Looking for volume control

Whether to use Hindutva as an electoral strategy or not has been a long-standing dilemma for the BJP, and the Bihar results show that it is nowhere close to being resolved

November 20, 2015 01:39 am | Updated 02:03 am IST

“The BJP is divided over the strategy of making State-level elections a referendum on Prime Minister Narendra Modi.” Picture shows a BJP campaign poster in Patna,

“The BJP is divided over the strategy of making State-level elections a referendum on Prime Minister Narendra Modi.” Picture shows a BJP campaign poster in Patna,

During the Bihar election, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders in Delhi would tell journalists that it was being fought on the agenda of governance. They would claim they were ahead of the Grand Alliance on this issue; Lalu Prasad’s company had ‘sullied’ Nitish Kumar’s record, they asserted. Yet, as more election rallies took place, it became increasingly clear that >beef became a key issue in the polls . A party leader said in Bihar, “Speeches of local leaders, village after village, referred to the beef issue.” This dichotomy marked the BJP’s poll pitch: shrill divisive statements constantly interrupted much talk about governance.

Vikas Pathak

This apart, the BJP is also divided over the strategy of making State-level elections a referendum on Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The idea worked very well in the Assembly polls in Jharkhand, >Maharashtra and Haryana , but it failed miserably in >Bihar and >Delhi , where there were charismatic local opponents to the BJP and where the Congress was no longer a key player. In Delhi, the BJP belatedly turned the election into a Kiran Bedi-versus-Arvind Kejriwal fight, but was finally forced to eat humble pie.

Thus, BJP ranks are divided on two issues: the efficacy of Hindutva and Mr. Modi’s charisma to gain votes.

Tests ahead The party faces a number of elections in the next year and a half, the most crucial being in Uttar Pradesh, Assam and Punjab. By early 2017, West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, Goa, Manipur and Uttarakhand will also have gone to polls.

While the election in Assam is crucial, as it is the only State where the BJP has a chance, U.P. is bound to be seen as the semi-final before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Punjab, a State where the National Democratic Alliance is powerful, is no longer an easy win given Sikh unrest there. It remains to be seen how the BJP plans its electoral strategy for the States where it stands a chance.

Many have seen the Bihar result as a “rejection” of Hindutva. While there is little evidence to state this explicitly, we can safely conclude that using Hindutva as a strategy was not successful in this election. What the strategy instead did was earn brickbats for the party. The Dalai Lama echoed a widely shared view when he said that the Bihar poll results indicated that most Hindus loved peace and amity. For its part, the opposition accused the BJP of having played hate politics and failed.

Not that the development card was not played, but the Hindutva pitch became shriller as the phases progressed, drowning the governance agenda. Just before the last phase of polling, for instance, which included Muslim-dominant parts of Seemanchal, the BJP issued a “beef” advertisement in local newspapers. Party chief Amit Shah had also controversially said some days before that that fire-crackers would go off in Pakistan if the BJP won. After the defeat, even BJP MPs from Bihar wondered if this was necessary — MP Bhola Singh, for example, questioned the need for the beef and Pakistan references.

Given that the Modi government wants investment from abroad and has a high-profile foreign policy, the accusations of resorting to hard-line Hindutva on home ground sully its name before a global audience. During his visit to the U.K., Mr. Modi invoked the Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi as India’s ideals. He did get a warm welcome, but the >British media was not as kind .

Clearly, the government has to walk a tightrope between its governance pitch and its Hindutva strategy. But this does not mean that the efficacy of Hindutva as an electoral strategy is over.

“Each State has a different complexion and [there is] no one-size-fits-all [approach],” a BJP leader, seen as a dyed-in-the-wool organisation man, told me. “In Assam, there are regions that see illegal Bangladeshi immigration as a core concern. In that context, the issue is likely to retain electoral efficacy.”

The illegal immigration issue is also a core Hindutva concern. Weeks back, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), at its Akhil Bharatiya Karyakari Mandal meeting in Ranchi, referred to increased Muslim population, particularly in Assam. RSS leaders even said that by 2047, “foreigners” would outnumber “Indians” in Assam, where the Muslim population stands at 34.2 per cent today.

The BJP’s performance in U.P. was extraordinary last year, but the party has few State-level leaders of the stature of Mulayam Singh and Mayawati; its local unit isn’t too active either. In other words, though >the BJP swept the Lok Sabha polls , it may find the going tough in the State.

It is here that Hindutva comes into play. The Dadri lynching earlier this year and the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 took place in western U.P., a State where Muslims comprise 18-19 per cent of the population. The party also has core Hindutva leaders in the State, such as Yogi Adityananth, who has a support base in Gorakhpur, in eastern U.P. Political rivals are no better — Azam Khan of the Samajwadi Party has been accused of making polarising statements too. All this makes it likely that identity politics will become sharper as Assembly elections come closer.

Confusion over strategy BJP leaders aren’t too sure what the strategy there could be. “How can hard Hindutva be an electoral strategy? Tacit Hindutva may be useful, but not hard Hindutva. It didn’t work in Bihar,” a BJP leader said. “But if you ask me what strategy the party will end up employing in U.P., your guess is as good as mine.”

Hindutva is a social-ideological project, but it cannot work as an electoral strategy, another key BJP leader said. “When polarisation takes place, it is possible that minorities vote more enthusiastically to defeat us than Hindus vote for us. This harms the party,” the leader said. “In Bihar, the majority of Hindus did not vote for us. So, people may ask if Hindutva represents the majority of the Hindus. Why should we risk this?”

However, the party may have learnt its lessons. It may now be wary of making the coming contests a Modi-versus-the rest battle. “Assam won’t be a Modi versus Tarun Gogoi contest,” a central BJP leader said. Many in the party are also upset over its strategy to “overexpose” the Prime Minister, which makes every loss seem like a dent to Mr. Modi’s image.

Yet another BJP leader wondered whether an ascendant BJP had ended up making opposition parties pool resources for a fight for political survival. “Nitish and Lalu came together in a fight for political survival. We seemed aggressive in power, and opposition forces began to fear they would be wiped out. But once they come together, like in Bihar, their combined arithmetic trumps us,” the BJP leader said. In other words, a divided opposition is always a better bet for the BJP in electoral terms. In Assam, where the party is seen to be on the rise, an alliance between the Congress and Badruddin Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front could stop the BJP in its tracks.

With the possibility of Hindutva getting more shrill with the Assam and U.P. polls drawing close, public discourse is set to stay polarised in the months to come.

vikas.pathak@thehindu.co.in

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