Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail

The BJP’s strategy of invoking hatred against Muslims has frightening implications for the future.

Maneka Gandhi is an accidental saffronite. She did not grow up in the Sanghi culture and from 1989, won as either a Janata Dal or an independent candidate in Pilibhit (and once from Aonla). She thus has political clout of her own in her constituency; but an independent candidate can only do so much, so in 2004, she joined the BJP and her winning record has continued. In 2009, her son Varun contested from the Pilibhit and won.

The BJP demands complete fealty to its cause and entrants are expected to demonstrate their commitment to the core agenda. Between elections, the mother works for her favourite cause – the welfare of animals – the son writes learned articles about poverty and also poetry. During electoral campaigns, they are expected to toe the party line – which constitutes minority bashing and rubbishing the Nehru-Gandhi family, where Maneka and Varun hail from. It is as if Maneka and Varun Gandhi were hoping to pass the BJP loyalty test with flying colours.

Also Read: Dear Maneka Gandhi, Elections Are Not a ‘Trade-off’

So duly, Varun Gandhi, as a 29-year-old in 2009, threatened to ‘cut off the hands-of the Muslims of his constituency if they raised a finger against Hindus. This time round, he hailed his leader Narendra Modi as a prime minister who has brought more glory to India than anyone from ‘my family’.

His mother on the other hand, has got down to the point, telling Muslims in her constituency that if they do not vote for her, they shouldn’t expect any help when they came to her. “I have already won the election, so you decide,” she is reported to have said.

Maneka Gandhi and Varun Gandhi. Credit: Facebook

In Unnao, rabid Muslim baiter Sakshi Maharaj, who has in the past faced allegations of rape and murder, warned Muslims in his constituency that his curse would fall on them if they did not vote for him.

Elections are a time when candidates are at their charming best, making all kinds of promises to the voters. In 2014, Narendra Modi, who had made openly communal speeches in earlier elections, switched gears and talked mainly about corruption and bread and butter issues economic growth and jobs, knowing fully well that voters, fed up with the UPA, were looking for a genuine alternative with ideas and a vision.

A change in tack

This time round, with little or nothing to show by way of economic performance and his government facing allegations of crony capitalism, Modi and his party have decided to change tack – they are threatening and scaring voters into supporting them.

Enemies – real and imagined, within and outside – are being invoked to instil fear among voters, especially Hindus. There is no word on what a BJP government will do to boost the economy – instead, the party is openly saying it will go after every kind of malcontent – from alleged ‘outsiders’ to dissenters with tougher policies.

Rajnath Singh – apparently a more reasonable man than hardliners like Modi and Amit Shah – has declared that if his party comes to power, it will make the sedition law so stringent that it will ‘send shivers down their spine.” ‘They’ in this context means every kind of ‘anti-national’, which could apply to anyone who asks difficult questions or protests against the government.

BJP president Amit Shah has openly said that if elected, his party will remove ‘every infiltrator’ from India except “Buddha, Hindus and Sikhs.” It has been taken to mean that a Muslim refugee will not be allowed to enter the country, but that is be the literal interpretation.

The real meaning is obvious: Muslims (and Christians) should know that they are suspect till proved otherwise. And if they are at all allowed to remain in India, it is on sufferance. It portrays Muslims and Christians as not being truly native to this land and loyal to an outside power.

Also Read: If There Are Free Elections, BJP Will Not Win More Than 40 Seats: Party Leader to Modi

This has long been a BJP and Sangh parivar staple, but is now being declared in stark terms. The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill has created a storm in the Northeast, but far from abandoning it, even if tactically, for the duration of elections, the BJP has decided to forge ahead with its plan to weed out those it considers foreigners.

That it may help consolidate the Hindu vote is only a part of the reason. The BJP strongly believes in the idea of Hindus being the sole inheritors and citizens of India, while the rest are interlopers of one sort or the other. There may well be some thinking within the party that the Modi government left it too late and should have introduced the Bill early on in its life, when it had much more goodwill and support. By now, it may have even been passed.

Amit Shah’s comments bring to light the Sangh parivar‘s long held beliefs. Credit: Reuters

Falling back on old reliables

Many of the BJP’s earlier campaign strategies have not achieved the required traction – the whole post-Pulwama-Balakot hyper-nationalism collapsed almost immediately. State-level coalitions are proving to be a real challenge. Now, the BJP has decided to fall back on its old reliables – Hindu consolidation by way of isolating Muslims, and flogging that old, tired horse, the failures of the Nehru-Gandhi family.

Going on about the Gandhi dynasty is somewhat tricky, since the BJP itself is full of dynasts. But the family’s long list of crimes and misdemeanours always comes in handy to reach out to the faithful. Whether it works beyond the hardcore devotees and will be enough to assuage the distressed farmer, the suffering small businessman and the jobless graduate is to be seen.

The party’s campaign playlist now is now tired and jaded, with little or no new ideas to offer. But open threats is certainly a novel twist – never have politicians in the past so directly issued dire warnings to its own citizens. Building bogeymen is a tried and tested political strategy, and it often works.

Creating a deep rift

But the current BJP approach, reminiscent of Hitler’s constant vilification of Jews, communists and other internal threats to German Herrenvolk, is a frightening addition to our political lexicon. It will serve to alienate large sections of society and whatever the final results, it will create a deep rift between citizens on the basis of religion.

Muslims – and others – will be viewed with suspicion as not Indian and inimical towards the nation. This suspicion will manifest itself in different ways – sometimes violently, at other times under the radar. In the absence of a strong counter voice, there will be no one to speak up for the idea of equal citizenship.

Other, more sober parties need to quash this demon forcefully. The Congress has said that it will do away with the law on sedition, which is heartening, but it needs to do more. This election will pass, but the hate that the BJP has aroused towards Indian citizens will not go away soon. In its bid to win these elections, the BJP has unleashed a monster which will remain us for a long time.