
The outrage of the former bureaucrats and the scholars belonging to Ivy League universities, such as Harvard, New York, Brown, Columbia and the IITs, followed the rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in Kathua, in J&K, and the rape of a 17-year-old in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh. However, a pro-BJP Hindi newspaper rejected the charges of rape on the grounds that they were intended to defame Hindus in a classic example of disseminating fake news, forcing the police to reiterate that the girl was, indeed, sexually assaulted. A Union minister, too, said that rapes could not be stopped in so large a country.
The participation by two BJP ministers of Jammu and Kashmir in a rally in support of the accused was another example of the “deflection and diversion” noted by the academics, causing an uproar which persuaded the party to ask them to resign. However, there were also demonstrations by a section of lawyers in favour of the accused.
But the world sees these tragedies in a different light. Apart from the letters of the former bureaucrats and academics, shock and revulsion about the “broken body of a little girl”, as the latter have said, have been voiced by the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, and IMF chief, Christine Lagarde, who has urged Modi to pay greater attention to women’s safety.
What is noteworthy about these expressions of grief is that they have come from what can be regarded as the middle class and the upper echelons of society who have been vocal about their support for Modi in India and abroad and had voted for him in large numbers in 2014. For the BJP, therefore, the possible alienation of this group is worrisome at a time when Dalits are perceived to be drifting away from the party to join Muslims, who are not known to be supporters of the BJP anyway. Substantial sections of these groups the middle class, Dalits, and Muslims stood by Modi in 2014 because of their faith in his promise of rapid and inclusive development.
While the absence of growth in a manner which was expected is believed to have led to the erosion of support for the BJP among Dalits and Muslims, apart from the atrocities which they have experienced at the hands of the saffron brigade, the middle class has largely stood by the party as can be seen from much of what is written on social media because of, for one, the continuing belief in Modi’s assurances and, two, the inability of the Opposition to get its act together.
However, two aspects of the letters written to the Prime Minister, and especially the one by the academics, need to be noted. These are, first, the larger number of signatories and, second, the sharpness of tone. This was not so in the letter written in 2017 by 65 ex-bureaucrats, who had expressed a “sense of deep disquiet at what has been happening in India”, unlike the latest letter from the bureaucrats, which has spoken of the “terrifying state of affairs” in the country. Evidently, the anger and anguish are deepening, which does not bode well for the government as it cannot dismiss all the angst as the feelings of the so-called Lutyens crowd, which is out of touch with the people.
Nor can such expressions of discontent be brushed aside as “manufactured protests”, as finance minister Arun Jaitley did when a section of the intelligentsia began to return their awards in 2015 in protest against the growing intolerance in society.
It is possible that there is now a greater realisation in the BJP about the prevailing dissatisfaction than in the days of the “award wapsi gang”, as the saffron camp mockingly called the returnees, when the BJP believed that the protests were being organised by those associated with the previous government who were unwilling to accept Modi’s rise to power. This realisation must have been accentuated by the worldwide notice that has been taken of the rape horrors, with the New York Times being particularly scathing in its criticism. With the elections due in Karnataka in less than a month, the BJP must be considerably worried about the alienation from the party of the middle class and other social groups because of its dark record in J&K and UP, where it is in power.
(The author is a senior journalist)