It is the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Enid Blyton moment. Instead of the mystery of the disappearing cat or the missing necklace, we have the gripping mystery of the missing show cause notice. Habitually controversial BJP MP Swami Sacchidanand Hari, better known as Sakshi Maharaj, kicked off 2015 by asking Hindu women to have at least four children to expand the flock. Predictably, furore has followed. Sakshi Maharaj is now the staple of prime time television.
Not that the member of Parliament from Unnao, Uttar Pradesh, is the only one who views the Hindu woman’s womb as part of a national project.
But as an MP from the ruling party opposing the government’s avowed goal of reducing the total fertility rate (TFR) the average number of children born to a woman from the current 2.3 to 2.1 by 2017, Maharaj has effortlessly morphed into a story the media loves.
An embarrassed BJP high command says it has served the MP a show-cause notice, asking him to explain why action should not be initiated against him for his controversial remarks in the recent past. Maharaj is supposed to respond within 10 days.
This has prompted the media to chorus that the BJP leadership is finally cracking down on the delinquents in the party.
But is that what it is? Just how low is the cost of making outlandish statements in Indian politics can be gauged by Maharaj’s insouciance in the face of such action.
At the time of writing this column, the MP was breezily telling reporters that he had no information of any notice and that it was an “internal matter” of the BJP, nothing at all to do with the media.
Is such a notice likely to reform Sakshi Maharaj? I doubt it. As many would remember, not so long ago, the same man started a row by describing Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse as a “patriot” and was forced to apologise in Parliament.
Those with longer memories or inclined to Google search would also know that in 2006, the Rajya Sabha unanimously adopted the recommendation of the eighth report of the House Ethics Committee for expulsion of Sakshi Maharaj, then a member of the Samajwadi Party. He had featured in a sting operation by a TV channel on the misuse of MP Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS).
Buoyed by Maharaj’s breeziness towards show-cause notices, in West Bengal Birbhum BJP joint district president Shymal Goswami has also taken to advising Hindu women on how many children they should have.
On January 12, while observing the birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda at a school, Mr Goswami said Hindu women needed to have five children to counter supposed demographic challenges from minority communities.
In the season of competitive absurdities that has become the hallmark of much of the public discourse in the country, Ramesh Tawadkar, minister of sports and youth affairs in Goa, has also become an international celebrity after a local television channel showed him as saying he would set up centres to make gays and lesbians “normal”. He had details too the centres would be modelled on the lines of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Predictably commotion has broken out and Mr Tawadkar now says he was misunderstood. Goa’s chief minister Laxmikant Parsekar has had to personally clear the air by emphatically stating that Goa has no intentions of doing any such thing.
Anyone who watched the video footage of the interview would wonder if the reporter was trying to bait Mr Tawadkar by asking how he planned to make lesbians and gays “normal”.
Nothing, however, excuses the phenomenally daft response, smacking of ignorance and prejudice.
Outlandish statements are not new. The political landscape is riddled with luminaries in every party whose words and deeds are jaw-droppingly bewildering. You can call them the lunatic fringe.
But many are in responsible positions. Madhya Pradesh home minister Babulal Gaur once said rape is a “social crime which depends on the man and the woman. It is sometimes right and sometimes wrong.”
BJP politicians don’t have a monopoly on bizarre and outrageous statements. Who can forget home minister in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, and Congress gaffe minister Sushil Kumar Shinde? In his reply to a debate on Assam riots in the Lok Sabha in 2012, Mr Shinde used the word “terrorist” instead of “territorial” for Bodoland Territorial Administration District (BTAD) triggering much mirth in the Opposition benches.
Ajit Pawar, former deputy chief minister of Maharashtra and Nationalist Congress Party leader, famously said, “Should we urinate in dams?” by way of response to a hungerstrike by drought-affected farmers demanding release of dam water.
Samajwadi Party leader Abu Azmi once said that any woman who has sex before marriage should be hanged.
Which brings one to the key question is there an ongoing contest for making the most bizarre statements or is there something more to it than meets the eye?
In a country with the second-highest population in the world, where millions of women do not have access to basic healthcare, including reproductive health, and which has one of the highest numbers of maternal and newborn deaths, how are representatives of the ruling party exhorting women to produce more babies?
Can a minister for youth affairs afford to be so staggeringly ignorant about the reality of LGBT (lesbians, gays, bisexuals and trans-genders)? Can a man tasked to oversee law and order be allowed to be brazenly crass on something as sensitive as rape?
Many commentators have been demanding that all political parties, starting with the one in power, crush the chorus of crazies amidst them.
Here, the question that must be asked is, are they really crazy? What if it is a game aimed at adversaries in order to throw them off balance and divert public attention from discussions of other more pressing issues? International relations experts call it “trash talking.”
One of its most brilliant exponents was former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The image of Mr Ahmadinejad as portrayed in mainstream media was that of a leader who is unhinged from reality.
But, as commentator Kristen Livingston pointed out in a piece in the Journal of Public Diplomacy, this is what we get when we focus on his rhetoric. Instead, the focus should have been on not what he said, but what he had not said.
Going by the ceaseless drip-drip of outrageous statements, one is tempted to think that the lunatic fringe in this country too is not as mad as made out to be. Or rather there is a method in madness. Look out for all the issues that are being pushed to the background because the crazies are in the limelight.
The writer focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies. She can be reached at patralekha.chatterjee @gmail.com