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Modi’s betrayal of the wrestlers is a betrayal of his mandate

For a political columnist in today’s India, there is only one thing worse than being wrong. It is being right.

Less than a month ago, I wrote about the plight of the protesting wrestlers in this column. “How can a government whose slogans include “Beti Bachao” (save the daughter) continue to back Brij Bhushan Singh?


Is it not embarrassed that its critics are now saying that the slogan should be changed to “Beti Ko Hamare Se Bachao” (save the daughters from us)?


   My conclusion was that no, the government was not embarrassed. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had made it a point of honour not to give in to any agitation or to act against one of his own, no matter how serious the charges, because that would be seen as an act of weakness.


   So he would leave wrestlers sobbing softly into wind while protecting the man who is accused of sexually harassing them. Even Brij Bhushan’s colourful past, which has included murder charges and many trips to the criminal courts, would not be enough to persuade Modi that the very least his government should do is to ask the wrestling federation’s president to step aside while the case is being investigated.


   Unfortunately, I was right. It’s been almost a month and while PM Modi has toured the world and ceremonially embraced the Sengol, he has acted as though the wrestlers do not exist.


   But, I also wrote in that column, there have been times when despite his initial stubbornness, the Prime Minister has been forced to acknowledge protests. The farm laws agitation is one example. The CAA issue is another.


   Neither of these climb-downs, I argued, was motivated by any sense of propriety or any desire to do the right thing. The only thing that mattered was political expediency.


   Well, I think the time may have come for the government to take note of the complaints made by wrestlers. Not because it cares about what happened to them. Not because it is embarrassed about protecting a man like Brij Bhushan Singh. Not because it wants to bachao India’s betis.


   But because the protest is beginning to harm the government.


   The Prime Minister cannot have been pleased that, on the day of the inauguration of the new Parliament building, he had to share the front page with photographs of his police force assaulting the women wrestlers. Nor can he be thrilled that the protests are now attracting international attention. The United World Wrestling, a global body that regulates the sport, has joined the global media in its outrage.


   Modi may also have finally realised that there is a qualitative difference in the way the world responds to an agitation against agricultural laws and to a protest by female wrestlers who say that they have been sexually harassed by the chief of a sports body, especially when that chief is no stranger to the criminal courts and is a powerful politician from the ruling party.


   Even if we take the line that Modi does not care what the world says about him, (though, of course, it is quite clear that he does), there is still the domestic response to consider.


   There are three strings to the Prime Minister’s bow: one is straightforward Hindutva. The second is welfarism. And the third is the vast support he enjoys within the middle class where his many supporters see him as a decent man who wants nothing for himself but create a new India.


   It is that last constituency that Modi should begin wondering about. The middle class is notoriously fickle. This is the class that cheered along to India Shining and then suddenly forgot all about LK Advani and AB Vajpayee and gleefully welcomed Manmohan Singh. This is the class that then turned viciously against the same Manmohan Singh and shifted its loyalties to Narendra Modi.


"It is this middle class constituency that the BJP is alienating with its refusal to believe women who have won medals for India when they talk about the sexual harassment they have faced."

   The current avatar of the BJP has never worried too much about middle class fickleness because it believes it has the middle class all sewn up. Take the official responses to the controversy over the 20 per cent tax on every credit card transaction made abroad. First of all, nobody in the government seems to have realised how unpopular this crackpot scheme would be with the middle class. And then, when it was forced to backtrack slightly, its officials declared that it was fine because the measure would not affect the poor. (On their frequent trips to the Riviera I presume.)


   So it was with the withdrawal of Rs 2,000 currency notes. Apart from the mess the government made of the announcement (did everyone returning the notes have to fill up a form or not; were they legal tender till 30 September or not, etc.), there was once again the same sentiment: we are not worried because this will not affect the poor.


   In fact, the concern about not affecting the poor has been a running theme in recent government responses even when it talks about issues where nobody ever suggested or believed that the poor would be harmed. These were always middle class concerns.


  But the official subtext is unmissable: if it only affects the middle class, then it doesn’t really matter. Their concerns are not a priority.


   By themselves, such issues are not a big deal but the tone of the government’s response is beginning to grate. It consistently dismisses middle class concerns and lumps the middle class with the very rich, a classification that most middle class people resent.


   It is this middle class constituency that the BJP is alienating with its refusal to believe women who have won medals for India when they talk about the sexual harassment they have faced. It is clear that it has cast aside the wrestlers only so that it can protect an unsavoury character whom it needs to advance its own political interests in UP.


   This was not how it was supposed to be. Narendra Modi was supposed to clean up the system so that political thugs lost their influence, so that women were safe and no Nirbhaya -type sexual assaults ever happened again. Modi’s betrayal of the wrestlers is a betrayal of his mandate.


   Why does the Prime Minister not see all this? Surely, it is obvious?


   Two explanations suggest themselves. The first is that perhaps he no longer hears about the seriousness of what is really going on. When the Nirbhaya incident happened, TV anchors went hoarse abusing the government. There were angry protests on the streets.


   Now, the anchors are made to genuflect and to conceal the truth. And when protests occur, they are suppressed with great force — as the treatment of the wrestlers reminds us.


   That leaves us with a second explanation. The Prime Minister has put his faith in Hindutva and Hindu symbolism of the sort we saw when the new Parliament building was inaugurated. There is still the Ayodhya temple to come and that will be an even bigger Hindutva show than the Parliament ritual.


   Even if welfarism is yielding diminishing returns (as Karnataka suggests) and the middle class is somewhat alienated, a Hindutva wave will sweep the country and return the BJP to power after the 2024 Lok Sabha election—or so the Prime Minister thinks.


   He could be right.


   But it could also go very wrong.


   So why alienate the middle class? Why pick a gangster over the women of India? Is it really worth the risk?


   Perhaps, Modi asks himself these questions. If he does, then he will quickly do some damage control on the wrestlers’ issue. It’s time to choose his self-interest over his ego.



Posted On: 01 Jun 2023 11:30 AM
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