As we move closer to the next general election, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seems to be refashioning its strategy to gear up to the challenge of 2019 with a much-reduced credibility. For 2014, it employed a more Congress-style accommodative politics within the larger grid of a populist strategy, creating a narrative of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ – essentially to target the religious minorities and portray them as the outsiders. This was coupled with the credibility crisis facing the Congress. The party also had the advantage of Narendra Modi’s image, who at the time was seen as a decisive leader who could deliver dramatic results.
Many of these advantages are now on the wane. Modi is no longer considered infallible, even if his abilities to deliver are suspect. Congress – even if half-heartedly – is gaining momentum and finding a foothold in creating a narrative that can hold some interest. BJP realises it cannot repeat the magic figures in much of north India, and also perhaps in the west. The initial strategy was to compensate the loss with some compensation in the east, spreading to Bengal and other parts of the northeastern states. Similarly, BJP wished to spread its hold in the southern states too. Both of these strategies proved to be non-starters.
BJP failed to gain credibility in the south. In Tamil Nadu, the fiasco that followed the death of J. Jayalalitha and the witch-hunting of Congress leaders hasn’t yielded much result. In Kerala, the presence of the RSS hasn’t converted into votes, and with the falling apart of the Hadiya case after court intervention, BJP has failed to find an alternate entry point in the state. Though initially a relatively brighter spot, after the installation of the new coalition government, the political mood in Karnataka now seems to be uncertain.
Andhra Pradesh boomeranged after BJP backtracked on special status. And after Jaganmohan Reddy did not gain anything from his nonchalant padyatras. Nor did the silent launching of Pawan Kalyan to attract Kapu voters do much good. In fact, Telangana is the BJP’s only hope to get additional seats in the south, with a possible post-poll alliance with the Telangana Rashtra Samithi that wishes to stay close to the Centre to keep in check the rise of the Congress, which might impact the state assembly elections that are close to the Lok Sabha polls next year. BJP’s own organisational growth has remained stunted due to KCR’s deft management of minorities. He has also appropriated the symbolism of Hindu identity by performing yagnas and liberally funding Hindu temples in the state.
The prospect of notching up even a simple majority looks to be a herculean task at the moment for the BJP. Going by the shift in its political discourse in the recent past, they seem to have decided to give up the old kind of accommodative politics in favour of a new kind of polarisation – which involves more than othering of Muslims. What is new is that the BJP has given up on Dalit votes too. The BJP will continue to practice the policy of sub-dividing Dalits in order to gain votes of smaller Dalit sub-castes that have remained unrepresented.
Krishna Madiga, a robust Madiga leader from Telangana has been campaigning nation-wide to put the issue of sub-division of scheduled castes on the national agenda. This may yield some results, but more crucial seems to be the strategy of combining Dalits, Muslims and Left-liberals as the new combined other.
The new narrative wishes to consolidate upper-caste and OBC votes rather than cater to a more loosely-knit social engineering. BJP garnered just about 31% of votes in the previous general elections, and the party is of the view that in order to maintain that figure, it’s more important to consolidate Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and OBC votes.
In order to achieve this, it is beginning to draft a new narrative that is more explicitly critical of the Dalits, along with the Muslims. Bhima-Koregaon was the first salvo they fired to consolidate this narrative. Further, the projected link between Dalits and jihad Islam is the next layer of this new polarisation. As part of this, they have claimed that Jignesh Mevani received funding from Islamic groups and now it is Rohith Vemula’s mother who is being condemned for allegedly receiving help from the IUML. These two layers are then being used to suggest links between jihadi Islamic groups, Dalits and the Maoists to symbolise the Left.
The recent claims of a possible Maoist attack being planned against Modi further reinforce such an implication. Maoist and jihadi link has been mentioned in the case of the Bhima-Koregaon incident. All of these will be now be stitched to the Kashmiri separatists and militancy in the Valley. With the pulling out of the government in Jammu and Kashmir, BJP is attempting to entrench the image of Muslims as essentially being ungrateful and unreasonable in spite of the repeated attempts of the party to appease them – Modi offering development aid and visiting Nawaz Sherif in Pakistan, Kashmiris performing well in the UPSC (one of them even represented the Indian cricket team – another symbol of jingoistic nationalism) and the declaration of ceasefire during Ramzan. This, BJP feels, has set the stage to consolidate the sense of violation among the majority Hindus, alongside consolidating the upper-caste vote-bank by isolating the Dalits.
Further, the party is projecting Rahul Gandhi as the representative figure of this new ‘historic block’ of Muslims, Dalits and Maoists. Congress is being projected as being soft on Muslim fundamentalism, Dalit aggression and a national threat from the Left-oriented political groups such as the Maoists. These three groups, along with Kashmiris represent the impending national security threat, tacitly supported by the Congress.
BJP’s strategy hinges on which way the OBCs will vote. Changes in the reservation policy, as well as growing joblessness, have hurt the interests of OBCs. It is no secret that these groups are precariously located in terms of their relation to the Dalits at one end and the Muslims at the other. In the last three decades, OBCs have been at the forefront of regional parties, one of the core reasons for the Congress’ terminal decline in many of the northern states.
With the saturation of leadership positions in the regional party, smaller groups among the OBCs have steadily moved to the BJP and remained a potent force. OBCs have got increasingly drawn into the communal anti-Muslim rhetoric for various reasons, including the need to fit into hyper-masculine claims that figuratively draw them closer to the way Kshatriyas self-represent themselves. Hyper-nationalist discourse allows space for these not so visible cultural traits to find a legitimate social narrative.
The new political cocktail the BJP is preparing will now put to rest some confusion that had ensued among the Dalits with regard to finding representation in the BJP, but it will for the same reason also consolidate the other end of the social spectrum behind the BJP, side-stepping the possible developmental failures of the current regime. One needs to understand this strategy of the BJP in light of their own sense of declining popularity among various traditional voters. Instead of an accommodative pitch that might not cut ice, more robust polarisation might deliver the minimum that they are looking for to scrape through in 2019.
Ajay Gudavarthy is associate professor, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.