As the Jawaharlal Nehru University saga drags on, one can’t help but wonder what the government’s endgame is. Despite the country’s best legal minds clarifying that shouting slogans doesn’t constitute sedition, and despite the police’s failure to produce a smoking gun against student union president Kanhaiya Kumar in the Delhi High Court, there has been no backing down. Many say the government is in a fix and does not know how to climb out of it. But this is not about an overzealous police commissioner and his force. There is a bigger design to what is going on in India.

From mid-February, after the arrest of JNU students’ union president Kanhaiya Kumar, two historical events come to mind – one that occurred almost 2,000 years ago, and the other exactly 83 years.

In 64 AD, the already disgraced Roman emperor Nero used the Great Fire of Rome to kill the members of a young religious sect, the Christians, by feeding them to the lions at the amphitheatre, crucifying them and burning them alive at the stake. The Romans, who were deeply disaffected with Nero, suspected that he had a role in the burning of the city. Historian Tacitus, who was a young boy living in Rome at the time, wrote in his history of Rome, Annals:

“Therefore, to stop the rumour [that he had set Rome on fire], he [Emperor Nero] falsely charged with guilt, and punished with the most fearful tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were [generally] hated for their enormities… Accordingly first those were arrested who confessed they were Christians; next on their information, a vast multitude were convicted, not so much on the charge of burning the city, as of ‘hating the human race.’”

In 1933, Adolf Hitler used another fire – the mysterious fire of the German parliament building, the Reichstag – to finish all political opposition in the country and establish Nazi dictatorship. The exact sequence of events behind the blaze was never credibly established, but the police captured and arrested a deranged Dutch communist, Marinus van der Lubbe, as the arsonist. Even though Lubbe maintained that he had acted alone, Hitler and his lieutenants – Minister of Interior Herman Göring and Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels – did not want to lose this opportunity.

Branding the fire as a “communist plot”, they first blamed and then rounded up communists as well as social democrats and liberals. The detained were taken to the barracks of the Schutzstaffel, the Nazi special police, and tortured. After a show trial, Lubbe alone was convicted and beheaded at the guillotine in January 1934 and four other charged communists were acquitted. But by then Hitler and the Nazi Party had already established their stranglehold on the country, first through a series of emergency measures and then by manipulating the elections.

In each instance, a murderous frenzy was whipped up among the majority of the population to fulfil political objectives – Nero wanted to save his skin and Hitler wanted to establish his authoritarian rule. Neither hesitated to harm the country’s citizens.

For electoral gains

Reading the two events together and comparing them with the situation in India, one cannot help but conclude that the political ideology in power, the Bharatiya Janata Party-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, wants to inflame public emotions, irrespective of the consequences. It had executed this strategy effectively in the past for electoral gains, and it now wants to build on that success.

In December 1992, the BJP, RSS and the Vishva Hindu Parishad lit a fire with the demolition of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya that set off India’s worst communal riots since the Partition. Prior to that blaze, the Sangh Parivar had started many bushfires between 1990 and 1992 by evoking the Ram Janmabhoomi issue and mobilising kar sevaks. During that period, we witnessed a series of communal riots in large parts of India as the then BJP president LK Advani embarked on a Rath Yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya to demand the construction of the Ram Mandir.

The rabble-rousing paid off. Following the riots, the BJP made significant electoral gains, increasing its strength in Parliament from 85 in 1989 to 120 in 1991, and also forming a government for the first time in Uttar Pradesh by bagging 221 seats in the 425-member assembly.

A district- and constituency-wise analysis of the parliamentary and Uttar Pradesh state election results in 1991 revealed a direct co-relation between the riots and BJP’s electoral gains. It was evident that BJP’s vote share increased significantly through polarisation of votes and the party won nearly all constituencies where there were riots. It gained most in Uttar Pradesh, followed by Karnataka.

Many bushfires to come?

After a lull, the old strategy was employed again in Uttar Pradesh before the 2014 general elections as the party allegedly stoked Hindu-Muslim riots in Muzaffarnagar and initiated the so-called Love Jihad campaign, claiming that Muslim men were attempting to seduce Hindu women in order to convert them. These surely gave it some dividends in the poll results in the state by polarising votes.

Inspired by that success in Uttar Pradesh, the party followed it up with low-level communal violence in Delhi three months before the assembly polls in February 2015. In September came the mob lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri, creating a vicious atmosphere of hatred and cow politics ahead of the Bihar elections. However, both in Delhi and Bihar, the BJP-RSS strategy got a good kicking from the electorate.

A slightly jittery BJP, supported by some sections of the media, has started a narrative around nationalism on university campuses, particularly on campuses with progressive and questioning student politics. The first target was the Indian Institute of Technology-Chennai, followed by the Hyderabad Central University and the Jawaharlal Nehru University. Attacks and intimidations are still continuing on other campuses like M S University in Baroda.

As five states go to elections this year, the BJP is expected to do well only in Assam. The party knows that disaffection towards the Modi government is palpable since it has failed to deliver the sky-high election promises of achhe din. So with its sight on the prize state election of Uttar Pradesh in 2017, the BJP is raising the ante in desperation. But if more bushfires are lit in the country, it may in the end lead to a devastating conflagration like the one we saw in 1992.