How dangerous are Ayman Al Zawahiri’s exhortations to Muslims on the Indian sub-continent?

There is an expression in Hindi: “Soney pey suhaga” (icing on the cake) — suhaga being the powder that makes gold shine. In a volatile social situation, where communal polarisation is an electoral requirement until key state elections are out of the way, the Zawahiri slogan may have some short-term advantages for India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It is perverse to say so but that is the way it is. In the division of labour between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah, Modi will be the assertive statesman, from New Delhi to the ends of the world. That is the way he has managed to get himself projected.

The media has not spotted the paradox. The man who came to power, riding the crest of the biggest media campaign in Indian history, has, after having come to power, distanced himself from the media. He is establishing the rhythm: Media will be available when he needs it. In this, he is following the dictum of the genius who marketed the Beatles, Brian Epstein, the first manager of the singing sensations. For better publicity, Epstein kept the press at a distance. So far, this approach has served Modi well. The more onerous task has been left to Shah. His job is to keep pushing the frontiers of communalism, to create circles of Hindu consolidation around Muslim individuals, neighbourhoods, villages, markets, fairs. This is not communalism for its own sake, but more as an electoral asset, from state to state, constituency to constituency.

At this phase of the Hindu rashtra (state) project, Al Qaida’s exhortations will help Hindu consolidation that much more. In fact, Shah may well survey the scene and proclaim with satisfaction: With such enemies, who needs friends? With the sort of defence being offered by the great secular, youth trio of Rahul Gandhi, Akhilesh Yadav and Omar Abdullah, Shah will score one field goal after another.

Shrewdly anticipating more defeats coming his way in the state elections, Rahul has charged off to the security of Amethi, making cow eyes at TV cameras. Of all the images he could pick to chastise the prime minister, he has settled for one where Modi looked exceptionally good: Competing with a Japanese drum beater. Modi played the drums with great dexterity, like a Gujarati well-verse in the antics of the dandiya raasa (folk dance of Gujarat). But Rahul thought he should not be doing this while food prices were high. Just that morning, newspapers were full of stories about former Supreme Court chief justice P. Sathasivam being made Governor of Kerala without any cooling off period, but Rahul was focused on the Japanese drums. Yogi Adityanath has not only declared India a Hindu nation, but has unilaterally changed street names in places like Gorakhpur. He announced these changes on TV. Does the Congress vice-president have nothing to say about that?

Modi, in his very first speech in parliament, had the honesty to blame India’s many debilities on the fact that it had been under “foreign rule for 1,200 years”. I disagree with him, but I respect him for having said something Congressmen believe in but do not have the courage to say. They will try to please Muslims privately, but keep publicly mum on that issue.

Does Rahul even understand the nuances of the issue at hand? Front pages of newspapers have been carrying photographs of men being given bucket baths in city squares as part of the ritual preparatory to their return to the Hindu fold from Christianity. ‘Love Jihad’ is the flavour of the season. Any thoughts, Rahul?

Akhilesh in Lucknow and Abdullah, who rules Kashmir from his bungalow in New Delhi, are a shade worse than Rahul. They have thrown in the towel for the next round. The word to their party men is: We are not coming back in the next round. So help yourselves.

With such an open field, does Shah need more polarising material from Al Zawahiri? In the established custom of the Indian media, Al Zawahiri will be sourced to Pakistan and some high-decibel discussions will be mounted in which retired Pakistani generals will make guest appearances to be shouted at. Is it a fix like World Heavyweight Wrestling?

Given this state of play, chances are that Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s mangoes will be reciprocated with some Gujarati dhoklas only after the elections in Jammu and Kashmir are over in January. Until then, communalism is an electoral necessity and an opening with Pakistan is incompatible with this requirement. Unless, of course, Modi lives up to his reputation of being capable of springing surprises. By that time, the nation may well have lived through its most intense phases of communal tension. Shah’s electoral needs will have been exhausted only by February. There may be some relief then or there may not be depending how the Hindu rashtra project can be navigated alongside “sab ka saath, sab ka vikas” (with all, on the road to progress).

Desperate Muslim youth may at that stage be in search for a rallying force, but I find it difficult to believe that Al Zawahiri’s brand of Islam will have a burgeoning clientele in India. The danger will arise when more muscular forces like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, with their mastery over the new media technology, begin reaching out to pockets of agitated Muslims on social networks. That would be dangerous because the turmoil in West Asia is a regular part of the Arab and western media diet. They have some understanding of issues from their different perspectives.

On foreign affairs, Indian audiences have no sources of information other than what is doled out to them by outsiders. India has so far survived being frogs in the well. But this time, a huge tsunami may be drifting in India’s direction. For a nation not to have its feet on ground will be dangerous. Television channels must mount informed discussions, along with the staple of shouting matches.


Saeed Naqvi is a commentator on political and diplomatic affairs.