The Union defence minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, held an extraordinary press conference last Friday. It had nothing to do with her weighty portfolio but was a declaration of war, all right. The ostensible target was Rahul Gandhi but it was also a thinly veiled warning to India's minorities and secular liberals to brace for vicious attacks in the run-up to the 2019 general elections.
Sitharaman flagged a report in an Urdu newspaper which had made the outlandish claim that Rahul had described the Congress as a "Muslim party" during his interaction with a group of Muslim intellectuals on July 11 and had assured them of "course correction" after his temple visits during the Gujarat and Karnataka assembly election campaigns.
Ignoring the fact that the Congress had denied the report, Sitharaman went on a vituperative tirade, a picture of barely contained fury, almost hissing and snarling into the cameras. "The Congress has for a very long time openly done minority appeasement, now it has a reached a crescendo," the minister said, accusing the party of "getting back to a divide India mindset" of the Partition era.
She then came out with a dire warning. "I would also like to say that it will be the Congress's responsibility if we see incidents of communal disharmony between now and 2019."
Coming from one of the senior-most ministers in the cabinet, that was an astounding remark. A fundamental responsibility of any government is to ensure law and order, and safeguard social harmony. And the Bharatiya Janata Party today rules not just at the Centre but in a majority of the states. Yet, here was a minister meting out a bald threat to minorities, and making it clear that communal polarization was on the anvil. The Congress was just a stand-in for all minorities and liberals; its so-called "appeasement" just a ruse to send a message to the troll armies and Hindutva cadres to go for the kill.
In normal times, such incendiary remarks would have invited a rebuke or at least a gentle reprimand from more responsible members of the party and the government. But we live in abnormal times and it was clear to every listener that Nirmala Sitharaman was reading out from a text that had been scripted by her bosses as part of a well-crafted electoral and ideological strategy.
That was proved - if proof was necessary - the very next day when the prime minister himself repeated the allegation that Rahul Gandhi had termed the Congress a Muslim party. After Nirmala Sitharaman's press conference, the historian, S. Irfan Habib - who had attended the meeting with Rahul - had categorically denied the charge. "It seems to have malicious intent, no such issue came up at all," Habib tweeted.
But facts have seldom come in the way of Narendra Modi's propaganda. And so, addressing a rally in Azamgarh on July 14, the prime minister - in the mocking tone that he has honed into a fine art - asked Rahul to clarify whether the Congress was a party of "Muslim men only" and went on to cast himself as a champion of Muslim women since his government is pushing the legislation against instant triple talaq.
The alacrity with which the defence minister and the prime minister seized upon a fallacious news report to dub the Congress a "Muslim party" makes the BJP's game plan obvious. For all the talk of "development", the party has clearly decided to bank on communal polarization as the leitmotif of its general election campaign.
This was evident even before Rahul Gandhi met Muslim intellectuals and was pilloried for it - never mind that he has been meeting different social and economic groups regularly, or that Narendra Modi, too, has met groups of Muslim clerics more than once since becoming prime minister.
Shashi Tharoor's comment that India was in the danger of becoming a "Hindu Pakistan" evoked the same kind of manufactured outrage that Rahul's meeting did. Speaking at a function in Kerala on July 11, Tharoor said, "If they (BJP) win a repeat in the Lok Sabha, our democratic Constitution as we understand it will not survive, as they will have all the elements they need to tear apart the Constitution and write a new one. That new one will be the one which will enshrine the principles of Hindu rashtra. That will remove equality for the minorities, that will create a Hindu Pakistan..."
This was not the first time that Tharoor had warned of India turning into a "Hindu Pakistan". The CPI(M) general-secretary, Sitaram Yechury, too, had used the expression during a landmark debate in Parliament a year ago. But with the country now slipping into election mode, BJP spokespersons and friendly "nationalist" television channels went on an overdrive condemning Tharoor and the Congress for "insulting" India by comparing it to Pakistan.
Yet, to view the BJP's response merely as an electoral tactic would be misplaced. The denial of diversity and tolerance is ingrained in its ideological agenda.
The use of the term "Hindu Pakistan", arguably, is equally inappropriate. For one, by demonizing Pakistan and valorizing the "civilizational values" of India, it reinforces - unwittingly or not - the deep biases against Islam and its adherents, just as much as it shores up the myth (beloved of upper caste liberals) of "intrinsic" Hindu tolerance.
Second, it places far too much focus on the majority-minority binary. Tharoor, for instance, while defending his speech with a Facebook post, wrote: "Pakistan was created as a state with a dominant religion that discriminates against its minorities and denies them equal rights. India never accepted the logic..."
While Pakistan's minuscule minorities have suffered at the hands of a theocratic state, the truth is that the biggest victims of the rule of the mullah-military combine, and the pervasive terrorism it has spawned, have been ordinary citizens who are overwhelmingly Muslim.
In India too, the rise of hate and bigotry - although the targets are designated "others" - threatens to consume us all. Therefore, to remain bound to the 'India versus Pakistan", "Hindu versus Muslim" discourse can make us blind to the insidious ways in which our essential and shared humanity is being eroded day by day.
A chilling article in The Irish Times by columnist, Fintan O'Toole, that has been widely read around the world brings that home. Entitled "Trial runs for fascism are in full flow", it points out that "one of the basic tools of fascism is the rigging of elections", and the second is "the generation of tribal identities, the division of society into mutually exclusive polarities." The third is the need of "a propaganda machine so effective that it creates for its followers a universe of 'alternative facts' impervious to unwanted realities."
"But when you've done all this," writes O'Toole, "there is a crucial next step, usually the trickiest of all." And what is that? "You have to undermine moral boundaries, inure people to the acceptance of acts of extreme cruelty. Like hounds, people have to be blooded. They have to be given the taste for savagery." This is done by "building up the sense of threat from a despised out-group. This allows the members of that group to be dehumanised. Once that has been achieved, you can gradually up the ante, working through the stages from breaking windows to extermination."
O'Toole goes on to cite examples from far right offensives in Europe and America - the demonization and victimization of migrants and refugees - as instances of "test marketing" the "pre-fascist agenda".
In India (which he does not mention) the "out-group" is within - and therefore, the efforts to divide, so much more twisted and corrosive. The Muslims may be the most visible target, but hate knows no boundaries - like noxious air, like raging fire, it contaminates and scorches the victor as much as the victim.
And every time a minister garlands members of a lynch mob, every time a news anchor bays for the blood of an "anti-national', every time a prime minister uses 'alternative facts' to conjure a polarizing narrative, we become "blooded" and acquire "a taste for savagery". The threshold of our tolerance for intolerance keeps expanding.
Forget Hindu Pakistan. It is the prospect of becoming a 'Hate-istan' that we must fear and resist.
This article first appeared in The Telegraph India and is reproduced with the permission of the writer and of The Telegraph