Delhi

Comment | The victory of the Shaheen Bagh women

The silent contribution of the peaceful protesters went missing in high-decibel commentaries on the election results

Buried in countless discussions on the failure of hate campaign against Shaheen Bagh and the victory of the Aam Aadmi Party’s politics of “kaam” has been the actual role of the women of Shaheen Bagh. The Union Home Minister’s exhortation to deliver “electric current” to Shaheen Bagh, the chanting of “goli maro” and the actual attacks by stray shooters, crafting sedition charges against individuals, have contrasted singularly with the pictures of rows of women sitting with children, waving the flag and copies of the Constitution and most of all, dedicated to peaceful protest. The importance of this cannot be underestimated.

Hate as strategy

Speaking at a panel on the results of the Delhi elections on a television channel, Seshadri Chari, a senior BJP spokesperson, described the communally vituperative campaign of his party as “not hate politics but strategy”. This is a chilling statement. The problem, however, is not only its questionable morality – an important if not scary issue – but the failure of the strategy.

Clearly, as strategy, it has had its uses. The BJP vote share in the 2020 Delhi elections has been reasonable enough. But it failed to produce a cutting edge precisely because the strategy did not extend beyond the rhetoric of incitement. It was the deliberate commitment to peaceful protest by the women satyagrahis – ordinary mothers, homemakers, youth – that staved off any violent counter-response. Counterfactually speaking, if there had been the slightest hint of violent response, the spiral of violence and communal polarisation would have been uncontrollable. The strategy of hate would then have been unstoppable. It would have upended the politics of “kaam”.

It may be recalled that the women have carried on despite no acts of solidarity from AAP; instead, they have continuously faced the fear of violent ejection by the police. It is the silent contribution of the Shaheen Bagh women that remains unremarked upon in the high-decibel commentaries on the election results.

It raises a difficult question for the BJP now. It deliberately nationalised the elections. Beginning with the Prime Minister, organised and co-ordinated by the Home Minister and deploying a phalanx of Chief Ministers and over 200 MPs, the BJP campaign has been one of the most communal vituperative ever in the history of India’s elections. It has raised questions of national integrity, portraying Shaheen Bagh as a centre of terrorist and anti-national activity – and then going on to associate this unpleasing fiction with AAP. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal himself has been accused of being a terrorist. The basic elements of this campaign are by no means new. Over time, any opposition to the BJP has been progressively labelled as anti-national. This has provided a momentum of aggression to BJP’s nationwide campaigns.

Testing ground

For BJP, Shaheeh Bagh was the testing ground of a new use of communal mobilisation. Within less than a year of its massive general election victory and the apparent success of its strategy of dismembering the State of Jammu and Kashmir, the BJP government has faced the strongest-ever protest that has spread across the entire country on the issue of the CAA-NRC. Most importantly these protests were carried out by the youth of different communities, becoming a platform for voicing dissatisfaction against a governance perceived to be high-handed, regulative of lifestyles and unable to provide jobs.

The Delhi elections provided an opportunity to begin a counter-initiative by the BJP. The BJP-ruled States had put down the protests with an iron hand.

Shaheen Bagh provided an opportunity to initiate an ideological counter-offensive against the protests. Indissociable from the protests against the CAA-NRC which it had given birth to, Shaheen Bagh could be deployed to isolate, marginalise and communalise the protests. The only problem – which finally defeated the BJP strategy - was that it was dominated by women who refused to be provoked.

The unresponsiveness of these women was complemented by the careful distancing of the AAP from the protesters. Both of these put BJP out on a limb. More importantly, it allowed the focus to be put on a positive element, that is, the work done by AAP. If Shaheen Bagh dominated the saffron air waves, it was kaam that was discussed among the ordinary voters on the ground. The laying out of water and sewage pipes, free bus rides to women, the rise of standards in government schools and so on, dominated the agenda. It became so effective that the ground campaigners of the BJP had to take recourse to questioning the wisdom of providing “freebies” to the electorate. In short, BJP workers were caught in the self-defeating position of saying that the electorate was unfit for the welfare measures that they have traditionally expected the state to provide.

Where does the BJP go from here? Can it afford to charge with all the vituperation and aggression at its command, like Don Quixote against windmills that refuse to move? For BJP aggressive polarisation has been important for both electoral victory while combining this with establishing the affective and ideological foundations of a future Hindu Rashtra. But if communal polarisation does not work as an issue, what else will the BJP have in its electoral kitty? Delhi has shown that a purely negative campaign of discrediting the agenda of its rivals will not do. Nor can it step back now, for the reputation of its Shah-Modi leadership has been built on its authoritarian stubbornness to defend its positions. There is too much now at stake for the BJP leadership and too little ammunition at its disposal.

Pradip Kumar Datta teaches political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University

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Printable version | Feb 25, 2020 12:09:56 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Delhi/the-victory-of-the-shaheen-bagh-women/article30796356.ece

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