Kathua, Unnao rape cases: For all its cleverness, BJP may have failed to gauge amount and intensity of public anger

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The BJP has possibly miscalculated on the public anger around Unnao and Kathua. Its actions and reactions on the rape-murder cases involving minor girls suffer from a damning time lag, and in final balance may be adjudged as inadequate and morally repugnant.

Any crime deserves to meet with the full force of the law. Yet, in some cases such as the rape, mutilation and murder of an eight-year-old girl, justice must not only be done, but also seen to be done. On such instances of depravity, the party in power in a democracy has a moral obligation not only to act, but to do so with alacrity and certitude to restore faith in public institutions. Failure to do so creates a moral vacuum where the worst societal instincts are unleashed.

In times like these, the BJP, as a party in power and a dominant social and political organisation, would do well to reflect on its purpose. Is it interested only in a) winning elections, or b) in truly becoming the architect of the ‘New India’ of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dreams? If the answer is ‘option a’, then its actions are commensurate with its goal. If the answer is ‘option b’, then its actions fall way short. A ‘New India’ that is morally bankrupt does not seem an attractive proposition.

Protests in Delhi on Friday against rape incidents in Kathua and Unnao. PTI

Even if BJP’s actions are focused on the narrow metric of winning the next election, failing to act swiftly to ensure justice for a girl raped allegedly by a powerful leader and the custodial death of her father seems an unbeatable way to alienate the public. The Yogi Adityanath government’s reluctance to act against MLA Kuldeep Singh Sengar in Unnao or BJP ministers’ rally in support of the rape-and-murder accused in Kathua are failings that may end up alienating the youth and the middle class. At times, the irrationality of rationalising a party or leader’s failings becomes too heavy a cross to bear.

A caveat is in order. Charges of BJP’s silence, indifference and even complicity in these cases are exaggerated and unfair. It is incorrect to say it hasn’t acted. The UP government has transferred the Unnao case to the CBI that finally detained the rape-accused BJP MLA for questioning after the Yogi’s ‘macho’ policemen failed to do so.

Maneka Gandhi, the Union women and child development (WCD) minister, has vowed to tighten further the already stringent POCSO Act to ensure death penalty for rape of children  below 12 years of age. Rajnath Singh, the Union home minister, has described the rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl as “sad and shameful”.

Yet this is Narendra Modi’s party — BJP’s most powerful and influential leader for decades — and his silence has been deafening. Amit Shah, the party president, has also refused to comment on Kathua and Unnao. The silence of the BJP’s top leadership is strategic.

Modi and Shah prefer setting agendas instead of reacting to them. Their strategy has worked like a charm since the BJP’s ascendance in 2014. Both leaders have resolutely ignored the noise generated by the Opposition and media and in rare cases that they have responded, the reactions have come at a time and place of their choosing.

This is as much a political as a psychological ploy. Both leaders evidently believe that reacting to Opposition agendas or media-driven outrages is not only pointless, it is also counterproductive to the extent that it indicates a tactical weakness that may eventually lead to ceding political space. Both leaders place far more importance on remaining continuously connected with the electorate. Modi prefers to do it through the social media and radio and Shah through BJP’s countless booth-level cadres and community leaders.

To a certain extent, the BJP top leadership’s belief that the Kathua and Unnao cases have become a touchstone for political brinkmanship was borne out by Rahul Gandhi’s midnight “silent” march that was intensely political in its attendance, shape, nature and colour. Inconsistency in Rahul’s actions on the Nirbhaya and Kathua incidents apart, there is also political opportunism in Rahul’s virtue-signaling when an old Congress hand is leading protests in Jammu in favour of the accused and has organised a bandh demanding a CBI probe.

According to a report in The Print, “one of the leading lights of the protest in favour of a CBI probe is senior Congress leader BS Slathia, the president of the Jammu Bar Association. Slathia spearheaded Wednesday’s Jammu bandh.” He was apparently senior Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad’s election agent.

That said, political parties in a democracy are well within their rights to “politicise” issues that catch popular imagination. Rahul is trying to exploit the space created by BJP’s dithering.

For all its clever electoral tactics and psychological warfare, the BJP may have failed to comprehend the amount of anger that these twin incidents have generated across the length and breadth of India — an anger that is intense, unorganised and organic. Elections are crucial to democracy, but democracies cannot be defined by elections alone. The moral sanction is as important as electoral because societies and communities are not amoral entities. It will not make Modi politically vulnerable if he speaks up on Unnao, Kathua and impresses upon Mehbooba Mufti to sack the BJP ministers who marched for the accused. It will only enhance his halo.

Follow live updates on the Unnao and Kathua rape cases here and here.



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