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Phagwara/Hoshiarpur/Ludhiana: After its 23-year-old alliance with the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) fell apart, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Punjab has its own dilemma of walking alone to safeguard its vote bank in the 23 assembly constituencies it traditionally contested during the partnership. But a bigger task at hand for the saffron party is to cautiously carry forward its narrative of Hindutva in the Sikh-dominated state that goes to polls in all 117 assembly segments on February 20.
To begin with, it is testing the waters, especially in the Hindu vote bank pockets of constituencies like Pathankot, Bhoa, Dinanagar, Mukerian, Dasuya, Hoshiarpur, Phagwara, Ludhiana North, Ludhiana Central, Amritsar Central, Jalandhar Central, Ferozepur City, Abohar, Fazilka and Rajpura, by gradually raising the pitch of slogans related to its Hindu nationalism.
The couplets “Jo Ram ko laye hai, hum unko layenge, Punjab mein hum fir se, bhagwa fehrayenge (We will bring those to power who brought in the essence of Lord Ram, and we will once again hoist the saffron flag in Punjab)” reverberated in the air at the BJP’s crowded election campaign meeting at Onkar Nagar in Phagwara Sunday evening. The crowds were wholly comprised of settlers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. And these people were visibly the targets for the BJP to raise the pitch of bhagwa nationalism.
Children and first-time voters held saffron flags bearing ‘Jai Shri Ram’ along with the BJP flags. Vijay Sampla, chairman of the National Commission for the Scheduled Castes and the former minister in the previous Narendra Modi government, is contesting the Phagwara seat and the chief guests on the occasion were Manoj Tiwari, a Lok Sabha member from Bihar and erstwhile star of Bhojpuri films, and Dalip Singh Rana, the famous wrestler popularly known as the Great Khali.
“Bhagwa ab khilne lagaa hai, Punjab bhi sajne lagaa hai (The saffron is blooming now, Punjab is starting to look well decorated),” said Tiwari, beginning his speech in a poetic tone, getting loud applause from the suburban crowds. “The temple is in the making (in Ayodhya), and Kashi is now in waiting,” Tiwari continued, applauding Prime Minister Modi as an unchallenged leader who “brought security to the nation”.
“Modi has to be victorious in these Punjab elections as well,” he said. “We can see that the ration given by Modi to Punjab is not reaching the people here,” he said. Tiwari also attributed the opening of the Kartarpur corridor and the tax exemption on the rationing for ‘langar’ in gurudwaras to Modi. He concluded his speech by raising the slogans ‘Har har Mahadev’ and ‘Bole so nihal, Sat Sri Akal’. Khali repeatedly shouted in the mic, ‘Har har Modi, ghar ghar Modi‘ to build up the tempo for Tiwari’s speech.
The rally in Phagwara’s suburbs provided a glimpse of the BJP’s Hindutva narrative that the party cadres have been trying to push in Hindu localities across the state.
In Ludhiana North, another hopeful seat for the BJP, is a hoarding of the Ram temple that is being built in Ayodhya. The words ‘Ram mandir’ and ‘Jai Shree Ram’ accompany the picture.
“BJP workers were chased away during the kisan andolan (farmers’ movement). Now you can see the change, how we are raising key issues like the Ram mandir in Punjab,” says Singla, a BJP worker. He said the party will spring a surprise in the election, claiming that it would gain a vote share of up to 10%. Singla hails from Malerkotla and has been working for the BJP in Ludhiana for the past five months.
In the northern Mukerian constituency, which is dominated by Hindu Rajput farming communities, BJP candidate Jangi Lal Mahajan believes that India is “a stronger country under the Modi regime”. “Earlier, the Army was pelted with stones in Kashmir, but now there are 24-hour orders to shoot, for which no special permission is needed,” said Mahajan, as he addressed a small public meeting at Naushera Chowk on the city’s outskirts on February 12. He had lost to the Congress’s sitting MLA Indu Bala in the October 2019 by-election for the seat.
In Mukerian, the BJP has played a peculiar card. It has roped in an active member of the farmers’ movement and a baptised Sikh, Inderjit Singh Khalsa, from the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Kadian). Singh began his speech at the Mahajan’s public meeting with ‘Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa, Waheguru Ji ki Fateh’, and ended it with ‘Jai Shri Ram’, saying, “Communal riots can never take place in Punjab.” He was campaigning for BJP’s Jangi Lal Mahajan.
“Your prime minister [Narendra Modi] is on the top of all the leaders globally,” Khalsa said and then he pointed out that Modi had “apologised while withdrawing the three farm laws”.
Referring to the ‘security breach‘ that Modi faced in Punjab’s Ferozepur on January 5, Khalsa claimed that had Indira Gandhi faced the same scenario, she would have “imposed emergency in Punjab”.
After more than two decades of militancy in Punjab, the SAD joined hands with the BJP in the 1997 assembly elections on the plank of “Hindu-Sikh unity” along with Badal’s promise for “a truth commission” to probe alleged police excesses during the Khalistani movement. The state’s demographics, as per the 2011 census, is 57.69% Sikh, 38.49% Hindu, 1.93% Muslim and 1.26% Christian.
“Akali Dal has left us [the BJP]. They cut the ties, not us,” said Vijay Sharma, a local RSS leader and senior office bearer of the BJP’s Pathankot district unit. “The alliance was for the sake of Hindu-Sikh brotherhood,” he added. Pathankot is one of the most precious seats for the BJP where its Punjab unit president Ashwani Kumar Sharma is contesting against Aam Aadmi Party’s Vibhuti Sharma and the Congress’s sitting MLA Amit Vij.
Curiously, neither AAP nor the Congress has opposed the BJP’s Hindutva narrative. When asked why the opposition is not speaking about it, AAP’s Vibhuti Sharma, at the party office in Pathankot, said, “Punjab has no concern with such issues. There is so much unemployment and drug addiction, especially in our area. These are the real issues,” he said.
In Ferozepur City, the BJP has fielded a former Congress leader, Rana Sodhi, a Sikh, as its candidate. “Our honourable prime minister had a vision for the upliftment of the country and security of the nation,” he wrote in my notebook, amid the loud sloganeering of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and ‘Har Har Mahadev’, from the stage in an old mohalla of the city. “The Congress is no longer a secular party,” he said, in response to a question on why he joined the saffron party after being with the Congress for decades.
Treading cautiously with the Hindutva narrative
The BJP is in alliance with Amarinder Singh’s newly floated Punjab Lok Congress and the SAD (Sanyukt) floated by Akali leader Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa. While the saffron party is contesting 65 seat’s, Amarinder’s party will contest 37 seats and the remaining have been left for SAD (Sanyukt).
A closer look also reveals that both AAP and the BJP have not been condemning each other in most of the constituencies. Their attack remains on the ruling Congress wherever their respective candidates are stronger. However, the BJP roped in Kapil Mishra from Delhi for the Punjab campaign last week and Mishra straightaway accused AAP of “giving shelter to the culprits responsible for the Delhi communal riots in February 2020”.
At a Jalandhar rally on Monday, Modi donned a saffron Sikh turban.
Modi began his speech with slogans ‘Jaikara Bajrang Bali Ka’, ‘Jai Bhim’ and ‘Har Har Mahadev’, without forgetting to address the crowd with ‘Waheguru ji ka Khalsa’. “I am emotionally attached to Punjab,” he said in the presence of Amarinder and his cabinet colleague Hardeep Puri on the dais.
“I am indebted to Punjab and I want to serve Punjab because this state fed me when I was an ordinary worker of the BJP and roamed in villages,” he said. His new slogan for the elections says, “Navaa Punjab Bhajpa de naal (New Punjab with the emergence of the BJP.)”
Mentioning BJP’s previous alliance with SAD, he said, “When we were with the Akali Dal, we always accepted our small role by treating SAD as an elder brother. But at that time also injustice was done to us, and Badal sahib made his son the deputy chief minister. We had more MLAs, the government could have fallen. But still, for the betterment of Punjab, we did not commit that sin.”
He pointed out that the BJP wanted its leader Manoranjan Kalia as the deputy chief minister during the Badals’ regime in the state. “But then also we never withdrew support to the Badal government in the interest of the Punjab,” he said.
He further said, counting the reopening of the Kartarpur corridor as his achievement, “Maharaja Ranjit Singh during his empire offered gold at the Vishwanath Temple in Kashi, reviving its lost pride. And we are carrying forward that same spirit in Kashi, and the spirit of Ayodhya that was given a spark by Maharishi Valmiki (the author of Ramayana) is also evolving now.”
Saying that AAP is engaged in “jhoot ka khel”, Modi said that the Delhi government is an expert at opening up liquor vends and are now looking to do the same in Punjab [for the purpose of trade].
Political analyst and veteran journalist Jaspal Singh Sidhu observed that the BJP is now looking to “appease the Sikhs”. “They are on an offensive against the Muslims and at the same time, they believe in the assimilation of the Sikhs in the Hindu fold,” he said.