Polarisation, 'Nationalism' and Confusion: BJP's Unholy Mix of Strategies in UP

Given the smaller Muslim population in the later phases of the UP elections, the BJP is focusing its energies on communal tactics.

Sultanpur, Uttar Pradesh: At a rally in Sultanpur, Uttar Pradesh on February 24, when BJP MP from Gorakhpur and one of the star campaigners for the party, Yogi Adityanath started to speak, he was greeted with a loud orchestrated cheer by people tactically placed in the front rows of the gallery. The ones in the back rows were visibly excited too, but their feeble voice hinted at their exhaustion.

Around 4,000 young belligerent men, who clapped and cheered at each anti-Muslim remark made by innumerable regional BJP leaders who spoke before Adityanath arrived, had gathered at the Khurshid Club of Sultanpur on an unusually warm and dusty day since noon. Adityanath arrived a little before 5 pm.

Yogi ji hamesha late aate hai (Yogi always comes late),” said an RSS pracharak-turned journalist who had travelled almost 20 km to listen to the Hindutva hardliner.

Adityanath spoke for a little less than ten minutes before leaving the stage in a rush. But in the few minutes that he spoke, he made two specific points. One that if BJP is not voted to power, people’s money would be spent on building “karbala aur kabristan (mosques and burial grounds)”. Two, that when BJP introduces programmes like StartUp India, Make in India and so on, they are for everyone, but when the UP government starts a scholarship scheme, it is only for Muslim girls. Finally, before finishing off with a “Bharat mata ki jai”, he asked that if Hindus are not even acknowledged by the UP government, why should they vote for any party other than the BJP?

Leaving aside the usual Hindutva line that Adityanath adopts and the communal spin he gives to his talk of development, the BJP MP was also factually wrong. The scholarship scheme he talked about is the Kanya Vidya Dhan Yojana, under which the UP government provides assistance of Rs 30,000 to each girl student who has passed the 12th board examinations with distinction.

However, when The Wire pointed this out to a BJP activist in the crowd, he had a straightforward answer. “All of us know that UP government is much more lenient with marks in schools being run in Muslim localities,” he said.

In many villages of Sultanpur, The Wire found that BJP activists have been propagating this unverifiable logic of leniency in Muslim schools in the party’s political campaign to attract young people.

While the saffron party is attracting the young on these lines, the BJP candidate from Sultanpur Suryabhan Singh, who is also a former MLA, has mounted his campaign against Samajwadi Party candidate Anoop Sanda on two issues. One, that in his five-year tenure, Sanda did nothing except arrange for inverters in masjids and build boundary walls for burial grounds. Two, Sanda has turned Sultanpur into a “thelon-wala shahar (a city of commercial carts)”.

In the prologue to Adityanath’s speech, he mentioned these two points. “It is okay to give inverters to mosques but they why ignore temples? The cart owners (mostly poor without a license to operate a commercial entity) abuse our daughters and Sanda protects them,” said Singh.

Singh was obviously referring to Sanda’s interventions against the UP administration’s directions to clear the streets of carts, which it thought was the primary reason for perpetual traffic jams in the city.

The clever ploy that both Singh and Adityanath employed is directly borrowed from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who in his Fatehpur rally kicked off the shamshan ghat-kabristan binary, now being pursued by each BJP activist on the ground.

The Wire had reported earlier about why, despite projecting itself as the only development-oriented party, it was politically imperative for the BJP to bank on its ideology of Hindutva and polarise the last few phases of the UP polls on religious lines. The Muslim population in eastern UP is much less than western UP, where religious polarisation would have hurt the BJP’s prospects. Larger Hindu consolidation above the complexities of divisive caste dynamics would greatly benefit them in eastern UP, on the other hand.

A pattern seen often

Ever since BJP rode the Modi wave to capture power at the Centre in 2014, it has consistently been losing its vote shares across states assembly elections.

Except Maharashtra (where it marginally improved its vote share) BJP has lost ground in all states that have gone to polls after Modi became prime minister. Of course one can say that the voter considerations vary in assembly elections, but it cannot be denied that whenever regional considerations are dominant, performance of the BJP declines.

Given that Muslims largely do not vote for the BJP, it relies on Hindu consolidation as both a realpolitik and ideological tactic to gain ground.

In each of these assembly elections, the BJP tried to polarise the electorate on religious lines. The BJP campaigned on the plank of ‘development’ before turning to a communal agenda in both Bihar and Assam.

Modi tried to pit OBCs and Dalits in Bihar against Muslims by accusing the ‘Mahagathbandhan’ of plotting to give 5% reservation to Muslims. Similarly, the party continually invoked the motif of cow slaughter as a polarising tactic.

In Assam, the issue of Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh reigned supreme in BJP’s campaign. In other states too, its ‘gau raksha‘ campaign remained the undercurrent in its larger development talk. The BJP also accused state governments of following the principle of “Muslim appeasement” and alienating Hindus.

The gradual communalisation of the welfare rhetoric is something which the BJP has come to excel at.

Ramjas college violence

In this context, is it a coincidence that the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad chose the time around the last few phases of the UP election to revive the ‘national/anti-national’ binary by attacking a peaceful group of students at Delhi University’s Ramjas college?

The ABVP, the student’s wing of the BJP, in February last year had protested against a cultural event at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, which had then led to a polarised political environment on the lines of ‘nationalism vs sedition’.

The saffron party had used this debate nationally to distract attention from a variety of criticisms, especially its high-handedness in the Hyderabad Central University that eventually led to Dalit PhD student Rohith Vemula’s suicide. By branding some JNU students as anti-national and then popularising the controversy on social media, the Sangh parivar managed to not only distract attention from more pertinent governance issues but also corner constantly-growing dissenting voices among Dalit political groups. Political analysts, at that point of time, had indicated that the BJP had no answer for rising Dalit anger, while it had the language to counter criticisms from liberal circles.

Cut to the current context and one may see that exactly around the time when the BJP started to communally polarise the UP election – after the completion of third phase – the ABVP orchestrated the attack.

At least four BJP activists in Sultanpur and Faizabad showed this correspondent social media videos of the ABVP protesting against JNU student Umar Khalid speaking at a seminar in Ramjas. The later half of the incident, when ABVP activists allegedly vandalised property and used violence against peaceful students, is not being circulated.

“Umar Khalid and Shehla Rashid, both JNU students who were at the forefront of the JNU students’ resistance against ABVP, have spoken numerous times at various public talk shows and seminars since February last year. But the ABVP timed its violence at Ramjas college around the UP polls. Does it not suggest something? The thing is that the Sangh has become so powerful that they revel in liberal criticism as it benefits it politically,” said a senior journalist at Ayodhya who asked not to be named.

He also said that the same pattern was seen in other assembly elections too. “The anti-national witch hunt began at Jodhpur earlier this month when Nivedita Menon (a JNU professor) and Rajshree Ranawat (faculty member at Jodhpur University) were targeted. And now, the Sangh (parivar) has managed to spark the debate again with the Ramjas college episode. This larger theme compliments BJP’s UP campaign, which provokes Hindus by communalising local issues,” he added.

Indeed, Modi’s remarks on shamshan ghat vs kabristan and electricity for Hindus and Muslims, or BJP president’s Amit Shah cryptic comparison of Congress, Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party with Mumbai attack-accused Kasab, is followed up by ground-level BJP activists through a systematic campaign against Muslims based on lies and rumours.

Until now, the BJP, which is hoping to do well in UP this time, was relying on the division of opposition votes to win. For this, in the last few days, it had cleverly run a perception-campaign that its fight is only with the BSP and that the SP-Congress combine is placed at a distant third, while this actually does not seem to be case at all. It is doing so to confuse opposition voters, so that votes split between the SP and BSP. A communal campaign on top of this has only added to its unholy mix of strategies.