In what was supposed to be a brief chat on a sultry afternoon, Lakshman Prasad Tripathi spoke for at least an hour. Neither the heat nor the undisciplined crowd deterred his spirit.
“Agar satta hai, toh aukaat hai, izzat hai. (Only with power, your status is recognised, you get respect),” asserted Tripathi as he halfheartedly waved at a group of people, asking them to sit down. “Satta mein aana isiliye zaroori hai (To attain power is therefore most important),” he added when prodded further.
Tripathi, a ground-level BJP activist, was attending an election rally by the firebrand Hindutva leader Adityanath in Uttar Pradesh’s Sultanpur in late February. His party had given him the responsibility of mobilising at least 100 people from Pratapgarh – Tripathi’s hometown, around 50 km away – for the rally.
“Adityanath is the only Hindu leader worth his salt. ‘Yogi for CM’ is our slogan. Only he can show the Muslims their place,” Tripathi averred at a time when the seven-phase assembly polls were yet to end and his party had not declared its chief ministerial candidate.
This was a period when the campaign for UP assembly polls had reached a pitched high. The BJP had moved away from its development agenda to core Hindutva issues. It had managed to elevate its age-old portrayal of Hindus as victims of secular governance to the top of its agendas. Responding to the saffron rhetoric, the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance and the Bahujan Samaj Party drew up their own canvassing methods to counter this overarching Hindutva narrative that appeared to have filled the air.
The run-up to the assembly elections, in short, saw each party perform one of their best melodramatic acts.
Adityanath’s rally in Sultanpur was held soon after Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in another UP rally, had accused the ruling Samajwadi Party of providing sufficient electricity for only Muslim festivals but not on the occasions celebrated by Hindus. The so-called “Muslim appeasement” policy of the Akhilesh Yadav government was the most important talking point, with each party asserting or negating the theory from where it was placed.
In the rally, Aditynath exhorted the crowd to vote for the BJP if they did not want people’s money to be spent on “karbala and kabristan (mosques and burial grounds)”.
“Jinko (Samajwadi Party) Hinduon ka vote nahin chahiye, unhe wohin bhejo jahan woh jaana chahte hai (You should send those who do not want the votes of Hindus where they want to go),” he appealed in a thundering voice as the crowd erupted in excitement amidst chants of ‘Yogi, Yogi’.
As the crowd kept roaring, Tripathi, who had earlier made his perceptions about Muslims blatantly clear, calmly listened to Adityanath’s speech. “What he (Adityanath) said is a mere cog in the wheel, a really important ploy to attain power,” he said.
When asked about the accusations of selective provision of electricity, Tripathi initially hesitated, but later said, “I do not think any such thing happened but we know that the SP gives Muslims a special treatment. Only because of that Muslims speak louder than they should. To strike a balance, it is necessary that the BJP comes to power. Every party resorts to their own methods to win. If the BJP is trying to unite the Hindus on these issues, why is it not okay,” asked Tripathi, adding that “rajneeti mein toh yeh sab chalta hai (In politics, such things are a norm)”.
2017 was a year when the BJP cemented its image as a party that wanted power at any cost. Satta, as Tripathi said, is central to its plan of action. The BJP’s leadership has successfully managed to send this message to its ground-level activists as Modi’s tenure as the prime minister entered its third year.
To achieve this aim, the party would not stop at anything. The UP elections and subsequent assembly elections indicate that BJP has hit upon a winning formula in which alienating minority groups may be more advantageous than putting up with the pretense of its 2014 slogan ‘
At the end of its UP campaign, a majority of Hindus voted in favour of the BJP, giving it an unprecedented majority in the state. A leader known for his hate speeches against Muslims, one who has become infamous for justifying communal riots as “Hindu reaction”, the founder of Hindu Yuva Vahini, Adityanath was chosen by the BJP to lead the government. Following such a communal campaign, it was only natural for the BJP to pick Adityanath, the best known face of Hindutva, to lead Uttar Pradesh.
Manufacturing an abusive electorate
In its single-minded quest for power, however, the BJP has redrawn the boundaries of realpolitik. With its campaign laced with lies and hatred, cleverly covered with a vague imagination of development, the BJP has breached the conventional line of propriety that most other parties in India had defied only slyly. The Hindu nationalist party, in its expansive mould, thumped its chest while perpetuating illegalities in 2017.
Thus, the prime minister let you believe that Pakistan, an enemy state, was plotting to anoint a Muslim chief minister in Gujarat. Those behind Gauri Lankesh’s killing wanted you to keep in mind that any resistance to communalism could get you killed. The gau rakshaks sent a message to the nation that a Muslim could not be seen even in the close vicinity of a cow or a buffalo or he may meet the same fate as Pehlu Khan, a dairy farmer who was lynched by a mob in Rajasthan.
Creative liberties, we were told, is fine till the time they glorified Hindutva ideals or the artist could be abused without any fear, much like how Sanjay Leela Bhansali was manhandled by a fringe group Karni Sena in Rajasthan for directing Padmavati, a movie which may not see the light of the day.
The Dalits, too, would face harsh laws if they attempted to fight for their rights, exactly like the Bhim Army chief Chandrasekhar Azad ‘Ravan’, who the UP government slapped with the National Security Act for leading a struggle against feudal powers in the state’s Saharanpur.
The viral video showing the brutal hacking of a Muslim migrant labourer, Mohammad Afrazul, in Rajsamand, Rajasthan by a history-sheeter, Shambhulal Regar, who claimed to be fighting against ‘love jihad‘, will continue to haunt many in the years to come. But what was more frightening was the blatant impunity the Hindutva groups enjoyed while they took out a rally in support of Regar even as those who presided over the protest against the violent act were being rounded up by the state police.
In contrast, some Christian priests and choir singers were arrested days ahead of Christmas in Madhya Pradesh where the police promptly acted on a complaint by Bajrang Dal leader who accused the priests of converting Hindus.
The dying fringe
The line between the fringe and the mainstream Hindutva functionaries disappeared in 2017. If the prime minister made unverifiable statements about the possibility of Pakistan’s involvement in a provincial election, you also had a cabinet minister, Anant Kumar Hegde, making it clear that the BJP was in power to change the constitution, to remove the “word secular” from it.
The saffron-robed MP Sakshi Maharaj also blamed “those who support the concept of four wives and 40 children” for the problem of population rise in India. When the legislators spoke such, the energised lower-level officials of the BJP like Suraj Pal Amu, chief media co-ordinator of Haryana, also had the opportunity to offer a bounty for beheading Deepika Padukone for acting in the film Padmavati.
On occasions when the government showed its intent to reform archaic religious practices, you get a triple talaq Bill that may criminalise Muslim men indiscriminately in the current state of lawlessness.
And yet, if one recounted these incidents as a matter of grave danger to Indian democracy, the prime minister would also be quick to dismiss his critics as “pessimists.”
The year moved clearly towards legitimising the rogue as the usually-vocal Union government maintained a conspicuous silence on all such acts of barbarity even as it celebrated all events that have the makings of a ‘Hindu Rashtra’. The grand PR-driven exercises by different BJP units like Deepawali in Ayodhya, or Hanuman Jayanti in Karnataka, or say, the huge public investments on International Yoga Day became wise ways for the government to deflect attention from the growing unemployment level and a worsening farming crisis.
Is the BJP creating an abusive electorate? Is the Hindu nationalist party foregrounding the more inhumane sides of the Hindu majority? These are questions many have been pondering over. 2017 stands witness to the fact that religious polarisation may have won the BJP many elections but it may have also cemented abuse as an increasingly acceptable means to practice politics.
The disruptions in society, especially in north India, as a result is there for everyone to see. Each passing day, the BJP supporters appear to find new logic to justify these actions even as the democratic traditions are being institutionally held on the cross. In such a political context, the confident BJP leadership found opportunities to maneuver the Indian polity in different ways.
For instance, in Goa and Manipur, the BJP, with the help of respective governors and clever machinations, went on to form governments despite ending up with fewer seats than its rival, the Congress. Similarly, it successfully diffused the mahagathbandhan (Janata Dal (United)-Rashtriya Janata Dal alliance) in Bihar by convincing its old ally, Nitish Kumar, to come back into its the fold of National Democratic Alliance. The collapse of the mahagathbandhan proved to be a shot in the arm for the saffron party as the alliance had proven to be a successful formula for defeating BJP and had the possibility of replication in other states too.
In doing so, the Modi government doggedly used the central investigative agencies to go after its political rivals. For instance, the CBI’s relentless pursuit of the fodder scam finally ended in Lalu Prasad Yadav’s recent conviction. Similarly, many Congress leaders were also found fighting some old cases against them.
In 2017, the success in India’s biggest state in terms of population, Uttar Pradesh, transformed BJP into a formidable election machine. Subsequently, each decision, each step it took had the rumblings of election propaganda, turning the year into one which was in a perpetual poll mode. While the BJP appears to have a clear upper hand in winning elections – the most visible aspect of democracy – it seems to be failing on multiple fronts in upholding democratic values. From governance-level measures like implementing the Goods and Services Tax, demonetisation, or standing up to problems like unemployment or a declining economic growth, it has been panned by most experts, but unfortunately the criticisms were met only with silence from the government.
The party looks unnerved at the moment. Resistances to the BJP, like the one that came from the young trio of Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mevani and Alpesh Thakor in Gujarat, or occasionally a rejuvenated Rahul Gandhi, the Congress president, or an aggressive Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal – disrupting the current political condition in their own right – seems too far and few in front of the mammoth Sangh parivar structure.
One of its top ideologues, Ram Madhav, described this period of stark political churn as the era of ‘Conservative Right‘ in India. The unfolding of this conservative nature of Indian polity, however, has shown itself in the most savage light throughout the year that is passing by. The BJP is at the forefront of redefining the realpolitik, in which unaccountability of the powerful is slowly becoming a norm. In the saffron party’s own fight for satta, the idiom, everything is fair in politics, may have found a new home –India. And that, perhaps, was the biggest disruption in 2017.