March 04, 2017

India - 2017 UP Elections: The BJP Hopes to Consolidate the Gains of Bigotry as Modi Takes Centrestage in UP

The Caravan

The BJP Hopes to Consolidate the Gains of Bigotry as Modi Takes Centrestage in UP

By HARTOSH SINGH BAL | 28 February 2017
On 19 February 2017, as Uttar Pradesh entered the third phase of polling in the ongoing assembly elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a rally in Fatehpur. “If there is graveyard in a village, then there must be a cremation ground as well,” he said, as the audience roared in approval, “If there is electricity during Ramzan, then there must be electricity during Diwali too; if there is electricity during Holi, then it must also be made available on Eid.”
The thrust of the speech was not lost on anyone. This is not the first time that Modi has used his rhetoric to single out the Muslims of this country. In 2002, his campaign for the assembly elections in Gujarat, which followed the communal violence in the state, focused on Mian Musharraf—a reference to Pervez Musharraf, the former president of Pakistan—conflating Muslims, terror and Pakistan. Ever since, Modi has alluded to meat exports, Bangladeshi infiltration and vote-bank politics in most of his election speeches, including the ones he made during the Lok Sabha elections of 2014.
It was possible, if not credible, to consider that the analogies Modi used during the speech in Fatehpur were a result of old habits that are hard to shed, especially since the senior leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party had so far avoided such themes during the campaign. But three days later, during a rally on 22 February, the BJP President Amit Shah spoke of “KASAB” (Ka for Congress, Sa for the Samajwadi Party, and B for the Bahujan Samaj Party, in the game of facile acronyms that BJP leaders seem so fond of). This time, it was impossible to miss the invocation of Mohammad Ajmal Kasab—one of the gunmen responsible for the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai—which drew on the same themes of Muslims, terror, Pakistan and vote bank politics. Modi followed this up at a subsequent rally in Gonda, where he echoed a Bihar Police claim, backed neither by the National Investigation Agency nor the Indian Railways, that the Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was involved in the derailment of the Indore-Patna Express in Kanpur on 20 November 2016. According to Modi, the incident was “a conspiracy hatched across the border.”
Parties do not usually change their campaign strategy midway through an election, unless they are compelled to do so. The discernible shift in the BJP’s approach suggests that the news from the first three phases of the election has not been to its liking. The first phase of the election saw the Jats desert the BJP, and over the next two phases, it became clear that this election—unlike the one in 2014—was largely following a pattern that is often associated with politics in UP, which is centred around caste and identity politics.
National parties such as the BJP and the Congress have always run into trouble in such elections, and have sought to combat caste fragmentation with generic appeals that they believe will transcend these divisions. In 1971, as the post-independence consensus around the Congress began collapsing, the former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi resorted to the development rhetoric of her times—garibi hatao, eliminate poverty. The BJP tried replicating this tactic with demonetisation, which has been sold among the poor as a tool to punish the rich. While this appeal found some takers, it did not gain considerable traction—the misery of those better off does nothing to alleviate one’s own situation. The shift in the BJP’s campaign strategy suggests that its tactic failed to sideline questions of caste to the degree that the party had hoped it would.
In 2014, Modi was able to do so by combining the image of a man who gets things done with the BJP’s enduring strategy of casting Muslims as a perennial and continuing threat to the other residents of this country. However, as the assembly elections in Delhi and Bihar illustrated, it is a feat that has proved impossible to replicate at the state level against a non-Congress opposition in the absence of strong leaders from the BJP at the local level. Wary of the same dangers in UP, the BJP had steered clear of projecting Modi in the initial phases of the elections, especially since the Hindu Hriday Samrat, after two-and-a-half years in power at the centre, has very little of the Vikas Purush left in him. But neither the party nor Modi—who represents the Varanasi Lok Sabha constituency and has made much of the fact that he chose UP as his adopted home over his own state of Gujarat—can risk losing the state.
Now, as Modi faces his first, real political threat since he came to power, he has decided to forgo the claim that he represents the entirety of India’s citizenry as the prime minister of the country. This cynical strategy is likely to bring some returns. When I travelled through eastern UP, it was clear that here—far more than in any other part of the country—Modi retains much of his personal popularity, especially among upper-caste voters. Moreover, the party has also worked hardest in this region on the Hindutvisation of those from the non-Yadav Other Backward Class communities. It is in keeping with this thrust that Modi’s campaign will culminate in three back-to-back rallies in and around Varanasi. The last of these will be held in Varanasi town, after which he will visit the Kashi Vishvanath temple to signify the end of the campaign.
Regardless of whether Modi wins or loses this election, the gamble he has chosen to take is revelatory about the nature of his leadership. Those who had lived under any illusion about the source of Modi’s appeal have no excuses left anymore. Midway through his term as the prime minister of India, he has made it clear that bigotry is inherent to his nature. In the years that have followed since he came to power, Modi has only ensured that this poison has spread even further into our body politic, paying little heed to the damage that it has done.
Hartosh Singh Bal is the political editor at The Caravan, and is the author of Waters Close Over Us: A Journey Along the Narmada. He was formerly the political editor at Open magazine.