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New Delhi: Speculations had been rife that the Narendra Modi government, which turned its anti-Muslim plank into a reason for euphoria among a large section of Hindus, will surely act against the Popular Front of India (PFI) – an organisation that can best be described as the Muslim counterpart of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh but much smaller in its scale of operations.
Given how several civil resistance movements – the anti-CAA demonstrations or the protests against the hijab ban in Karnataka’s educational institutions, for example – were sought to be dismissed as agitations sponsored or patronised by the PFI over the last few years, it is rather surprising that the sudden raids on the organisation’s offices, arrests, and the eventual ban have come after eight years of the prime minister in power.
However, for the Modi-led BJP which revels in setting the political agenda through its sophisticated PR machinery and a pliable media, the timing of the ban couldn’t have been more rewarding. For almost three months now, the BJP has struggled to take control of the political narrative.
Despite the mess that the Congress is grappling with because of its internal conflicts, it has managed to capture headlines. First, the Udaipur Chintan Shivir earlier this year sent strong signals that the grand-old party was looking ahead to reform itself and lead the opposition in the future. Then, the party prepared itself to have a non-Gandhi president after a gap of more than two decades.
More importantly, the pan-India Bharat Jodo Yatra has been grabbing attention for its all-out attack on the Sangh parivar and the Modi government. With its focus on rising inequality, over-centralisation of power, and growing social polarisation in the Modi regime, Rahul Gandhi has led the long march with unforeseen passion until now. The BJP’s anxiety was reflected in the way it manoeuvred to poach Congress MLAs in Goa, or engaged in verbal duels on insignificant matters with the Congress almost on a daily basis, and even carried out a campaign against Rahul Gandhi’s T-shirt in the Yatra. However, none of these attacks stuck or had the intended effect. The Yatra has only been going from strength to strength.
At the same time, other opposition parties have also fuelled the saffron party’s anxieties. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) launched its “Make India No 1” around the same time as the Congress’s Bharat Jodo Yatra. It showcased the teachers and health workers whom it apparently empowered through its “Delhi Model” as the campaign’s spearheads. In a way, Arvind Kejriwal’s campaign indirectly focussed attention on the neglect that the education and health sectors have faced during the Modi regime.
AAP’s strident growth in two poll-bound states – Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat – was also noticed over the last few months. Taking a leaf out of the BJP’s rulebook, AAP leaders constantly circulated confrontational videos with officials in these BJP-ruled states, effectively highlighting the downsides of the states’ functioning. When the BJP responded by hurriedly implicating some of the top functionaries of AAP in the Delhi liquor policy case, the AAP only reacted with increased aggression, leaving barely any occasion to allege that the Union government’s actions against its leaders were an attempt to stop the party from putting up a good fight against the saffron party.
In the build-up to the Telangana assembly elections next year, the BJP has found another foe in the K. Chandrashekar Rao-led Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS). The Telangana chief minister, over the last year, has made it a habit to hit out at the Union government and the BJP. The CM has been holding marathon press conferences to point out the Centre’s failures on different policy issues and holding Modi as the chief culprit behind Telangana’s problems. Its leaders haven’t missed a single chance to lash out at the BJP. Be it the embarrassment India has had to face because of the (now suspended) BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma’s Islamophobic comments or the Centre’s failures to stem growing unemployment and inflation, the TRS leaders were at the forefront of mounting the sharpest attack on the saffron party’s rule among opposition parties.
Even as the BJP faced such parallel attacks, its biggest setback came when ally Nitish Kumar joined hands with his arch-rival Lalu Prasad Yadav in Bihar. The fall of the National Democratic Alliance government in Bihar left the BJP out of power. The Nitish-Lalu combination is such a formidable challenge for the BJP in the 2024 general elections that the party’s top leadership hurriedly formed committees to target 144-odd seats where the BJP lost the polls in 2019. It hopes that the probate losses in Bihar can be compensated with a better strike rate in the seats they lost. But it is easier said than done as a majority of these seats are in southern India, while a significant number are placed in states like West Bengal, Odisha, and Bihar – where the BJP’s chances are increasingly becoming feeble in comparison to 2019. That the wily and experienced Nitish Kumar is roving around the country to unite smaller regional parties against the BJP isn’t making things any easier for the saffron party.
The debate pivots
Against such a backdrop, the PFI ban appears to be a last-ditch attempt to pivot the current political debate back to the one that the BJP enjoys – that of Hindu-Muslim polarisation. Had the BJP been serious about containing fundamentalist tendencies in India, it would have dealt similarly with organisations like the Vishva Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal, whose members have been implicated in multiple episodes of lynchings and attacks on Muslims. For that matter, the BJP is conspicuously silent about associations like the Hindu Janjagruti Samithi or Sanathan Sanstha which have been implicated in a series of assassinations and bomb blasts in the past decade and before.
However, the PFI has become an easy target to deflect attention from the issues that the opposition parties have been raising persistently, some of which have also become topics of public discussion in many parts of India. The ban on PFI is a tried-and-tested – albeit repetitive and unimaginative – political formula that the BJP has again put into effect to beat the anti-incumbency sentiment that is likely to surface in the upcoming state and general elections.
More importantly, by resorting to the polarisation tactic, the saffron party has also defined the ideological contours of the 2024 elections. While the opposition parties will raise issues of a stagnant economy, increasing communal disharmony, and centralisation of power, the BJP will fall back upon its Hindu consolidation strategy. It may work for it yet again, but not without a visible scar on Modi’s pro-development perception.