At the outset, it was reprehensible on BJP’s ex spokesperson Nupur Sharma’s part to comment on the way she did on Prophet Muhammad on national television. She not only hurt the religious sentiments of millions of Muslims, but also triggered a geopolitical storm in which vested interests tried to drive a wedge between India and the Gulf by using her comment. How this escalation took place or who the people behind the escalation are, should be a matter of investigation, but the bottom line is that the rancorous response by Sharma when “provoked”—according to her—almost derailed India’s relations with a very important bloc of countries. This raises questions about the training, or the lack of it, received by an official spokesperson of India’s ruling party. When challenged, the idea is not to add to the cacophony of primetime television debate by making outrageous comments, but to make one’s point politely but firmly, without stepping outside of one’s brief and without crossing any lines, especially on a sensitive matter such as religion. There is no “heat of the moment” in the life of a spokesperson, and in this, party spokespersons can learn a lot from government spokespersons. Hence, it was commendable that the BJP made an example out of her by suspending her from the party, for continuing with her would have had serious repercussions.
However, the reaction to the punishment meted out to her has made a section on social media go apoplectic with rage. They have taken it as a serious affront to their “Hindu-ness” and an attack on Hindutva, especially in the context of rude images being shared on social media of Lord Shiva by some left-liberals, most of them, ironically, fellow Hindus. The argument is: if someone insults us, why cannot we react? This is not to condone the insults meted out to their faith, but to say that they need to realise that their Hindu-ness cannot be so fragile that it is hurt by every slight; that there cannot be calls for retribution every time a perceived slight takes place; that the government’s business is to govern and it cannot be identified with comments that are seen to be hurtful to any community or religion. The Gulf countries are important partners for India. Millions of Indians, a majority of them Hindus, stay in that part of the world. India conducts some serious business with countries from the OIC bloc, including getting gas from Qatar; UAE, Saudi Arabia and Iraq are India’s major trading partners; over half of India’s remittances come just from the Gulf; it has taken years for the Indian government to find a toehold in some OIC countries, many of whom still follow Pakistan’s cue when it comes to Kashmir. To think that the government will jeopardise all that is at stake—including the lives and livelihoods of millions of Indians based abroad—for the sake of a party spokesperson who clearly crossed the line and spoke in her personal capacity, is letting emotions get the better of logic. This issue is not about upholding Hindu pride. There is no scope for whataboutery in it. Governance is the issue here. The government is not a Twitter mob and cannot act like one.
Interestingly, Qatar has accepted BJP’s action against Nupur Sharma as a show of goodwill and is ready to let the matter rest. And now Qatar and India need to investigate why this controversy, which was on a slow burn since last week, suddenly turned into a conflagration just when Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu was visiting Qatar, resulting in disruptions in his trip. This cannot be a coincidence and has to be seen in the context of a long series of controversies highlighted on social media in an obvious attempt to vitiate India’s relations with the Gulf countries. The controversy also showed that India has to be on its toes at a time when too many interests inimical to it are working overtime internationally to paint India as a cauldron of hatred and intolerant of minorities—which is a canard, but obviously there are many takers to that narrative. And even as India makes it clear to some of the OIC busybodies that India is not Pakistan where minorities disappear and that India is a plural society, the BJP needs to get its communication strategy right, so that such missteps are not taken by their spokespersons ever again.