Greatest threat to India is communalism, not corruption

Democratic institutions can tackle corruption, but not communal hatred

In mid-November 2001, the young founders of a small, now defunct, IT start-up in Bengaluru called Premier Infotech invited me to their office. They wanted to tell me about a wonderful e-governance initiative launched by the new chief minister of Gujarat. “Mr Modi is a dynamic chief minister, very tech-savvy. He wants every Gujarati to have a smart card into which all their details would be written on a chip – name, address, blood group, etc. He wants us to complete the project in two months. We are running against time. Gujarat officials are working day and night – some of them are up with us until 2-3 am through the week,” the young fellows told me breathlessly. Those days, e-governance, smart cards, etc., were all the rage. Modi had become chief minister in October 2001, and immediately started the smart card project. All details of all individuals in one database with the government, and all services to citizens delivered efficiently. That was the dream that Gujarat had been sold.

Three months later, there was the Godhra train burning incident in which 54 kar sevaks returning from Ayodhya were burnt alive. That was on February 27, 2002. The bodies were allowed to be paraded through the streets of Ahmedabad. The next day, the Gujarat riots and massacre started, and it went on for days, in places months together. Both media and official enquiry reports said gangs of rioters went around with lists of people and houses to be targeted. A cross-mark was put on the doors of Muslim households, and a day later they were attacked. People were pulled out of their homes, raped, butchered on the streets or whole buildings were set on fire and people burnt alive. The rest is history. Narendra Modi became Hindu Hriday Samrat. Then, facing worldwide opprobrium, transformed into ‘Vikas Purush’. And eventually became prime minister.

I do not know for sure if those smart cards came in handy for the murderous rioters to find and target Muslims. But there’s an infamous prior example of a similar device being used to find and exterminate millions of people of a particular religion. Hitler’s Nazi establishment used Hollerith punch cards – primitive IT technology – in the 1930s to identify and locate Jews and mark them for elimination or concentration camps.

February 27 was a significant date in Nazi history, too – it was the day Hitler began his capture of all State power in Germany, as a precursor to the horrors that followed. The Nazis came to power in 1933 and Hitler had just become its head. On February 27, some arsonists set fire to the Reichstag, the German parliament building. Hitler immediately declared that it was the Communists who had set the building on fire. He imposed a national emergency and concentrated all authority in his hands. And thus was born the Führer, the man who would preside over the extermination of six million Jews and the devastation of Europe.

Why am I recalling this now? Why is it important now? It is important because we are at a critical juncture in our history as an independent nation. We are facing the most important election in our history – an election for the soul of India, an election for the future of India. And tragically, like the great Karna in Mahabharata, we seem to be forgetting the most important, most powerful mantra of India – secularism, diversity, tolerance, nay, acceptance of all kinds of people – at the most critical time for us. Many, including sage thinkers, intellectuals and ordinary people are writing to say they are confused as to who to vote for. They are caught between Modi and the rest, between stable government and possibly a wobbly coalition, between unkept promises of the last five years and the hopelessness of the three years before that, between dynastic parties and a disciplined cadre-based party, most importantly between corruption and communalism. To me, however, the choice is clear.

Dynasties will end sooner or later; failure to keep promises, whether by this government or the previous one, is not criminal so long as sincere efforts were made; and corruption is a widespread phenomenon across parties but can be tackled over time as our democracy and its institutions evolve. Indeed, much work has been done in this direction, including the Right To Information (RTI) Act passed in 2005. What won’t go away once sown, however, is communalism and hatred for fellow Indians. That, when combined with proximity between the government of a party that believes in a religious majoritarian ideology and big business, is dangerous. That’s the one thing I will not vote for.

The singular attack launched by Modi on opposition parties on corruption is good election time rhetoric. The Modi campaign in 2014 was successful in creating the impression that corruption was the only evil that the country faced, that Congress and other parties were the fount-head of that corruption and that he was the messiah who alone could put an end to it.

Firstly, corruption is not the only nor even the greatest danger to the country. Communalism is. The hatred being spread between communities, including on social media, is. The impunity with which lynch mobs have acted in the last five years is. A turn towards Fascism is. Over two thousand years ago, Chanakya wrote: “Just as we cannot know when fish swimming in water is drinking it, we cannot know when government officers are appropriating public funds.” Corruption, therefore, has been a long-standing problem – even in glorious ancient India. It did not start with Congress party in the 20th century, as Modi and BJP want us to believe, nor will it stop when that party is gone. But for all its ill-effects, corruption did not break India into pieces over these hundreds of years. What broke India into two was the sudden rise of communalism – both Hindu and Muslim communalism – towards the end of the 19th century, leading within a few decades to the Partition of India. Corruption is a creeping crisis, communalism is an exploding crisis. When it raises its ugly head, as it has in the last five years, there won’t be time to react, to save the country from a descent into a pogrom, a genocide, a civil war. That’s the lesson India’s founding fathers – including not just Gandhi, Nehru, Maulana Azad, but also Subhas Chandra Bose and his nemesis Sardar Patel and the right-wing in Congress – learnt and based their policies and shaping of India on. That’s the lesson we must learn today.

This is not to condone corruption, but to put it in perspective against a more clear and present danger facing us. In any case, are we expected to believe that the BJP and its leaders are not corrupt, are not the political half of crony capitalism, only the opposition leaders and parties are? To all those who still believe so, even after the GSPC affair, Sahara-Birla diaries, Rafale revelations, Vijay Mallya’s great escape through Delhi airport’s diplomatic channel (with 300 bags, as per the Enforcement Directorate, and after a look-out notice against him was diluted), the escape of the two Modis, Lalit and Nirav, and of Mehul Choksi (of “hamare Mehul bhai yahin pe baithe hain” fame), the CBI filing a closure report in the Janardhan Reddy mining scam case, Electoral Bonds, the amendments to Foreign Contributions Regulation Act to make BJP, Congress and Left parties immune to probe on foreign funds retrospectively from 1976, the dilution of the Prevention of Corruption Act, the Modi government’s refusal to answer RTI queries on which businessmen accompanied him on his foreign trips and indeed its attempt to take control of the RTI institution, etc., and to all those who do not wonder at all where the humongous amounts of money needed to run the massive BJP election machine comes from, all one can say is, “bhakti is blind.”

Be that as it may, so long as we are a working democracy, we will be able to work one step at a time towards eliminating corruption of most forms, whether Congress indulges in it or BJP or any other party. But, if we let politicians spread hatred and polarise society and we let their private armies indulge in violence with impunity and the rule of law and order is overwhelmed, if we let governments and businesses become one and take India on a path towards Fascism, that hope will be dead. Democracy can come up with institutions to tackle corruption, it cannot tackle communal hatred, its institutions cannot survive Fascism. As younger brother Ravi tells elder brother Vijay in Deewar, 'Saare Jahan Se Achcha' playing in the background, in the toss up between corruption and communalism, “jis raast pe main chal raha hoon, shayad uska anjaam bura bhi ho sakta hai, lekin jis raaste pe aap ja rahe hain, uska anjaam sirf bura ho sakta hai, bhai!”

So, my vote will be to first save our democracy. And, unlike Karna, I won’t forget the mantra at this critical time. What about you?

(An earlier draft of this article was first written on February 27, but was not published then in view of the India-Pakistan tensions at the time)

 

S Raghotham is Opinion Editor, Deccan Herald

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