IT TAKES ALL types—moderates and bigots, socialists and capitalists, progressives and conservatives, corrupt and clean—to make a political party in India, and the Bharatiya Janata Party is no exception. Everytime it comes to power, the Hindu cultural right becomes ascendant. At its lowest common denominator, or the fringe, this is made up of Muslim haters who see in all of the country’s ills a policy of minority appeasement followed by post-independent India. This segment has been exploited by the BJP for votes and to create foot-soldiers during elections. In the social networking age, they constitute a vocal army of trolls, partly organised and the rest driven by armchair ideology. Over the last few weeks, there has been the unusual phenomenon of these trolls turning against External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, one of the BJP’s senior-most leaders. And just as unusual has been Swaraj naming, shaming and blocking them. Consider an example of this week where someone tweeted to her: ‘@SushmaSwaraj ji, I was once a fan and fought against those who abused you, ab aap please, mujhe bhi block kar ke, inaam dijiye. Intezaar rahegaa.’. (…now you block me too, reward me, I am waiting). To which Swaraj replied: ‘Intezaar kyon ? Lijiye block kr diya.’ (Why wait, I have blocked you now). This was actually one of the more civil tweets she was subject to. Earlier, the words used against her, some of which she ‘liked’ in order to highlight them, included: ‘She is almost dead woman as she runs on only one kidney (borrowed from someone else) and any time that can stop working’. Her husband received a tweet that said: ‘When she comes home tonight why don’t you beat her up & teach her not to do Muslim appeasement. Tell her Muslims will never ever vote for BJP’. More worryingly for her, on June 30th, when Swaraj put up an online poll asking whether people approved of the kind of tweets being sent to her, 43 per cent said they did.
The anger directed against her is because they believe she has committed the original Congress sin of Muslim appeasement. The issue follows a Hindu wife of a Muslim man complaining via a tweet to Swaraj about a passport officer who stalled their application allegedly because he found their marriage problematic. The officer was subsequently transferred, and, since the department is under Swaraj’s Ministry, she was assumed to have been behind it. A probe’s findings this week reaffirmed that the passport officer had overstepped his brief and the transfer would not be revoked. The online movement against her had not changed her mind, if indeed she had been micro-managing passport issuance affairs.
Swaraj has always been part of the BJP’s moderate face. Her roots are not from the RSS, unlike most of its other leaders, which makes her suspect among Hindu hardliners. On the other hand, she has mass appeal across the country and until the recent episode, her online presence, subtle humour and moves to resolve the distress of Indians abroad were winning her admiration cutting across lines of ideology. That she should now come face to face with a monster that her own party had a large hand in creating is an irony not lost on anyone in the political spectrum. It is a constituency the BJP needs as it sets about trying to recapture power next year, perhaps a reason why she has had to fight the online battle almost singlehandedly with little support from her party.
On July 1st, she tweeted, ‘In a democracy difference of opinion is but natural. Pls do criticise but not in foul language. Criticism in decent language is always more effective.’ These words, for anyone acquainted with what passes for discourse on social media, seem like an anachronism. Much like leaders who stand for a more decent way of doing politics.