In his first election rally this year, in Lucknow, a humongous gathering at the local Ramabai Ambedkar Maidan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had raised a clarion call against voting based on caste, religion and community calculations and urged the electorate to rise above it and usher in "real development" in Uttar Pradesh.
"People of the state have already seen politics of caste and family... For once, rise above caste, class and vote only for development in the elections and see whether Uttar Pradesh changes or not,” said the prime minister on 2 January.
Is Modi out of sync with his own party?
Last Saturday, the BJP released its manifesto for Uttar Pradesh. On Sunday, party president Amit Shah gave an exclusive, candid, exhaustive interview to Network 18 editor-in-chief Rahul Joshi. There emerges a distinct impression, judging from the manifesto promises and Shah's comments during the tête-à-tête that the BJP feels the need to lace its development agenda with a generous but covert dose of polarisation. That would point to a lack of confidence in 'development' as the sole change agent — a pronounced sway from Modi's stress on vikaas, health, sanitation, and corruption and poverty eradication as areas of focus.
Of course, there are many promises on vikaas, but Shah's formula seems to be a combination of thematic Hindutva tropes, polarisation pressure points and under-the-hood rhetoric that plays on the communal fault lines without being too in-your-face. He raises the issue of slaughterhouses, migration of Hindus but places these in the context of economic well-being and failure of the state's law and order machinery to claim plausible deniability.
On a blunt question about whether the BJP is indulging in soft Hindutva, Shah says it would be wrong to see the party's move to raise these complex social issues as 'attempts at polarisation'. The mechanised abattoirs, he says, are robbing the farmers of their livelihood.
"Please don't look at the ban on slaughterhouses from that point of view. In all of Uttar Pradesh — whether western Uttar Pradesh, Awadh, Rohailkhand or Purvanchal, you will see that due to slaughterhouses, cows that give milk are finished. If there is a drought or flood, farmers fall back on cows for sustenance. The state has unlimited potential for milk production. I come from Gujarat where the availability of water is much less than in Uttar Pradesh. But dairies have record production there. In Uttar Pradesh, we want to prevent cattle-smuggling and slaughter. Today, even FIRs are not registered in Uttar Pradesh in such cases. We have planned to set up dairies so that farmers will get good prices. This will also help them add value, and improve livelihoods," he said.
So to the manifesto promises of an "East, West, North and South Corridor" that would connect "every village to tehsil office by bus" and the "improvement of medical facilities", free laptops, one GB of internet data, waiving farm loans and meeting the pending payments of Uttar Pradesh's sugarcane farmers "in 120 days", Shah also felt the need to spell out the BJP's Ram Mandir agenda, an issue that was almost an afterthought during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
"We have a very clear stand on Ram Mandir, that we will explore ways of building a temple within the constitutional framework. This can be done in two ways: Either through dialogue or through a court order," he said during the interview.
He was equally forthcoming on the Network 18 editor-in-chief's question regarding triple talaq, saying, "We believe that the Constitution mandates every woman should get her rights, and that includes Muslim women. Triple talaq curtails the rights of Muslim women."
If voted to power, the BJP, he had promised during the release of the manifesto, "will seek the opinion of Muslim women in Uttar Pradesh on the issue and on the basis of that opinion, will then approach the Supreme Court."
Modi had made no mention of the Ram Mandir issue during his speech. This apparent dichotomy could be the result of the BJP's belief that it could benefit from a 'reverse polarisation' due to the coming together of the Samajwadi Party and Congress, both of whom have rather openly courted the Muslim votes. The consolidation of secular votes — euphemism for Muslims — forms the fulcrum of the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance, an issue Firstpost has highlighted in a recent column.
The worry in the BJP is that there has been a disillusionment in the Jat belt in western Uttar Pradesh and the party cannot afford to antagonise the residents of that area if it hopes to come to power. The 'reverse polarisation' will only work if anger against the BJP is subsumed within the greater anger against polarisation engineered by the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance.
There have been reports already of BJP MLA Sangeet Som screening footage from a documentary on the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots that killed 50 and resulted in the uprooting of 50,000 people. According to The Times of India, Som was among three BJP lawmakers booked recently for violating the model code of conduct. The two others are Muzaffarnagar MLA Kapil Dev Agarwal and Shamli representative Suresh Rana, also an accused in the 2013 riots.
In a video that gained currency on social media ever since Sunday, Suresh Rana, BJP MLA from Thana Bhawan who has earned a ticket in the upcoming Uttar Pradesh elections, has been found saying that "curfew will be imposed in Kairana, Deoband and Moradabad if he wins the polls". Rana, according to the The Indian Express, has been named in cases related to the Muzaffarnagar riots.
Interestingly, while acknowledging that "there should be no communal agenda in polls", Shah proposed that there is a lot of anger at "appeasement politics" and some BJP lawmakers are merely articulating that resentment.
"There's anger among the general public. People are reflecting the public mood against the politics of appeasement and vote banks. If someone speaks up against the politics of appeasement and vote banks, he is only articulating the public mood. But I agree there should be no communal agenda in polls. If we appeal to end mechanised slaughterhouses, then it cannot be called communal. We are doing it for the farmers. A task force against the exodus in western Uttar Pradesh can’t be termed communal, it is a constitutional right of the people. In the state, people have stopped sending their daughters to colleges because the girls get harassed. We have promised that the BJP will form an Anti-Romeo Squad to save these girls. This is not communal. It is the right of every girl to study in her own city or village. That is why it would not be correct to paint everything as communal," he said in the interview.
Overall, the BJP seems to be acknowledging that the political narratives of demonetisation and development won't be enough for a 2014 encore.
That doesn't speak too highly of its prospects.
Updated Date: Jan 30, 2017 12:45 PM