This Article is From Oct 17, 2017

With Its Leader's Taj Mahal Rant, BJP Tests Ground For 2019

Most of us in India have had our favorite conspiracy theories, those we have grown up on over the years in the country. From Mecca and Vatican being home to Lord Shiva or our very own Taj Mahal being an erstwhile Tejo Mahalaya. These are theories many of us have recalled time and again to prove that the Indian sense of humor is not dead, though ultra-right websites that have made far more audacious claims would have you believe otherwise.

But in the India of 2017, the thin line that separated the stated line of the ruling party from the conspiracy theories peddled by the jesters of the right-wing (dismissed often and conveniently as The Fringe), has been diluted. So the easiest reaction to BJP MLA Sangeet Som's statement on the Taj Mahal yesterday would have been to dismiss it as fringe behavior. The intellectual right-wing of India has far too often alleged that the mainstream media gets carried away by the antics of the disgruntled loony elements in the ruling BJP.

But Sangeet Som is not fringe; nor is his leader Yogi Adityanath, who has been presented as BJP's face in Kerala and in Gujarat. If Sangeet Som called the Taj Mahal a construct of traitors, Adityanath attacked the mausoleum as not being a part of Indian history because it was built by Mughals.

The BJP issued a statement through GVL Narasimha Rao that members of the party could hold any view on monuments and at the same time also letting us know that Mughal rule in India was barbaric. It would be inconvenient for Yogi Adityanath to tell us that the Taj Mahal is one of the highest revenue-generating monuments in India or to acknowledge that the Prime Minister from his party proudly delivers his Independence Day speech from the Red Fort, another contribution of the Mughals.

Mughals in India have been the most hated, demonized figures in the Sangh Parivaar's account of history. This is not a revelation, this is a part of the right-wing narrative and could be the subject of discussion on another day. But for us to believe that Sangeet Som's declaration of Taj Mahal as a blot on Indian culture has anything to do with his distorted understanding of Indian history would be sheer naivete. For Yogi Adityanath and the likes of Sangeet Som, the Taj Mahal is a monument that is attached with the Muslim/Islamic identity in India. To not allot it any cultural heritage funds in the state budget or omit it from the state department's tourism booklet is telling you in brazen terms what it tried to subtly state in 2014.

The man who has been chosen to make these inflammatory statements about the Taj Mahal is the same man who was responsible for making inflammatory statements through the calculated Muzaffarnagar riots that contributed to the BJP's huge win in Uttar Pradesh in the 2014 general election.

The government today is less than two years from the next general election and nowhere close to realizing any of the promises it made to the country, be it on the economy or generating jobs for the unemployed. Though it is nowhere close to losing its popularity among its vote base, it is increasingly ceding ground to the belief that this government might not really have the magic wand it claimed to possess in 2014 that lured the voter to the corporate Hindutva model of development.

The corporate Hindutva model is the one Modi practiced efficiently in Gujarat - for the first three years, the state government would talk about MoUs and development projects for the state through the much-hyped Vibrant Gujarat summit where it would showcase development models and projects. And just a year before election, leaders would return to the tried and tested rhetoric of the "Dilli Sultanate" and of the outsiders trying to attack the Hindu Asmita of the state.

In 2017, every possible imagined threat to the Hindu Asmita has been exhausted. The alleged beef-eaters have been lynched, the dissenters have been left without a voice, construction of the Ram Mandir has been forwarded to the 2024 manifesto, the courts and investigating agencies have been described as agents of communal bias who find Hindus soft targets.

What remains now is to sustain the attack on the "other" in India through institutions and monuments that have been viewed by the skewed Sangh worldview as being representative of the "other" faith.

The demonization of Akbar or Shah Jahan today is no different from that of Babur which was used as an excuse to demolish the Babri Masjid in 1992. The rhetorical campaign against Mughals that culminated with the demolition of the 16th-century mosque had nothing to do with history and everything to do with an attack on identity. In 2017, the rhetoric about the Taj Mahal yet again has nothing to do with Shah Jahan or Aurangzeb being barbaric leaders or their positioning in our history. It is just another attempt by the stakeholders to push the envelope and see what new grounds can be achieved in the state and in the country. Before you dismiss the statement on Taj Mahal as a publicity stunt by a divisive leader, beware, the government is testing waters. It is trying to understand, gauge and explore new grounds that can further and fuel its narrative. When the Mughal is called the outsider, the traitor, make no mistake on what it seeks to imply and the covert messaging that accompanies it.

If the reaction to this narrative around the Taj Mahal is found favourable, the discourse will be amplified with more from the fringe voices thrown in. If not, we have two years to 2019, many more Taj Mahals will have to bear the brunt of calculated, opportunistic hate.

(Rana Ayyub is an award-winning investigative journalist and political writer. She is the author of 'Gujarat Files', a book on the politics of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah in Gujarat.)

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