5-11 July 2013 #663

The politics of death

The hallmark of Indian democracy at election time is to turn the statistics of corpses to political advantage
Ajaz Ashraf
In the stench of rotting bodies after the floods in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand is also present the foul odour of the politics of death.

As Uttarakhand desperately cremates the bodies, the political class has turned the corpses into a statistical detail to serve its political goals. Indeed, 1984 onwards, the politics of death has come to dominate the saga of Indian democracy.

Uttarakhand Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna has been seeking, from the very start, to suppress the death toll figures acutely aware of the political price attached to a high casualty count. Uttarakhand Assembly Speaker Govind Singh Kunjwal claimed the Himalayan Tsunami could have killed over 10,000 people, but are we to hail Kunjwal for his candour even though it embarrassed his party? Not really, because there is intense rivalry between factions owing allegiance to Bahuguna and Union Cabinet Minister Harish Rawat, arguably the most popular Congress leader in the state.

Following last year’s election, Rawat had believed Congress President Sonia Gandhi would designate him chief minister. After all, in 2002, he had been persuaded to step aside in favour of ND Tiwari. But Bahuguna, a political lightweight, was anointed chief minister, and Rawat was placated with a Cabinet rank at the Centre and Kunjwal, his follower, was made the speaker.

Kunjwal has been openly mocking Bahuguna. The death toll Kunjwal cited was yet another sharp spear flung at Bahuguna, underscoring the inability of political leaders to sweep aside rivalries to alleviate the plight of people.

The politics of death among the state’s Congress leaders matches the attempts of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi to milk the devastation in Uttarakhand for political ends. Modi sought to build his persona of a ‘doer’ by parachuting on the state, his spin doctors providing astonishing figures of the number of people he rescued. As the story unravelled, as all spins eventually do, the BJP has been tying itself in a tangle through flimsy denials. It was, again, the hope of gaining from the politics of death that inspired Rahul Gandhi to belatedly bustle around the state littered with corpses.

Since 1984, death has been repeatedly invoked for electoral purposes. The assassination of Indira Gandhi and the anti-Sikh riots were harnessed to the Congress electoral machinery. The Congress tried to engender a sympathy wave through advertisements which repeatedly quoted from her last speech before her death: “I shall continue to serve until my last breath and when I die, I can say that every drop of my blood will invigorate India and strengthen it.”

Twenty-nine years later, the assassination of Indira still constitutes the rhetoric of the?Congress. Rahul Gandhi recently spoke of his torment at the unbearable loss of his grandmother. His sentiments can’t be made light of, yet the compulsions of the politics of death made Rahul skip any references to the turmoil the Sikh children experienced in 1984.

Perhaps the most spectacular enactment of the politics of death was during the weeks of the Kargil conflict with Pakistan in 1999. The BJP displayed coffins from Kargil for public viewing and took the dead for cremation or burial in procession. French scholar Max-Jean Zins writes in a paper: ‘The Kargil funerals provided an excellent opportunity to stage a spectacular extravaganza, a sort of meticulously choreographed national funereal ballet.’ Yes, election was just weeks away.

Again, when the train at Godhra, Gujarat, caught fire in 2002, the Narendra Modi administration, despite warnings, brought the charred bodies to Ahmadabad and handed them over to their families in processions. It created the setting for the riots that followed, allegedly allowed to go out of control for the purposes of winning elections then just nine months away.

Neither a natural calamity magnitude nor violence prompts the political parties to overcome their competing interests to provide help to people. In contrast, they have united to oppose the verdict that seeks to bring the political parties under the ambit of the Right to Information Act.

It tells you about the depth to which India’s political class has fallen and the illness plaguing Indian democracy.


Other columns by Ajaz Ashraf:

Revealing Rushdie

Us and them

India's gender insurrection

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