Narendra Modi’s dire prediction to his audience at an assembly election rally in Bihar on Monday that his rivals were planning to snatch reservation benefits away from them and give them to "another community" was perhaps his most direct attempt to create hostility towards Muslims since he became prime minister. But even though Modi avoided such pointed references to minorities in his prime ministerial campaign, many of his speeches in 2013-'14 contained divisive rhetoric.

Some of the main themes of his campaign were aimed at Muslims, even though he rarely named the community: the so-called Pink Revolution of beef exports, illegal infiltration from Bangladesh, terrorism, and above all, the attacks on "vote-bank politics".

On Monday, Modi spoke of a “conspiracy” by his opponents to take away some reservation benefits in educational institutions and government jobs from Dalits and Backward groups in Bihar to give to “another community”.  He was fully aware of the significance reservations have in the state, but nonetheless chose to pit voters who have benefitted from these quotas against the Muslim community.  Many Muslim groups have long demanded that they be allowed to access these reservations too.

Controversial issues

During his 2014 campaign, Modi had similarly raised controversial local issues to polarise the electorate. In Assam, for instance, where immigration from Bangladesh is a complex and explosive debate, he made the distinction in three different speeches between people who had been pushed out of Bangladesh because they were not Muslim, and those who had been brought into India for “vote bank politics’’.

Didn’t the first group have the right to seek the refuge of their mother, he asked. But the second group, who were snatching away the jobs of locals, shouldn’t they be driven away bag and baggage, he asked again and again, and waited for the audience to roar its reply.  In his last speech in the eastern state, he declared that India's borders are open only to those from Bangladesh who celebrate Durgashtami.

In Bengal, he taunted Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee for welcoming so-called infiltrators into her state since they were potential vote banks, even while considering Biharis, Oriyas and Marwaris as outsiders.

In Bangalore, he linked beef eaters with terrorists by criticising the Pink Revolution. He claimed that it was the vote-bank politics of the Congress government in Karnataka that led it to repeal the anti-cow slaughter law enacted by the previous Bharatiya Janata Party government. He also alleged that the United Progressive Alliance   government’s decision to scrap the stringent Prevention of Terrorism Act was aimed at allowing terrorists and Naxalites to roam free.

In Baghpat in Uttar Pradesh, he lamented that so-called vote bank politics had forced parents to tolerate with bowed heads a situation wherein  “our bahu-betis’’ could not go out safely. Baghpat is just 100 km from Muzaffarnagar, where a “bahu-beti bachao’’ (Save our daughters-in-law and daughters) campaign had been used by the BJP to fuel anti-Muslim violence in 2013.

The prime ministerial aspirant didn’t just pick on divisive themes, he also projected himself as a Hindu devotee. He prayed at popular temples as part of his campaign and invoked the blessings of deities when he began his speeches. Though he also invoked the founders of other religions, such as Mahavir and Gautam Buddha, and non-Hindu icons such as Emperor Ashok, Guru Gobind Singh and Dr Ambedkar, he never mentioned a Muslim shrine, peer or local hero.

A religious duty

Like his mentor LK Advani had done before, Modi linked Hindu deities to nationalism, and nationalism to ridding the nation of the Congress, which had destroyed the nation. Thus, it almost became the religious duty of Hindus to vote against the Congress and for Modi. In his last speech in Uttar Pradesh on May 10, he noted that he had launched his Bharat Vijay campaign in Vaishno Devi, Udhampur, and ended it in the land of 1857 hero Mangal Pandey – a direct link between Hinduism and patriotism. In Amravati, when Maharashtra was celebrating Gudi Padwa or New Year, he asked his audience to take a vow on the “auspicious’ day” to “free” India. In Patna, he got his  audience to repeat a line from the Ramayana which meant, “Why so quiet? Roar, roar.”

Unlike many other politicians, Modi appeals directly to his listeners during his election campaigns, obliterating the distance other leaders maintain  between themselves and their listeners. He specifically invites audience participation. All through his prime ministerial campaign, his listeners, specially the youth responded directly to his exhortations, often with shouts of “Jai Sri Ram.”

To be sure, Modi also directly addressed Muslims and tribals, and spoke of  development for all. But his main focus was on Hindu voters. By the end of the campaign, he had reduced the concept of secularism to a smokescreen behind which the Congress and others hid their sins.  There could have been no doubt in his audience’s minds that this was a Hindu nationalist leader they were voting for. By polling day, Modi, who had decried the vote bank politics’ of the Congress, had created a solid Hindu vote bank.