Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah face rising levels of popular scepticism and disappointment. Their main response is Hindu extremism, which is a risky tactic in regions where it has sparked little enthusiasm and with groups who are anxious about other issues.
No national leader since Indira Gandhi has been so bent on top-down dominance, but lately things have begun to slip out of their control. Several groups with great numerical strength have begun to feel estranged. This will probably not cost the Bharatiya Janata Party the 2019 general election, but it could deny it a parliamentary majority and threaten its drive for overwhelming supremacy.
One dilemma emerged in mid-2016, when Modi felt compelled to break his two-year silence on cow vigilante violence. In response to the Una atrocity, he condemned the attacks on Dalits, whose votes the BJP needs. He said nothing about the spate of beatings and murders of Muslims, the main targets. It took another year for him to criticise attacks on them, after a damning New York Times editorial dented his image in the West.
His warm tributes to B.R. Ambedkar suggest that he still hopes for Dalit support, but recent events across diverse regions have alienated them. Since Adityanath was made chief minister in Uttar Pradesh, the main victims of violence there have been Dalits, not Muslims. Dalit resentment surfaced in the Gujarat state election. In Maharashtra, Hindu extremists attacked Dalits during the Bhima Koregaon controversy. They also committed anti-Dalit atrocities in Chikmagalur district, Karnataka. After BJP activists clashed with Dalits in Telangana, a Dalit academic was falsely accused of instigating disorder and suffered vile online abuse and death threats. The party risks losing many Dalit votes (16.2% of the population) along with Muslims (14.2%).
Is Modi naively optimistic that even if their support wanes, the persuasive power of hard-line Hindutva will see him through? Does he promote it out of conviction, confident that it will suffice as a distraction from poor government performance – even though it has seldom found much traction outside Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh? Or does he have nothing else to offer? It appears that all of these things are at work. But whatever the explanation, trouble is brewing.
Efforts like the recent youth rally in Delhi which tried to link attacks on Muslims and Dalits to the government’s failure to generate jobs could damage the BJP in upcoming state elections in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan – and then nationally in 2019.
To this must be added the most stunning detail to emerge from the Gujarat election: rural voters preferred Congress to the BJP. Gujarat is highly urbanised, so the damage there was limited. But in most states, a similar trend – alongside alienation among Dalits, Muslims and young job seekers – would pose grave risks.
Multiple woes may persuade farmers that Modi’s pledge that they will “be rich” by 2022 is another tall promise. The crisis in agriculture predated his rise, but growth in that sector has been lower under his watch than under any government since 1991. The upcoming Budget will seek to turn things around, but the problems run deep.
With popular doubts rising about his government’s achievements, Modi has shelved his 2014 appeals to aspirations. Nothing has been heard for two years of ‘achhe din‘. Instead, as academic Pratap Bhanu Mehta notes, he stokes resentments. Modi’s problem is, in journalist Harish Khare’s words, “How do we keep the majority angry, keep it on the boil…The foreign enemy has been overdone…So, the hunt begins for enemies at home.” But can Muslims and allegedly seditious forces be convincingly blamed for agricultural stagnation, poor job creation and slower economic growth?
Perhaps the BJP has nothing other than Hindu extremism to offer. Adityanath has been fielded in regions where communal polarisation has found far less support than in Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh. The decision to send him to Kerala, a very unpromising territory, was bizarre. Now he has been drafted into the next big test for this strategy: Karnataka, where Hindu extremism has had a tepid welcome outside the small coastal belt and a few other pockets. Even on the coast, an aggressively communal speech by Modi during the last state election in 2013 backfired.
The BJP has done well in the past in Karnataka when B.S. Yeddyurappa played down hard-line Hindutva because he knows it has limited appeal. He and other state BJP leaders have urged restraint this time, but as in Bihar (where communal polarisation flopped in 2015), Modi and Shah have ignored local advice and pushed extremism.
Adityanath’s charge that the Congress “worships Tipu Sultan” will puzzle many voters. His claim that “chaos” reigns in the state is contradicted by most people’s everyday experiences. Shah has said life had become a struggle for Hindus under an “anti-Hindu” Congress government. This too is implausible. At BJP rallies, the chief minister is called “Mulla Siddaramaiah”.
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Such name-calling and abusive rhetoric are unlikely to overturn the Congress lead in several opinion surveys. Karnataka BJP leaders know that, but as in all previous state elections, Modi and Shah are not listening.
If the Congress loses, other things will explain the outcome. Top of the list is the impatience of Karnataka’s voters. They have thrown out every state government since 1985, including some that performed reasonably well, as this one has. A possible BJP deal with H.D. Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal (Secular) to field weak candidates in seats where the other party may defeat Congress could decide a few results. And there is, inevitably, some discontent with a government that has struggled manfully with four years of drought.
Allegations of state government incompetence ring hollow when the BJP’s candidate for chief minister is Yeddyurappa, whose serial bungling is well known. BJP efforts to woo OBCs may produce some gains, but Siddaramaiah is himself a formidable OBC leader. And the Congress will remind Dalit voters of atrocities in Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra.
In Karnataka and beyond, the BJP’s reliance on communal spite runs great risks.
James Manor is a professor in the School of Advanced Study, University of London. He is the author of numerous books including Power, Poverty and Poison: Disaster and Response in an Indian City (1993) on the 1981 illicit liquor disaster in Karnataka, which took the lives of more than 3,000 people within a matter of days.