Sinha’s choice: The perils of populism

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Sinha’s choice: The perils of populism

Leadership in never about standing at the head of a mob. It’s about having the courage to oppose its demands even when, and precisely because, one is simpatico

Union Minister Jayant Sinha, whom I hasten to clarify I do not know, have never met and hold no brief for or against, is by all accounts a competent administrator, articulate politician and educated public figure. In welcoming to his home in Hazaribagh and garlanding eight of his constituents convicted by a fast-track trial court for the lynching of a fellow citizen, a meat trader by profession suspected by his killers of being involved in beef smuggling, on their being granted bail by Jharkhand High Court he may have thought he was responding to the depth of feeling among the people of the parliamentary seat he represents in the Lok Sabha. He may even be right.

It is a fact that popular sentiment against the non-implementation of cow slaughter laws over the decades despite them being on the statute of 21 States of the Union has indeed created an environment of popular sympathy for those who are seen to be acting to protect the cow where the state has failed.

But that’s also the logic of Maoists, separatists and other malcontents albeit in different contexts using as justification India’s largely unaddressed inequities and failure to implement laws effectively since 1947.

Surely, it cannot also be Sinha’s explanation given his stated belief in the rule of law even if the tortuously slow, often derailed and at times motivated criminal justice system in our country often makes a mockery of that principle?

We are not too interested in the politicisation of the incident, which is better left to television debates and twitter duels, for two reasons. First, most of those critical of Sinha’s actions seem to have forgotten that it was on the watch of the BJP State Government in Jharkhand that both the incident and the subsequent police investigation and trial court proceedings that resulted in the conviction of the cow vigilantes took place. Secondly, political opponents having a go at him have themselves been so complicit in the most cynical acts of competitive populism on issues ranging from religious minorities, women’s rights and jaati politics all subsumed in an illiberal, communitarian meta-discourse which effectively promotes a differential citizenship model in this country that one doesn’t know whether to laugh or to cry when they hold forth. As for those civil society critics who have worked as cheerleaders for the aforementioned political class, well, rent-seekers will be rent-seekers whether Congress, BJP or Third Front wallahs. So, getting embroiled in a slanging match between bhakts of all descriptions serves no useful purpose.

Yes, Sinha has regretted his action and decency of discourse demands one doesn’t twist the knife. But it is important for the political class and especially those in leadership roles to learn certain lessons from this episode.

I would recommend we pay close attention to the local politics at play which would certainly have been a factor in Sinha’s ill-advised decision. Apparently, an opposing faction of the Jharkhand BJP locally had taken credit for helping the convicts and their families with financial, moral and legal support as there was a strong sentiment within the population that they had been framed. The Sinha camp was obviously not going to let inner-party opponents in his parliamentary constituency take the credit; ergo, the garlanding and welcome at his residence. This is the sort of competitive populism rampant across vast swathes of India and has been for decades.

Some of the Minister’s supporters directly, and Sinha indirectly in his apologia, have however made the argument that it is the duty and obligation of the local MP to be responsive to, provide support for and raise the concerns of his constituents effectively. That too is an unexceptionable notion. What, then, is the way out?

A leader as opposed to merely a politician ought to have analysed the situation and acted thus: Popular sentiment is that those of my constituents convicted have been framed. I am convinced, after a thorough perusal of the facts, that this public feeling is not misplaced; after all, it would not be the first time in India that innocents have been set up. At the same time, there is a dead body so obviously a murder has taken place of another of my constituents who was suspected of being involved in an illegal act. As there is no doubt about the fact that he was murdered, however, it stands to reason that there are murderers in our midst even if they are not the ones my constituents believe have been convicted. So, I will go to pay my respects at the house of the deceased to make it clear that I stand for the murderers to be brought to book regardless of political affiliation because I believe in the rule of law and not vigilante violence; at the same time, I will emphasise that if the deceased or any other person is involved in the crime of cow slaughter/smuggling I will strongly support the harshest provisions of the law being applied against them.

I will also visit the houses of those I believe have been wrongly convicted and assure them of my support in their legal battle to clear their name. As, when and if that comes to pass and they are acquitted, I will welcome them to my home, garland them and not forget to take the police administration to task for letting the real murderers get away. I will simultaneously campaign for the law of the land regarding cow slaughter/smuggling to be implemented effectively.

Ah, all very well in theory, I hear you say, but that’s not how it works in the real world — the man murdered belonged to the Muslim community, not known to be big BJP supporters, while the chances are those convicted are simpatico. But the cow needs protection from both its slaughterers and those who slaughter in its name. The anti-socials the Prime Minister warned against must not be allowed to give the call to implement the law of the land a bad name.

Unfortunately, the optics around Sinha’s garland make it appear a noose to some even if that was not what was intended. That’s the peril of populism.

(The writer is Consulting Editor, The Pioneer)

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