The sight of a saffron flag fluttering in the background as a bunch of youth hammered away at the statue of our first prime minister marked a new low even in the "New India" that has emerged post-2014. Surely this incident should be included in the celebrations of eight years of Narendra Modi's rule, currently being observed as a period of "Sewa, Sushaasan aur Gareeb Kalyan" (service, good governance and welfare of the poor). Such a brazenly lawless display of hatred for Jawaharlal Nehru is a direct consequence of the way Narendra Modi and the BJP have denigrated the architect of modern India in the last eight years.
These youth in Satna could dare to commit this desecration in public, because they knew they lived in a state where the police reported not just to the ruling BJP but also the entire Sangh Parivar. It's not as if pre-2014, the Bajrang Dal and the VHP didn't get away with flouting the law. They almost always did, whichever party ruled. The difference is that today, the police don't just indulge them; they take orders from them - another hallmark of the 'sushaasan' that distinguishes New India.
Thus it is the fear of the ABVP that made college heads backtrack last week on their assurances to hijab-wearing students. The prospectus allowed a headscarf of the same colour as the uniform, but when the ABVP objects, what value does a prospectus have? So the hijabi students were told to stay out, not only of classrooms but also of campuses. The same fear has now driven an Aligarh college principal to announce that a committee will probe how a professor could dare offer namaz in a corner of the college lawn. The Bharatiya Yuva Morcha has threatened to recite the Hanuman Chalisa if the professor isn't punished.
The Hanuman Chalisa has now entered the list of Hindu war cries. For decades, 'Vande Mataram' was used to force Muslims to prove their Indianness. The Ayodhya movement made 'Jai Sri Ram' a battle cry; mobs would chant this while lynching Muslims. But it is the Modi era that has added an entire prayer to this list, even if most of those eager to recite the Hanuman Chalisa in public are reduced to reading it out from a written text.
Are Hanuman devotees happy with this elevated status of their prayer? It may be worthwhile asking this of pujaris of our old Hanuman temples.
Every day, petitions are being filed to stop Muslims from worshipping at their age-old mosques. Earlier, the 1991 Places of Worship Act may have inhibited these petitioners, but not today. Surely this is a unique achievement of the Modi era - to nullify the meaning of a law that the BJP had opposed from the start, without having to repeal it?
There are other achievements that ought to be included in the celebrations. The removal of two subsidies that made a valuable difference in the lives of the poor: the domestic gas subsidy and the senior citizen discount on rail tickets can be listed as `Gareeb Kalyan'. That this has been done at a time when the Covid pandemic pushed 230 million citizens into poverty is a feat few governments could have pulled off. Credit for this feat should also go to Opposition parties; they could have forced the Centre to revoke these anti-poor measures by street protests, but for that, they would have needed to actually galvanise their grassroots cadre.
The only cadre right now that seems perpetually galvanised is that of the BJP. But though last week's brainstorming session for the 2024 general elections addressed by Amit Shah resolved that the party would stage protests in non-BJP-ruled states; the rising cost of living is not the kind of issue that the BJP cadre seems to get excited about. High on their new-found power as Hindus, they seem to get their thrills from bullying Muslims and Christians. The very presence of these minorities in public spaces, the sight of them praying in their own places of worship, is what seems to inflame them.
This shift in priorities, when even food becoming unaffordable doesn't agitate some as much as the sight of a Muslim is a defining characteristic of the Modi era.
Way back in 1990, when the Ayodhya movement was at its peak and the BJP's Sunderlal Patwa was the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, the Bajrang Dal had put up a banner at Bhopal station welcoming visitors to the "capital of Hindu Rashtra". Today, MP's capital is just one of many cities that can claim this status. That must count as the most significant achievement of 'Moditva'.
(Jyoti Punwani is a journalist)
Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.