Suresh Prabhu’s comments at Davos show BJP is proud of marginalising minorities
The slogan has become a cliché now. Every time the Narendra Modi government is questioned about its poor record in upholding minority rights, its ministers and babus immediately sit up in their sofas, suck some air in, look straight and announce with military discipline - “sabka saath, sabka vikaas!”
Rajiv K Chander, India's Permanent Representative to the UN, did that in Geneva last September, when the UN's human rights body pulled up India for religious intolerance. Suresh Prabhu, senior member of Modi's Cabinet, did the same at Davos on 24 January. Prabhu was asked by a journalist to respond to the criticism that the BJP has marginalised Indian Muslims.
Pat came the reply. The contrast was stark. The journalist had taken over a minute to frame the question in the most polite manner possible and hesitated a lot before finally coming up with the right words. Prabhu wasted no time in pondering or framing the right response, almost as if he had been trained to respond promptly in such situations.
“This is the first government that doesn't discriminate the population on the basis of religion”, Prabhu said. A bit of elaboration followed and the minister concluded by flashing the cliched card, “Sabka saath, sabka vikaas”.
When this slogan was first introduced by the BJP in the campaign for the Lok Sabha polls 2014, it first gave the impression of a reach-out to all sections of the population, including Muslims. However, four years of the Modi government's tenure have conclusively proved that the slogan actually translates into removal of the umbrella of special protection that covered minorities so far in India and all responsible democracies.
“Our government believes all citizens of India enjoy equal rights, equal privileges and they shouldn't be discriminate based on religion...faith,” Prabhu said. “Rain falls on all houses equally. Similar should be role of government...policies and schemes should be for everyone,” he continued.
In a testimony to how proudly this government wears its saffron badge, Prabhu confidently introduced Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath into the conversation. He said the UP CM wears saffron clothes but is going out of his way to find out how government schemes will reach out to all sections of society, including Muslims”.
You would think referring to Adityanath doesn't sound like the best response when the BJP's commitment to minority rights is being questioned. After all, this is the same Adityanath who is known as a hardline supporter of the Hindutva agenda. He has publicly supported the 'ghar-wapsi' programme of forced conversions of Muslims to Hinduism and has openly incited violence against them.
He runs an outfit of goons called the Hindu Yuva Vahini, which specialises in physical violence against Muslims and in calling for raping dead Muslim women. But all of those are cherished entries in his resume, in the BJP's scheme of things, making him worthy of being mentioned at a global summit.
Prabhu also mentioned the Bill outlawing triple talaq, arguing “Why would we bring Triple Talaq Bill in Parliament if we discriminate against Muslims?” The BJP has been successfully using that campaign to send out a message to its core constituency that the project to “discipline” the Muslim community has begun.
It would have been better if the journalist at Davos would have asked Prabhu what did that actually mean - that this was the first government that didn't discriminate between people on the basis of religion? Which government does he hold guilty of doing that? All previous governments? Does Prabhu think protecting and promoting the interests of religious minorities is discrimination?
Nevertheless, a senior minister being thrown the minorities-question at a global summit is an embarrassment for the government. It may also be a warning sign that from here on, more questions and international scrutiny will follow. With the next Lok Sabha polls looming just over the horizon, Modi-government will do well to heed to this signal and improve its track record from here on.
But it is unlikely to do that. As the journalist pointed out in his question to Prabhu, it is precisely for electoral benefits that the BJP is marginalising Muslims.