Now that promises of progress and development haven’t played out as they hoped, the BJP’s top duo are turning back to communal polarisation.Demonetisation was the message and Prime Minister Narendra Modi the messenger with which Amit Shah planned to sweep Uttar Pradesh – the most critical of the states – and get the Bharatiya Janata Party traction for the 2019 general elections.
Unfortunately for Shah, the script seems to have gone wrong. And when thin attempts at headline management and appeals to vikas (progress) don’t work, the BJP instinctively switches to its default mode – communal polarisation. It is something that Shah excels in, as he demonstrated in Muzzafarnagar in 2014 where his efforts yielded a harvest of 73 seats, including ally Apna Dal’s.
Consider the display of dog whistle politics that Shah has unveiled in the BJP’s manifesto for UP. Many of the manifesto’s promises may seem innocuous to the general population but actually signify an appeal to communal politics. For instance, the “anti-Romeo squad” announced by Shah is less about dealing with eve-teasers and more about giving ‘love jihad’ another name – allowing vigilantes to attack young people with impunity. The shutting down of slaughterhouses and, of course the Ram temple, also serve as messages aimed at the core of potential BJP voters in UP. Not to mention the mythical exodus of Hindus from Kairana – which BJP leader Hukum Singh admitted was not due to communal reasons but is featured in the manifesto nonetheless.
After Shah unveiled the manifesto, a senior BJP leader from UP, who has been excluded by the Shah-Modi duo, said sarcastically, “mandir wahin banayengey, tareek nahin bataegey” (We will build the temple but won’t set the date).
The BJP’s return to identity politics – its comfort zone – can be explained by two developments. The first is the newly formed alliance between the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Congress, which is expected to attract the 19% Muslim vote in UP. Shah desperately tried to prevent this alliance by deploying his old friend Amar Singh, bitingly described by chief minister Akhilesh Yadav as a “Trojan horse”, in the SP fold – but failed. Even four-time UP chief minister and BSP leader Mayawati has given a record number of tickets to Muslims, fielding 99 candidates from the community. The state’s Muslim and Dalit population has been adversely affected by the BJP’s beef laws – it has not only taken away the cheapest form of protein from people’s diets but the closure of tanneries has also had a negative impact on their livelihood since 90% of the people employed in the industry belong to the Dalit and Muslim communities. But the BJP has not given a single ticket to a Muslim candidate.
Violence against Dalits in Una and the leaderless protests in Gujarat, coupled with the utter callousness with which the Centre continues to treat Dalit scholar’s Rohit Vemula’s suicide, has made UP’s Dalit voters politically aware and upset at the government. They are in a mood to teach the BJP a lesson.
The second reason for Shah’s “mandir manifesto,” as local leaders have derisively dubbed it, is that he is sensing a replay of Bihar. Modi, who ensured that the BJP swept the 2014 elections, seems to have peaked as a vote catcher. Recall Bihar and Delhi. The BJP in UP first went with ‘Modi and surgical strikes’ to appeal to voters, switching to ‘Modi and demonetisation’ when it realised the former was a flop. Trouble is that the voters who have been badly affected by the ill-planned demonetisation are not buying what Modi has been trying to sell at his rallies.
Using demonetisation as a vote catcher was always a fantastical gamble in a poor state like UP. When voters don’t have electricity, it’s farcical to talk about going “digital” and “cashless” as the new narrative for demonetisation – now that the ‘surgical strike on black money’ theory has been debunked.
“First Modi talked of acche din, now it is demonetisation. We keep shifting the aims but na Ram miley na Maya” (the UP voter has nothing, neither Ram nor Maya), a UP leader says.
Shah’s decision to hand out tickets to the family members of senior BJP leaders – Rajnath Singh’s son Pankaj, Kalyan Singh’s grandson (while his son Rajveer Singh is already an MP) and Hukum Singh’s daughter – has upset the workers of the cadre-based BJP. Shah’s decision to accommodate defectors in ticket distribution hasn’t gone down well either.
BJP workers have shown their anger in no uncertain terms by laying siege to Shah’s office and burning effigies of him and textiles minister Smriti Irani, as was done in Amethi.
What next for the BJP?
So how does Shah get the karyakartas and voters back to the BJP?
Apart from dog whistle politics, the RSS is issuing diktats to its cadres, urging them to work hard for the BJP. The party is now completely banking on upper caste voters to come to its aid in UP. Which is why Swati Singh, the wife of expelled party leader Daya Shankar Singh, who called Mayawati a “prostitute”, has been given a ticket as a sop to the Thakurs. Swati has been present at all of Modi’s rallies in UP.
Shah is also trying to placate the angry Jats of western UP – upset about the note ban wrecking the agrarian economy and the failure to deliver reservations for them – by invoking the “larger Hindu samaj” and sending the toxic Sangeet Som, Sanjeev Baliyan and Suresh Rana to the region. Rana has promised to “impose curfew” in Kairana and Deoband –Muslim majority towns – if elected.
The BJP has invoked Hindu pride in its manifesto, with promises that if it comes to power it will usher in “sampoorna Hindu samaj“. Says a BJP leader, “Iss election mein bhog layengey, bhojan nahi.” (We will give the upper castes sops, not feed the poor (Dalits)).
The manifesto the way it is, Modi will likely raise the Ram mandir and also the bogey of the ‘forced exodus’ of Hindus from Kairana. Modi and Shah are fighting their biggest battle in UP, as they alone have taken all the decisions for the state polls without consulting any other party leaders. If the gamble fails, the duo will have to watch out for knives, especially from within the party. If they win now, 2019 is all but bagged, and they will reign supreme in the BJP for a while to come.
One this is clear, however. Vikas has been shelved and it’s back to basics for Modi and Shah.