Opinion

The demonetisation gambit has backfired for the BJP (and the old communal ploy hasn't worked)

The party's tentative election campaign has failed to rally more groups and communities under its banner in western Uttar Pradesh.

Confused and conflicting signals from the Bharatiya Janata Party to its supporters in the run up to this month’s crucial Uttar Pradesh assembly polls appear to have seriously handicapped the saffron juggernaut that had swept the state barely three years ago in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

The party today is trapped between its traditional approach of polarising the Hindu vote against the Muslim minority and the new stratagem of provoking a class war between the haves and the have-nots through Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dramatic war on black money announced in early November. With only a few days left for polling in the first phase of elections, neither the old communal ploy nor the new demonetisation gambit appears to have taken off in the BJP campaign.

The absence of an emotive pitch to the voter that is normally the hallmark of the formidable Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh propaganda machine is palpable in western Uttar Pradesh where the polls begin later this week. Significantly, this is the same region, scorched by the communal flames of the Muzzafarnagar riots in 2013, that helped the BJP’s very successful campaign to polarise the entire Hindu vote in its favour some months later in the parliamentary polls. Even after the advent of the Modi regime in New Delhi, various groups allied to the RSS, helped covertly and overtly by BJP leaders, had kept communal tensions simmering in western Uttar Pradesh till not so long ago.

No communal problems

Yet despite initial fears that the region would be turned into a communal cauldron just before the state assembly to repeat the 2014 BJP triumph, there was little evidence of animosity between Hindus and Muslims to be seen during a recent road trip through several districts in the region including Muzaffarnagar and Shamli, which were torn apart by riots earlier. In fact, both communities seemed keen to forget the past and get on with their lives, stressing local civic problems and not the riots as the real electoral issues.

“The netas created the riots and all of us have suffered because of so much economic disruption. We don’t want to look back but need to move on,” declared a Hindu sweet shop owner in Muzaffarnagar city, echoing a common refrain from most members of the community across riot-affected areas.

Muslims seemed to consciously veer away from the subject of riots that killed, maimed and displaced so many members of their community. “We are worried about problems that face us today and not what happened in the past” was a common response from agricultural labourers, students and shopkeepers belonging to the minority community, when asked about the communal conflagration that had engulfed the region in the recent past.

Interestingly, in a recent television show, in which local residents in and around Muzaffarnagar participated , the entire audience, including a sizeable delegation of BJP supporters, loudly agreed that there was no communal tension in the region. Hindu-Muslim relations was not an issue in the coming polls, they said.

Tainted leaders

The BJP leaders from the region, such as Sangeet Som, Suresh Rana , Hukum Singh and Sanjeev Balyan, notorious for spreading communal tension, are on the backfoot.

Som, sitting MLA from Sardhana, is struggling in his constituency with many Hindus complaining that he had neglected the area.

Rana, MLA from Thana Bhawan, Shamli district is in trouble from various other caste groups in his constituency for favouring his own Thakur caste.

Hukum Singh, the BJP member of Parliament who created such a stir last year about an exodus of Hindus from Muslim dominated Kairana, is being criticised for choosing his daughter as the local candidate instead of his more popular nephew who is now contesting as a rebel.

Balyan, the BJP member of Parliament from Muzaffarnagar, who also happens to be a minister of state in Modi’s council of ministers at the Centre, is in a similar situation. A local BJP leader, who lives just few houses away from Balyan’s house in Muzaffarnagar city, shook his head sadly and claimed that although he had “captured” nine polling booths in 2014 on behalf of the BJP, he is unlikely to lift a finger this time beyond casting his own vote. “My own Jat community is very unhappy with the BJP so what can I do?” he lamented.

Disruption by demonetisation

The disarray among local BJP leaders and workers and their inability to polarise the Hindu voter partly stems from the confusion in the party created by the parallel strategy of pitting the poor against the rich suddenly introduced by the prime minister a few months ago. This unfamiliar politics of class war, never used by the Sangh or the BJP before, has alienated sections of their core base of traders, shopkeepers and farmers who have been hurt by the drastic disruption of cash flow. At the same time the party has simply not been able to convince the poor of the benefits of demonetisation particularly as they have emerged as the real victims of the unprecedented squeeze put on the cash economy.

Not surprisingly, the BJP is now hastily retreating from its earlier plan of using notebandi as its main weapon for the Uttar Pradesh polls. It is clearly on the defensive and at pains to claim that the sufferings caused by demonetisation were a temporary blip and are being falsely exaggerated by its opponents. The BJP leaders and workers hardly mention notebandi in their campaign pamphlets or posters and even Modi, in his public meeting in Meerut, made only a brief reference to it towards the end of his speech. At the Shukratal television audience show mentioned above, the BJP team, while countering sharp criticism of demonetisation by other participants, did not praise it but simply dismissed it as just a brief disruption that did not cause that much harm as opponents of the party were claiming.

The Jat anger

Unable to rally its supporters either on a communal plank or a war unleashed against the rich and corrupt, the BJP is facing defections from previously supportive groups, particularly the powerful Jat community in western Uttar Pradesh that had voted as a bloc for the party in the 2014 polls. The Jats are upset with the Modi government at the Centre for not doing enough to get them a good price for the sugarcane crop they grow in their fields. They are also increasingly restless about the delay in accepting the demand for reservation for their community and even more aggrieved with the way the BJP government in Haryana put down the Jat agitation in the state last year.

The disenchantment among the Jats with the BJP has led to the miraculous electoral revival of Rashtriya Lok Dal leader Ajit Singh, son of the late former Prime Minister and Jat patriarch Charan Singh. Not only is he taking away vital Jat votes but even the abrupt manner he was earlier evicted from the MP’s bungalow by the Modi’s government has become a matter of grievance and many members of his caste said this had hurt Jat pride.

So while the BJP is a contender in most seats in western Uttar Pradesh, its tentative election campaign and inability to rally more groups and communities under its banner means that the party may not get the kick start it would have hoped for in the first phase of the polls.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content  BY 

In a first, some of the finest Indian theatre can now be seen on your screen

A new cinematic production brings to life thought-provoking plays as digital video.

Though we are a country besotted with cinema, theatre remains an original source of provocative stories, great actors, and the many deeply rooted traditions of the dramatic arts across India. CinePlay is a new, ambitious experiment to bring the two forms together.

These plays, ‘filmed’ as digital video, span classic drama genre as well as more experimental dark comedy and are available on Hotstar premium, as part of Hotstar’s Originals bouquet. “We love breaking norms. And CinePlay is an example of us serving our consumer’s multi-dimensional personality and trusting them to enjoy better stories, those that not only entertain but also tease the mind”, says Ajit Mohan, CEO, Hotstar.

The first collection of CinePlays feature stories from leading playwrights, like Vijay Tendulkar, Mahesh Dattani, Badal Sircar amongst others and directed by film directors like Santosh Sivan and Nagesh Kukunoor. They also star some of the most prolific names of the film and theatre world like Nandita Das, Shreyas Talpade, Saurabh Shukla, Mohan Agashe and Lillete Dubey.

The idea was conceptualised by Subodh Maskara and Nandita Das, the actor and director who had early experience with street theatre. “The conversation began with Subodh and me thinking how can we make theatre accessible to a lot more people” says Nandita Das. The philosophy is that ‘filmed’ theatre is a new form, not a replacement, and has the potential to reach millions instead of thousands of people. Hotstar takes the reach of these plays to theatre lovers across the country and also to newer audiences who may never have had access to quality theatre.

“CinePlay is merging the language of theatre and the language of cinema to create a third unique language” says Subodh. The technique for ‘filming’ plays has evolved after many iterations. Each play is shot over several days in a studio with multiple takes, and many angles just like cinema. Cinematic techniques such as light and sound effects are also used to enhance the drama. Since it combines the intimacy of theatre with the format of cinema, actors and directors have also had to adapt. “It was quite intimidating. Suddenly you have to take something that already exists, put some more creativity into it, some more of your own style, your own vision and not lose the essence” says Ritesh Menon who directed ‘Between the Lines’. Written by Nandita Das, the play is set in contemporary urban India with a lawyer couple as its protagonists. The couple ends up arguing on opposite sides of a criminal trial and the play delves into the tension it brings to their personal and professional lives.

Play

The actors too adapted their performance from the demands of the theatre to the requirements of a studio. While in the theatre, performers have to project their voice to reach a thousand odd members in the live audience, they now had the flexibility of being more understated. Namit Das, a popular television actor, who acts in the CinePlay ‘Bombay Talkies’ says, “It’s actually a film but yet we keep the characteristics of the play alive. For the camera, I can say, I need to tone down a lot.” Vickram Kapadia’s ‘Bombay Talkies’ takes the audience on a roller coaster ride of emotions as seven personal stories unravel through powerful monologues, touching poignant themes such as child abuse, ridicule from a spouse, sacrifice, disillusionment and regret.

The new format also brought many new opportunities. In the play “Sometimes”, a dark comedy about three stressful days in a young urban professional’s life, the entire stage was designed to resemble a clock. The director Akarsh Khurana, was able to effectively recreate the same effect with light and sound design, and enhance it for on-screen viewers. In another comedy “The Job”, presented earlier in theatre as “The Interview”, viewers get to intimately observe, as the camera zooms in, the sinister expressions of the interviewers of a young man interviewing for a coveted job.

Besides the advantages of cinematic techniques, many of the artists also believe it will add to the longevity of plays and breathe new life into theatre as a medium. Adhir Bhat, the writer of ‘Sometimes’ says, “You make something and do a certain amount of shows and after that it phases out, but with this it can remain there.”

This should be welcome news, even for traditionalists, because unlike mainstream media, theatre speaks in and for alternative voices. Many of the plays in the collection are by Vijay Tendulkar, the man whose ability to speak truth to power and society is something a whole generation of Indians have not had a chance to experience. That alone should be reason enough to cheer for the whole project.

Play

Hotstar, India’s largest premium streaming platform, stands out with its Originals bouquet bringing completely new formats and stories, such as these plays, to its viewers. Twenty timeless stories from theatre will be available to its subscribers. Five CinePlays, “Between the lines”, “The Job”, “Sometimes”, “Bombay Talkies” and “Typecast”, are already available and a new one will release every week starting March. To watch these on Hotstar Premium, click here.

This article was produced on behalf of Hotstar by the Scroll.in marketing team and not by the Scroll.in editorial staff.