More than a week ago, while reporting on the struggling lock industry in Aligarh, I ended up having an argument with a local resident. He was a friend of a journalist I knew in the city. Usually, I refrain from political debates in such polarised atmosphere because they end up going in circles. But we were on the way to meet someone, and there was not much to do in the car.
He argued Prime Minister Narendra Modi deserves another term because we need a "strong leader", instead of "week coalition". I countered with rising unemployment, agrarian distress and skirmishes across the Line of Control. He agreed, and said, "Yes, Modi has not even fulfilled 5 percent of his promises." "But," he paused, looked at the driver, and asked, "Koi Muslim toh nahi hai na gadi mein?" Predictably, he concluded his argument that can be summed up in one line: Muslims have been shown their place.
I have been on the road, tracking unemployment through the Hindi heartland of Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh for the past two and half months. The universal anti-Muslim sentiment has made me more homesick than the mercury soaring over 40 degrees. My most disquieting observation from the ground is how okay the overwhelming majority of Hindus are with the persecution of Muslims, including some of the ghastliest cases of lynchings. Not everybody wants a Muslim lynched, but not many are bothered about it either.
The gravity of the hatred differs with sections of the society. A conversation with an upper caste quickly slips into anti-Muslim drivel. With non-Yadav OBCs and some of the non-Jatav Dalits, it takes a bit of an effort on the reporter's part. But it eventually surfaces.
In the periphery of Motihari's famous, or now infamous, sugar mill, live the workers that once worked at the mill. The closure of the mill rendered them jobless, and for more than 15 years, they have been struggling to survive. It has been one of the biggest talking points in the politics of Bihar.
Ahead of the 2014 General Election, then prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi had visited Motihari and famously said that during his next visit to the town, he would have tea with sugar crushed at this mill. "Agli baar aaunga toh abhi band mill ki chini se bani chai piyunga (next time when I will come I will have tea made of sugar from those closed mills)," he had said, only to never fulfil the promise.
In spite of the fact, the workers, most of them from the upper caste, said they would vote for Modi because "the country needs him", and the "Hindus need to unite". The assumption that the good of the Hindus means the good of the nation was hard to miss. The non-Yadav OBCs first spoke about Ujwala Yojana and Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana before bringing up their Hindu identity.
Hindutva is obviously not the sole reason that drives people to polls. It is one of the many factors including the economy, local caste equations and personality cult, among others. Those who vote for Modi at the Centre have no problems voting for Arvind Kejriwal in the Assembly. BJP swept seven Lok Sabha seats of Delhi in 2014 but in 2017, the same voters voted for AAP. The party led by Kejriwal won 67 out 70 Assembly constituencies in Delhi. I have met several voters in Uttar Pradesh who praise Modi but say they will vote for Akhilesh Yadav in the Assembly over Yogi Adityanath, who is the biggest Hindutva mascot today. Having said that, the resentment towards Muslims remains visible, and too hard to ignore.
I tweeted about it the other day, and my mentions exploded. Many were abuses, but several pointed out the anti-Muslim sentiment has always been there. Of course, it is not new. It pre-dates the era of Modi and Amit Shah. Babri Masjid was demolished in 1992. Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has been relevant for over 100 years.
However, it is more fashionable and legitimate to speak ill of Muslims than it has been in the recent past. Voters know the pulse of their state, district and village. They know what is off limits and what is kosher. The opinion polls ahead of the presidential elections of 2016 in America got it horribly wrong because several Donald Trump voters publicly expressed support for the Democrats. It was not cool to be seen as endorsing Trump. That has obviously changed three years later.
Coming back to India, the youth that gets its information from WhatsApp is disturbingly confident while downplaying the persecution of Muslims. The defence varies from fake forwards to projecting Modi's vision for development, suggesting a trade-off between economic growth and majoritarianism.
About 75 kilometres from Darbhanga " a town in Bihar " lies a village called Gora with a majority of the Muslim population that engaged in the cattle trade. After Modi came to power in 2014, slowly and steadily, the law enforcement agencies made their lives difficult. Today, all of them are languishing without proper jobs, toiling as daily wage labourers if and when they get an opportunity.
I met some of the former cattle traders for a story. After interviewing them, I bumped into a young man at a tea stall near the village. He asked me what brought me to Gora. I told him. He accepted the Muslims in Gora have been given a raw deal. But immediately said, "Lekin Muslims bhi BJP se doori banake rakhte hai. Unko bhi thoda samajhna chahiye. Why engage in cattle trade if Hindus do not like it?"
Which is why, even if the opposition manages to topple the current dispensation, I wonder how much courage they would have to build bridges of a broken society. This is a massive vote bank no party would want to alienate. The problem is it is founded on Islamophobia.
The Hindus that are genuinely convinced that their community is finally asserting itself after being sidelined are more than we can imagine. The BJP's insanely effective and penetrative social media machinery has successfully sold the persecution complex to the majority and made them insecure and paranoid.
The paranoid jingoism is built through simple narratives, which include enemies -- external and internal. The external enemy is easy to locate. It is not far away, has one eye on Kashmir and is dangerously armed with nuclear weapons. We need a strong leader to stand up to the enemy. Whoever within the country opposes that strong leader, or asks uncomfortable questions, is helping the external enemy. The internal enemies, therefore, include opposition leaders, intellectuals, liberal journalists and academics. Being liberal and inclusive means the "internal enemies" are often seen speaking up for the rights of the minorities, which makes it easy to club them along with the internal enemies.
Simultaneously, the Hindi channels that have the ability to influence masses do their fair share of damage by toeing the line, and otherising minorities. Repeated programmes agitatedly asking when the Hindus would get their much awaited Ram Mandir to reinforce the Hindu identity. A senior journalist working with a prominent Hindi channel told me, "Even if the channels do their jobs with 25 percent honesty, it would be game over for Modi."
But, because the channels are not doing their job, and because the BJP is up against the party that lacks credibility and basic communication skills, Modi is easily succeeding in furthering his appeal, which is that of an alpha male. And in doing so, he is turning the country into one where inclusivity is not a virtue, and tolerance is a weakness.
Which is why I suspect Rahul Gandhi's campaign of "saving the soul of India", while well-meaning and required, is not resonating on the ground. There is only one winner between Rahul's pacifism and Modi's macho nationalism.