It is hard to say what is politically more significant: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s silence on the Indian Army’s surgical strikes in his speech at Lucknow on Tuesday or the manner in which he used Hindutva symbols in his address. But together, these elements gave a clear glimpse of the kind of campaign that can be expected from the Bharatiya Janata Party in the poll-bound Uttar Pradesh.
Over the last few days, ever since the BJP unit in Uttar Pradesh put up hoardings and banners thanking Modi for the surgical strikes that the Army said it conducted on "terror launch pads" along the Line of Control on September 28 and Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi accused the prime minister of being a “khoon ki dalali” or someone who profiteers from blood, it was widely expected that the BJP leader would explain the situation in his Lucknow speech. The expectation grew on Sunday when he said that this year’s Dussera would be a “very special occasion for the country”.
Though Modi avoided any direct reference to either the surgical strikes or the attack on the Army base in Uri on September 28, his brief address at the Aishbagh Ramleela maidan did turn Dussehra a special occasion. The prime minister – together with his cabinet colleague Rajnath Singh – quietly laid down an electoral plank that seeks to throw the state back to the 1990s, when the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi debate dominated the political firmament of the state.
By saying “Jai Shri Ram” instead of "Jai Hind", Modi tapped into memories of the communal mobilisation of Hindus that, beginning in the late 1980s, touched off a series of events that culminated in the demolition of Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992.
This electoral plank was also visible when the prime minister brought up the issue of international terrorism and called it the enemy of humanity. “Those who spread terrorism need to be annihilated and those who aid terrorism will not be spared either,” he said.
Nor did Modi’s silence on the surgical strikes and Uri mean much since that part of the script was played out deftly by Rajnath Singh. Speaking just before Modi, Singh praised the prime minister for taking the country to new heights and proving to the world that “India is no longer a weak nation”.
The BJP’s rivals had been anticipating this rhetoric. On Monday, the day before the prime minister’s Dussera speech, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister and Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav said: “Had the elections been happening in Bihar, Modiji would be in Patna instead of being in Lucknow.”
Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati made a similar observation at a rally on Sunday, saying that Modi’s visit to Lucknow was “politically motivated” and that Dussera celebrations should have been toned down taking into account the loss suffered by the families of soldiers killed in the attack in Uri. “The pyre of jawans who lost their lives in the Uri attack has not yet died down, but the prime minister is coming to Lucknow to celebrate Dussera for his political motives,” she said.