Jaspreet Oberoi: Modi's Theatrics After Embarrassing Punjab Rally Exposes India's Sikhophobia
What started as a political war of words and spin after the failed Ferozepur BJP rally, soon turned into an exercise of Sikhophobic commentary
January 8, 2022 | 5 min. read | Opinion
On January 5, Prime Minister Modi landed in Punjab to kick off BJP’s election campaign for the upcoming state polls. The PM’s visit was being hyped a lot due to various reasons - but primarily because this was his first visit to Punjab after the repeal of farm laws. He had last visited the state back in 2020, before the break out of the protests.
In Punjab, the BJP has never been a darling of the voters, but it has had its fair share of success. For instance, in 2007, while in an alliance with the Akali Dal, BJP won 19 out of the 23 seats it contested.
The Sukhbir Badal led Akali Dal pulled out of the alliance last year, due to the farm laws, and since then, the popularity graph of BJP has gone down steadily. The recent opinion polls have pegged their tally anywhere from zero to three seats in the upcoming elections.
The BJP ranks had expected to gain some goodwill in Punjab after the repeal of the farm laws but the sentiment on the ground continues to be hostile towards them.
The PM’s visit was expected to break that ice, with a slew of announcements, including, Delhi-Amritsar-Katra Expressway; four laning of Amritsar - Una section; Mukerian - Talwara New Broad Gauge railway line; PGI Satellite Centre at Ferozepur and two new medical colleges at Kapurthala and Hoshiarpur.
Contrary to the plan, nothing of the above could be materialized. When the PM landed in Bathinda from his Delhi flight, the IAF chopper which was scheduled to take him further to Ferozepur (the site of the rally) was denied the flying clearance due to bad weather. It was decided to instead travel by road, a distance of about 100 kilometers. This was a diversion from the original plan and it is unclear if the PM’s security detail, the SPG (Special Protection Group) had cleared the road route and/or received an official assurance from the Punjab Police for the same.
Around 25 kilometers from the destination, the PM’s cavalcade was halted because of a road blockage by some protestors. The car carrying the PM was stranded on a flyover just outside the Ferozepur city for 15 minutes after which the SPG allegedly determined the site to be unsafe and thus turned back the cavalcade towards Bathinda airport.
The PM flew back to Delhi without attending the rally or announcing any projects, but as per ANI, he did remark the following to an employee at the Bathinda airport, “thank your CM that I reached Bathinda airport alive”. This snarky insinuation was enough to unleash the narrative on social media and television that PM Modi has been attacked in Punjab and put in extreme danger.
Soon, the Home Minister of India, Amit Shah tweeted about the same, calling the security breach a shameful failure. The reactions started pouring in from all over, mostly blaming the Congress government in Punjab for intentional laxity.
As expected, the political parties in Punjab jumped into the controversy without wasting much time. AAP’s Punjab in-charge, Raghav Chadha (a Delhi leader appointed by Arvind Kejriwal to manage ticket distribution in Punjab) did not even wait for the air to be cleared, or for the accountability to be fixed. He straightaway went for the Congress’s jugular and tweeted, “Any lapse in security of the Prime Minister is unacceptable. Whatever our differences maybe, every State Government must provide highest level of security for the Prime Minister.”
Minutes later, Bhagwant Mann copied him and tweeted almost the same. Sukhbir Badal, the other Congress opponent called it an example of Chief Minister Channi’s incompetence.
What started as a political war of words and spin, soon turned into an exercise of Sikhophobic commentary. It was fueled by the verified handles of BJP leaders along with prominent supporters of the Sangh ideology.
BJP MLA from Uttar Pradesh, Abhijeet Singh Sanga, openly threatened the Sikhs in his tweet - "Don't make the mistake of considering him Indira Gandhi. Shri Narendra Damodardas Modi is his name. You won't even get a paper to write on or history to read."
Another verified handle, Sushil Kedia said, "1984 would have been dwarfed" had "even a scratch come on PM Modi".
A BJP leader from Maharashtra, Avadhut Wagh, tweeted from his verified handle, “Hang Punjab CM till death”.
Also, Kangana Ranaut in her Instagram story said, “Punjab is becoming a hub for terroristic activities”.
As a result, Twitter and Facebook got swarmed with calls to “kill Sikhs”, “repeat 1984”, “expel them from armed services” and “teach Sikhs a lesson”.
Seeing the anti-Punjab narrative being built, CM Channi countered the claims of PM Modi and his troops. He called their actions “cheap theatricals”.
Videos from the BJP rally that PM Modi was planning to address started to surface, showing empty seats and disappointing crowd numbers. It is quite possible that while stranded, Modi was made aware of the situation and he decided to transform a lost cause into a possible win by garnering some political brownie points.
As far as the security breach is concerned, this is not the first time a PM’s car has been halted or got stuck in traffic. PM Modi’s cavalcade has dealt at least two times with worse traffic in Delhi than this roadblock. In this current case, there were no vehicles surrounding the PM’s car and the handful of people who got marginally close to the cavalcade were actually BJP supporters and not the protesting farmers.
After the anti-Sikh tirade, the narrative in Punjab got transformed from targeting the Congress government to calling out Modi’s theatrics. Various Congress leaders including Navjot Sidhu, Pawan Khehra, and Surjewala publicly called out Modi’s drama. Even AAP leaders, Sanjay Singh and Harpal Cheema did the same which prompted Bhagwant Mann to take a U-turn on his earlier stance.
Meanwhile, the BJP has continued to make it an issue of national importance, thus transferring its relevance from Punjab to the Centre. The issues of national security, danger to the PM, “anti-national” forces, and minority bashing do not sell much in Punjab but fly amazingly well with BJP’s voter base elsewhere. In order to make the issue more prominent in the press, PM Modi met the President and apprised him of the developments related to the incident.
Also, it is noteworthy that a Delhi-based rights body, called Lawyer’s voice filed a petition in the Supreme Court of India urging it to take cognizance of the breach of PM’s security in Punjab. During the hearing, without providing any proof, the petitioner claimed that private persons were given access to the PM’s route, and other persons were instigated to join the blockade. The petitioner also brought in the angle of Sikhs for Justice and insinuated that the organization could be behind this act.
Even though this episode has left BJP in a worse position in Punjab than they already were, Modi has been able to successfully rally the troops for the elections in UP, Uttarakhand, and Manipur which are happening simultaneously with the Punjab polls.
It is a matter of shame that Sikhphobia and minority bashing sell so well in India, every time, without fail. And, that is the ugly truth.
Jaspreet Oberoi was born and raised in Patiala, Punjab, and currently lives in Vancouver, Canada. He is a columnist focused on socio-political issues concerning India and Canada. You can find him on Twitter at @ijasoberoi.
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