It is worrisome that instances of political violence were reported from three states on a day when the model code of conduct came into force. Soon after reports that Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal was briefly detained in Gujarat emerged, AAP workers in Delhi and Lucknow chose to display their anger by protesting outside BJP offices in these cities. The AAP claims that it was only responding to provocation and throwing back the stones and other missiles allegedly hurled at them by BJP workers. The onus on maintaining peace was on the AAP workers since they chose to congregate outside the BJP offices. But the AAP has salvaged the situation by condemning the incidents, apologising for it, and asking workers to respond in Gandhian ways to violence. However, the selective booking of only AAP workers by the Delhi police despite the severe injuries sustained by many AAP workers discredits the police probe.
At the core of every incident of political violence is the eagerness to deny rivals the capacity and capability to organise and the intolerance to alternative ideas. The country’s foremost freedom fighter, Mahatma Gandhi, paid with his life for upholding his political ideals. Even as democracy took firm roots in India through the holding of regular elections, it is doubtful whether democratic practices have become as firmly ingrained in the Indian politician. True, our politicians step down from power on losing elections but the means used to win elections often undermines the legitimacy of the electoral process. The use of muscle-power to drive fear into the hearts of political opponents has been a time-tested tool. But it is also a double-edged sword which yields diminishing returns as the Left parties are now finding out. Decades of ordering party cadre and goon squads to liquidate political rivals was of no avail when they were swept out of power in West Bengal. The extent of civil society disgust against the CPM after the murder of dissident TP Chandrasekharan has stung them in Kerala too.
From the days of the national movement which largely followed a non-violent trajectory, the sporadic recourse to violence to achieve political ends has blighted Indian politics. Most political parties in all states boast of long lists of martyrs eliminated by rival parties. Their sacrifices are enshrined in roadside monuments and annual events to celebrate their martyrdom help boost the party’s emotive appeal but the actual cause of martyrdom — denial of political freedom — is forgotten. Since the first general elections, the spectre of political violence has hung heavily around campaigning for elections. Political parties and their leaders indulging in violence to intimidate those practicising their political freedoms are no different from Maoists who threaten politicians and poll officials. At least, the Maoists can claim they are against the system, unlike political goons.
The stone thrown at Kejriwal’s convoy damaging his car’s windshield, the visuals of AAP workers with brooms being assaulted by BJP men with sticks, have provided a disconcerting start to the model code coming into effect. The Election Commission’s model code of conduct has detailed guidelines on conducting election meetings and taking out processions. It mandates that political parties seek prior permission and police protection for election meetings. The AAP’s enthusiasm to make political capital out of Kejriwal’s foray into Gujarat is understandable. But after Wednesday’s incidents outside BJP offices, the AAP should draw a line between the freedom to protest and unwise provocation.