Modi’s Dussehra Speech Indicates a Strategic Shift in BJP’s Electoral Campaign

As the BJP’s attempts to forge caste coalitions in poll-bound states seem to be failing, it has gone back to its age-old Hindutva campaign by whipping up a military frenzy.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a Ramlila where he delivered his speech. Credit: Reuters

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a Ramlila where he delivered his speech. Credit: Reuters

If we examine the speeches made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat on Dussehra, it becomes clear that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is no longer relying solely on state-level caste and community-based political equations ahead of assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Goa, but is clearly trying to advance its age-old ideological agenda of Hindu muscularity.

This marks a significant shift in the party’s recent strategy as until now the BJP, after being routed in Bihar assembly elections late last year, had been focusing on regional administrative and communitarian issues in campaigns that were led by its state-level leaders. BJP’s campaigns in Haryana, Jharkhand and Assam, where it tasted success on this plank, had minimal focus on national issues. Its Bihar campaign, on the other hand, projected Modi as the party’s supreme leader and hoped to sway the electorate through the prime minister’s popularity.

Eventually, when the party was snubbed by the Rashtriya Janata Dal-Janata Dal (United), both state-level parties, political observers were largely inclined to believe that BJP paid the cost for overlooking federal concerns in a state poll. That the Mahagathbandhan was also numerically strong in terms of caste and communities only helped it to suck the fizzle out of the saffron party’s campaign. The BJP had projected the Bihar assembly election, although not officially, as a referendum on Modi’s government at the centre. Its defeat, therefore, hurt the party’s positive image to a great extent.

Since then, the BJP has made it clear that it will be concentrating on state-level issues instead of putting Modi at the forefront of assembly elections. As a result, Modi had cut short the number of his speeches, rallies and appearances in all the subsequent elections.

However, his Vijaydashami speech at the Lucknow Aishbagh Ramlila ground – the first speech by a PM at a Ramlila function – was a marked departure from this position in terms of its tone, tenor and content. Without giving much significance to his performance at the centre – the usual track he takes since he took over the country’s top job – he sounded the poll bugle with chants of ‘Jai Shri Ram,’ that reminded one of the BJP’s communal campaign in the late eighties and nineties during the Sangh parivar’s Ram Janmabhoomi movement. Modi did not hesitate to lift the ‘Gada,’ considered to be Hanuman’s chief weapon or Ram’s mythical ‘bow and arrow’ or Vishnu’s ‘Sudarshan chakra’.

While one may argue that the use of Hindutva symbols did not look inappropriate on Dusshera, his critics may say that it does not behove a prime minister to openly espouse Hindu myths, especially in a poll-bound state that witnessed some of the worst communal rioting in recent times. His conspicuous absence from Muslim religious congregations may also send the wrong political message to India’s minority communities.

The Hindutva symbolism was cloaked under the larger message of combating terrorism, on which the saffron party has been in a self-congratulatory mode after the Indian army conducted surgical strikes on terror launch pads along the Line of Control on September 28. Unsurprisingly, the union home minister and former UP chief minister Rajnath Singh, sharing the stage with Modi, said in reference to the military operation, “I want to welcome Modiji here as for the first time in the history of independent India he has succeeded in holding [the] country’s head high at international level. He has succeeded in giving message to the world that Bharat is not weak but it’s a ‘damdar’ (powerful) nation.”

Modi too joined the bandwagon by likening the war on terror to the killing of Ravana that people celebrate on Dussehra. Terrorism is an enemy of humanity and Ram is representative of humanity and human values, the prime minister said while talking about Jatayu (the mythical eagle that fought with Ravana to prevent Sita’s kidnapping in the Ramayana).

Urging the people to be vigilant in the government’s war on terror, he said that if 1.25 crore people remain alert, “it (terrorism) will be finished.”

After displaying his muscular approach, clearly laced with Hindutva symbols, Modi went on to talk about the atrocities Sita had to endure. “We should resolve to punish Ravan each year. But have we thought [why] we discriminate between boys and girls? We kill so many Sitas right in the womb. The protection of our Sitas in our homes is our duty, we need to celebrate birth of girl child. Girls need to be treated on a par with boys; they must get justice,” Modi said.

Political observers believed that Modi’s speech carried both the muscular and upper caste Hindu reformative agenda that the RSS has been trying to push for so long.

The detailing that Bhagwat did for Modi

In Nagpur, in his customary Vijaydashami speech, Bhagwat, sarsanghchalak of RSS that is known to have considerable influence on the Modi government, too talked about cross-border terrorism. He congratulated the government for taking a pro-active stand on cross-border terrorism by conducting the surgical strikes. At the same time, he talked about some administrative issues the government must pursue. “There is an urgent need to rehabilitate with honour and security and ensuring all-round welfare, our Hindu brethren, who had migrated from those areas (Mirpur, Muzzafarabad, Gilgit and Baltistan in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir), and the Pandits, who are forced out of the Kashmir valley,” he said in his speech.

While the RSS has consistently denied being a political organisation, Bhagwat’s speech only touched upon politically debated issues, one of them being the resettlement of Kashmiri pandits. For instance, he called for education reforms and urged the government to review the former cabinet secretary T. S. R. Subramanian’s New Education Policy (NEP), which has been lying under the carpet for a long time. “I am not privy to this report, but it remains to be seen whether the committee’s suggestions are in sync with the wisdom of the educationists and activists in the education field,” he said hinting at RSS’ reservations against the NEP. One may recall that a few months ago Subramanian had asked the government to make the report public and said that he may be forced to do it himself. He had accused the government for deliberately trying to overlook the NEP.

Almost re-iterating what Modi has said about Gau Rakshaks, who have been facing flak for their anti-minority activities, Bhagwat reaffirmed Modi’s assumption: “The administration should know the difference between gau-rakshaks and anti-social elements.” Noticeably, the RSS and the BJP seem to be in synchrony on the issue of Gau Rakshaks. After Modi remarked that 80% of gau rakshaks are fake, the RSS had said that Modi should have avoided making that statement.

Both Modi and Bhagwat’s speeches were broadly similar in their thrust, reasserting that the BJP and RSS work in tandem with each other. “It seemed like Bhagwat and Modi had swapped positions on Dussehra. While Modi gave a generic speech, Bhagwat talked about issues of politics, governance, foreign policy, and national security,” said Aryama, a political analyst based in New Delhi.

Strategic shift

Whatever may be the case, the broad similarities between the two speeches are a clear hint that the Sangh parivar’s campaign in the upcoming assembly polls will concentrate on building an ideological ground based on Hindutva, while simultaneously talking about universal social issues like education, development and so on instead of state-specific issues.

The reason, many political observers believe, for this shift is because the BJP is left with no choice. Both in UP and Punjab, the BJP in recent times has been reduced to the position of the third party in the line of preference. While Modi managed to consolidate UP in the 2014 parliamentary polls, BJP’s planned progress to become a party with a strong organisation base has not materialised. For instance, in UP the party has been trying to forge an alternative OBC-Dalit alliance assuming that upper caste Hindu votes are on its side. However, it looks like the experiment is failing as the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party have managed to consolidate the OBCs and Dalits better than the BJP.

In order to attract the Dalits, which form around 22% of UP’s population, the BJP had started a six-month long Dhamma Chetna Yatra which is supposed to end on October 14 in Lucknow. It was planned that Modi was supposed to address the Yatra on that day. However, as the Yatra failed to get expected traction, the BJP has shifted the yatra’s last congregation to Kanpur at a very short notice and instead of Modi, BJP president Amit Shah will address the meeting; whereas Modi’s speech was shifted to Lucknow on Dussehra. In keeping with the prime minister’s generic message of development, the BJP has now planned a parivartan yatra.

Similarly, Akhilesh Yadav’s clean image as an administrator – despite his struggles within the party, especially with the party leader Shivpal Yadav – works in SP’s favour. Despite a bumpy ride in the government, SP has managed to retain most of its OBC constituency.

With the Congress trying to build a upper caste-Muslim alliance, the BJP’s efforts to conjure up a credible caste alliance seem to be failing in the four-corned fight. “The party had not expected to win 73 seats in 2014. It was overwhelming. But after two and a half years in power, it will have to face questions about its performance at the centre. Voters also have different considerations in assembly elections. One should understand that a UP voter has the most basic expectation from a political party. The development that Modi ji talks about has to have a direct bearing on living costs, services and facilities available for the poor. Two and a half years is too less a time to make any significant change but the voter will judge the BJP for its failures more than its successes,” a Lucknow-based BJP leader told The Wire. 

In such a context, the BJP has no alternative but to rely on its Hindutva platform and talk about universal social issues in vague terms. The BJP has been facing flak from the opposition over the way it has used surgical strikes for its political advantage. Posters carrying images of BJP leaders congratulating Modi for the strikes have been mounted all over UP. Similarly, the Sangh parivar spearheading the militant consolidation of Hindus against Muslims in Bisara village, Dadri after the death of Ravi Sisodia, one of the men accused of murdering Mohammad Akhlaq, in police custody points towards this tactical shift.

Similarly, in Punjab the BJP has been playing up its prompt military action against Pakistan aggressively. A large section of Punjab’s agrarian population has served in the Indian army and the party hopes to draw their support. Bhagwat, too, in his speech while talking about combating cross-border terrorism invoked Sikh identity. “We have the legacy of Sree Guru Govind Singh, who, through his own illustrious life-example, has proved beyond doubt that even things that appear to be impossible could be achieved with strong commitment, valour, total dedication, detachment and selflessness. And it is for us to pursue this ideal with dedication, with all our might,” he said.

Punjab would be one of the worst affected states in a war situation because of its proximity to the LoC. Punjab, witness to a secessionist violent movement through the eighties, remains anxious about cross-border terrorism even today and the BJP hopes to cash into this fear.

Adopting the twin electoral planks of displaying military muscularity and a strong anti-Muslim agenda may serve the BJP better at this juncture, many political observers believe. “The problem with the BJP is that it reduces every political issue to a binary debate. This whips up a frenzy and vitiates the environment. It leaves no space for constructive criticism. More often than not, the real issues of governance, agriculture, health care, education get muddled under this polarised political climate,” said Lucknow-based political analyst Sudhir Panwar.

The Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute released the Global Hunger Index report on Dussehra. According to its findings, 15.2% of Indian citizens are undernourished and 38.7% of under-five children stunted, putting India’s rank at an abysmal 97. Barring Pakistan which is ranked 107, all neighbouring countries are placed higher. In a polarised political climate, military and religious muscularity, as they are being whipped up by the Sangh Parivar for electoral gains, also serve as the best strokes to push accountability under the carpet.