My father was honest and hardworking though he didn’t make much of a headway financially. His business went bust and he spent the rest of his working life cycling to a small factory where he toiled hard but earned little. No matter how difficult it was, his struggle allowed us to sustain. Our family somehow survived.
When I came of age, it was his bicycle – old and creaking by then – that I proudly inherited. The cycle gave me my first taste of freedom as I pedaled joyously across my neighborhood and beyond. It also allowed me to take my first hesitant steps towards financial independence since I invariably cycled to students’ homes as an amateur tutor to earn valuable pocket money.
With the unassuming cycle having played such a central role in defining my life, it really hurt to hear the Prime Minister Narendra Modi target what by all means is the cheapest and the commonest mode of transport in this country of ours.
Apart from suffering from several inaccuracies, Modi’s speech at an election rally in Hardoi of Uttar Pradesh was ethically improper. In whipping up the crowds and rallying up support for his party, the prime minister referred to the 2008 serial blasts in Ahmedabad for which just days before a court had sentenced 38 people to death.
For one, the 22 blasts over 70 minutes were triggered by explosives placed in cars, buses and cycles. Yet, the prime minister chose to blame only bicycles, which he then inexplicably used to put the Samajwadi Party (SP) of Akhilesh Yadav in the dock.
By all accounts, the SP with bicycle as its election symbol is posing a serious challenge to the BJP this time and the saffron outfit is rattled.
Modi’s speech reflected the desperation. “Cycle par bomb rakhe hue the (bombs were placed on cycles),” he said, linking the SP symbol to the blasts. “Main hairan hun yeh cycle ko unhone kyun pasand kiya (I am surprised why they preferred the bicycle),” he then added, attempting to mock the SP for its choice of the symbol.
The Indian Express was right when the paper in its hard-hitting editorial called Modi’s assertion a new and worrisome low in the country’s political discourse. Targeting political opponents – more so during a fiercely contested election – is understandable. But attempts to tarnish rivals with imaginary responsibility for acts of terrorism in a manner that the prime minister did cannot simply be condoned.
Besides belittling the office and stature of the prime minister, such assertions are a serious affront to the intelligence of the average Indian voter. If the SP is to be blamed for the Ahmedabad blasts, Sharad Pawar needs to be blamed hereafter every time we are late for an appointment. After all, the clock is the election symbol of Pawar’s NCP.
By the same logic, the police would need to haul up leaders of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) whenever a sickle that is abundantly found in rural India is used by murderers to slit throats and kill. The sickle features prominently in the CPIM’s symbol alongside a hammer and star.
A quick Google search shows the range – both in numbers and imagination – of our election symbols. Recognized political parties have their permanent ones – Congress has the hand and the BJP the lotus – while independents who contest are required to choose from more than 160 symbols on offer. You name it and you can probably have it – frock, lion, chair, table, oven, oxen and what not.
The symbols purely serve an electoral purpose and candidates with chair or table as symbols share no responsibility if they break prematurely or topple. Ditto if a lion is to attack and devour someone.
Whatever be Modi’s electoral motives, his diatribe against bicycles cannot simply dent the prized place the simple machine occupies in our lives.
Ask the tens of thousands of school-going young girls who have been gifted them under the Sabooj Sathi (Green Companion) scheme of chief minister Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, and they will vouch how enormously their lives have changed.
I don’t agree with Mamata on several scores, including her politics of sops. But there is little dispute that the bicycles she has distributed in very large numbers have allowed girls in far-flung villages to go to schools that are some distance away.
Bicycles given under similar schemes have been vehicles of empowerment in other states as well such as Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Tamil Nadu. Reports suggest they have raised aspirations among girls and changed attitude towards women.
A smart politician adept at reading the minds of people, Modi ought to have understood the utility of bicycles better before shooting off his mouth.
During elections in West Bengal last year, he rubbed many the wrong way when he repeatedly mocked Mamata by addressing her as ‘Didi o Didi’. It was considered uncouth and apparently cost the BJP votes.
His latest remarks over cycles are equally uncalled for. I do not know how voters in Uttar Pradesh would react, but they certainly have left me upset and hurt.
My late father was my hero and I wouldn’t let anyone cast any aspersions on him. Even if it happens to be the prime minister who if given a chance I would wish to tell: Modiji, my father rode a bicycle and he wasn’t a terrorist.
(The writer is former Editor-in-Chief of Outlook magazine).
(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal).