A polarising poll: What Piloo taught us 

Modi will be honoured for his leadership of the Swachch Bharat Mission. Photo: PTI

We were a bunch of fresh graduate engineers. Many had done engineering because only that offered a decent career option in the 1980s. And we had been thrown together because we were soon going to be sent on board merchant ships.

Some hadn’t quite realised what that meant — months, if not years, away from home; living in a closed environment; and toiling with one’s hands. But we all knew that if we stuck long enough in the profession we would be quite wealthy.

The training with its morning parades and military-like atmosphere instilled in us a sense of camaraderie, although as soon as we graduated we mostly lost touch with each other. We occasionally bumped into each other at faraway places — Hamburg, Nagoya and later in China, too. But that was about it.

Recently, after 25 years, when we got in touch with each other and formed a WhatsApp group, it was a time for catch-up and banter. Like good sailors, we all had tales to tell. All the fun and laughter we had shared as youth were rekindled on the group.

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When the election campaign started, our political beliefs started seeping into the group. It slowly built up and reached the pits — in terms of communal hate messaging. Bad things were said about Muslims, quite often. Even worse things were said about the Congress, Rahul and Priyanka. All kinds of propaganda and fake news were posted with much chest-thumping, starting with Balakot.

How did the middle class become so passionate about our politicians?

Narendra Modi was their man. He embodied their aspirations and spoke to their dreams – and to their baser instincts too. Their disconnect with politics had apparently been removed by Modi, although that didn’t mean they ventured to vote in large numbers. This, in and of itself, is an achievement, although it has come at a price.

Narendra Modi is known for his dog whistles. His speeches used to be laden with innuendo – the sort only the rabble-rousers in the Sangh Parivar resorted to in the past. Advani couched his behind concepts and Vajpayee kept away from it, in large measure.

The Modi innuendos were enough to set off a deep ripple, sometimes a wave, among his followers. Twitter would respond or, as some might say, would be orchestrated to respond. The ‘mohallas’ would follow in due course.

When Rahul chose Wayanad, however, the innuendos disappeared. The gloves were off. Modi openly said the dynasty was running away to where there were Muslims. All the fake news on Internet about the Muslim connections of Nehru and Indira Gandhi had been validated by Modi.

Even Mahatma Gandhi wasn’t spared. His assassin was called a patriot, openly, by a BJP candidate.

My sailors’ WhatsApp group was on fire. We had given each other nicknames during our training. There was a ‘Pagal’, a ‘Pedro’ and a ‘Kutta’. And they were living up to their appellations.

Pagal had been the most popular in our group. He was loved by everyone and was the life of many of the drunken parties we had 25 years ago. Now, Pagal had turned crazy. He was angry, too. He picked up fights with even those who were lukewarm in their support for Modi. He once left the group, only to come back with more vicious stuff.

There had been lurkers – folks who were just watching the fun, yours truly included. I had left shipping long time ago to become a journalist – a witness and a chronicler.

One of the lurkers chimed in. It was Piloo – a nickname he had earned because he was a Muslim and, 25 years ago, there was a gangster named Piloo Khan. He said he was leaving the group because the messages had started to hurt. And they were being said by his mates. I apologized offline and asked him to come back but he wasn’t convinced.

Piloo’s leaving did have some impact. We had not realized that there was a Muslim in our ranks. But should only that fact have brought in some sense?

The elections are over. Piloo has been brought back into the WhatsApp group. Pagal has given Piloo the responsibility of arranging our 25th year reunion. One of the flame throwers apologized to Piloo. We have decided not to post political messages on the group.

The truth is that all the bigotry had been there all along. The election had only brought it out.

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