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Hindustan Times News Service

After years of marriage, goes the joke, husbands and wives end up looking like each other. To that hoary old saw, let me add another one: after years of opposing each other, Indian political parties begin to sound like each other.

Take the BJP. For as long as I can remember — and even when it was called the Jana Sangh — its leaders always told us that there was no greater evil than the Congress. After the Emergency, they added a new twist: there was no greater dictator than Indira Gandhi, and no nastier dynasty than the Gandhis.

This is interesting. Because, over the last three months I have been rubbing my eyes in disbelief each time I see BJP leaders on TV. The reason is simple: they sound exactly like the Gandhis.

Let’s take the points of similarity, one by one.

The Foreign Hand: Whenever anything went wrong, Indira Gandhi had a simple explanation — it was the foreign hand. Her government was doing its best but what could it do? India was under threat from foreign powers who were meddling in our affairs.

Mrs Gandhi never actually identified the foreign hand, but most of the time, she meant America. So Congressmen (even under Rajiv) took to blaming the CIA for every campaign against them (Bofors? Oh, that was a CIA plot to destabilise India, etc etc) and for nearly every failure to control law and order.

The BJP has adopted the same strategy. Except that everything is now blamed on Pakistan. And rather than the CIA, it is the ISI that is responsible for each of the government’s failures.

All law and order problems are attributed to terrorism and all terrorism to the ISI. Any critics of the parivar are dismissed as either unwilling dupes of the ISI or proper ISI agents.

Why did we need to rally around Indira Gandhi? Because the CIA was destabilising India. Why do we need to rally around this government? Because the ISI wants to destabilise India.

Given what we now know of the CIA’s covert activities, it seems entirely probable that it was active in India during Mrs. Gandhi’s reign. And similarly, there’s no doubt that the ISI has targeted India.

But to blame everything on foreign agents? To go on and on about the foreign hand to explain away your own failures?

That’s what this crowd has in common with Mrs. Gandhi.

Identifying ‘Terrorist Communities’: In 1984, the Congress released an ad campaign that sought to play subliminally on Hindu fears of Sikh terrorism. In the years of Bluestar and Mrs Gandhi’s assassination — not to mention the Delhi riots — the ads had a huge impact. Such headlines as “Will the Country’s Border Be Moved To Your Doorstep” and copy that asked, “Should you be afraid to ride in a taxi driven by a member of a particular community?” directly addressed (or aroused, depending on your perspective) Hindu insecurities and fears about Sikhs and the threat of terrorism.

The strategy worked: the Congress won by a landslide.

These days, the BJP is doing much the same sort of thing. It is attempting to play on Hindu fears of Pakistani/jehadi terrorism. The constant references to Mian Musharraf, the suggestion that we should hold Indian Muslims responsible for Pakistan’s actions, and even the view that enough Muslims did not condemn Godhra all recall the atmosphere of 1984. Then too we heard how enough Sikhs did not speak out against Bhindranwale, about how there was no Sikh condemnation of Indira Gandhi’s assassins (“the only reason Sikhs were massacred” went the apology, “was because they did not grieve for Mrs Gandhi”) and about how every Sikh was a potential hijacker or terrorist.

Then it was Sikhs. Today its Muslims. But, Congress or BJP, the strategy is exactly the same.

Action-Reaction: Referring to the Sikh riots of 1984, Rajiv Gandhi told a public meeting, “When a big tree falls, the ground is bound to shake.” God knows who was writing his speeches those days, but the line would come back to haunt Rajiv so much the Congress would spend hours explaining it away.

Referring to the Ahmedabad riots this year a variety of BJP leaders, both national and regional, said that they were an inevitable consequence of the Godhra incident. The Times of India quoted Narendra Modi as suggesting that every action had an equal and opposite reaction. That remark has haunted Modi so much that he has gone blue in the face denying it or claiming that it was taken out of context.

The two statements — and the subsequent spin — echo each other uncannily.

The Media and Elections: In the aftermath of Gujarat, the BJP is claiming that the media actually distorted or suppressed news about how well the party was doing because of journalistic bias.

This is a familiar allegation because the Congress has used it at least thrice. In 1971, when Mrs Gandhi won a landslide in the mid-term Lok Sabha election, she blamed the press (“which is against us”) for failing to spot the wave. In 1979-80, when she came back to office, she said the same thing (and yes, the press did truly hate her after what it went through during the Emergency). And in 1984, Congressmen were openly leery of the press’s failure to spot the wave.

The truth, I suspect, has little to do with journalistic biases. Journos are simply not very good at predicting election results, even when a wave is staring them in the face. Predictions are for pollsters, not correspondents.

But the Congress blamed it on bias. And so, in exactly the same way, does the BJP these days.

The Media in General: Mrs Gandhi famously described India Today (at a press conference) as being anti-national only because it did not share her perception of the national interest. When newspapers carried reports of massacres during the visits of foreign dignitaries, they were also called ‘anti-national’ or ‘determined to show India in a bad light’.

When newspapers ran campaigns against the government, punitive action had to be taken. Rajiv introduced a Defamation Bill to tame the press. And his government made it a mission to destroy The Indian Express.

This government is following the same strategy. Ask any awkward questions — about the Ansal Plaza shoot-out, for instance — and you are anti-national. Focus on Narendra Modi’s role during the Gujarat riots and you are embarrassing India in the eyes of the world. Speak up for the minorities and you are either anti-national (ISI agents is how the VHP’s Praveen Togadia, the ‘spiritual victor’ of Gujarat, describes critical editors) or anti-Hindu, which, to this crowd, is much the same thing.

And if you launch a campaign against them, they will make Rajiv’s persecution of The Indian Express seem tame in comparison. Just look at the manner in which Tehelka has been destroyed, its offices raided, its journalists arrested, and its staff harassed. And, sure enough, Tehelka has also been accused of being anti-national and ISI-influenced.

And finally…: Do you begin to see the parallels? For all of the last fortnight, I’ve imagined that Indira Gandhi is a ghostly presence at BJP press conferences, there to bless the men she once jailed.

All of the rhetoric is strikingly similar. If the 1971 election was the “voters’ reply to the vested interests,” then Gujarat is the “voter’s” reply to secularists”. The allegations of governmental complicity in the Gujarat riots are said to be bogus; “No NGO has produced any evidence that will stand up in court.” Exactly what the Congress said after the Delhi riots: ask Sajjan Kumar, he’s got the acquittals to prove it.

Why, after the liberalisation and liberalism of the 1990s, have we gone back to the clichés of the 1970s and 1980s? To the foreign hand; to foreign intelligence agencies; to attempts to destabilise India; to the need to call everybody we disagree with ‘anti-national’; to turning Indian against Indian on the basis of religion; to destroying critical media organisations; and most of all, to the opinionated self-righteousness of Indira Gandhi, a woman who treated an attack on her government as an attack on India?

And, at a more serious level, what does this say about our politics? Does it suggest that all politicians are basically the same, regardless of party? Is the BJP turning into everything it once said it would oppose about the Congress? Is this Indira Gandhi’s ultimate revenge — ensuring that her opponents become her political descendants?

I don’t know the answers.

But don’t you think the questions are worth asking?

Vir Sanghvi