The closer you get to voting day and the tighter the margin is estimated to be, the more it is likely the Bharatiya Janata Party will try and turn the contest into a communal showdown. This formula proved to be accurate in Bihar, where, after first talking of development, the BJP resorted to advertisements saying their opponents were beef eaters, an ad that was eventually banned by the Election Commission. It was always the case in Uttar Pradesh, of course, where polarisation was the very pitch on which the party ran, culminating in riot-accused Adityanath being declared chief minister. And it is now being applied in Gujarat.
Three weeks ago, the discussions around the polls in that state, the first phase of which took place on Saturday, were about the state of the economy, the demand for Patidar reservations and how the Goods and Services Tax had affected people. Now you are more likely to hear Prime Minister Narendra Modi talk about the Congress’ “Mughlai” mentality and “Aurangzeb Raj”, hear a top BJP leader insist that Rahul Gandhi is a “Babar bhakt and kin of Khilji”. You will hear a BJP leader insist that the number of “dadhi-topi” people must reduce. And you will witness Adityanath, who has been accused in a riots case, praising the karsevaks who violently brought down the Babri Masjid 25 years ago.
None of this is particularly novel or unexpected, but it is important to take note of, especially for those who have always defended the BJP citing their ‘sabka saath sabka vikaas’ development-for-everyone promises, the same sort of folks who wanted to just “give Adityanath a chance”.
Going by the BJP logic, Gujarat should have been a slam-dunk for the party. They have been in power for more than two decades, much of which featured Modi at the helm, which should have been enough time for the great development model to have proved that it takes everyone along. Yet the refrain in the campaign rallies in the last few days appears to be Mughlai, dadhi-topi and Babri.
Amazingly, one of the central pitches of the BJP campaign is that the Congress is the one trying to divide society. What the party actually means is that the Congress is trying to divide the Hindu electorate, having taken note of internal unhappiness among communities like the Patels in rural areas who feel left behind.
The Congress approach is an old one, that has worked for many parties across the country: Build a coalition of communities that are unhappy with the current dispensation and will be arithmetically significant enough to move the needle in a sufficient number of constituencies. The Congress has not been very successful at this in the last two decades in Gujarat, but by bringing Other Backward Class leader Alpesh Thakore, Patidar leader Hardik Patel and Dalit leader Jignesh Mewani on board, it has clearly stitched together something more ambitious.
Hindu vs Muslim
The BJP is attempting to replicate its new “inclusive” model, which involves trying to win the entire Hindu electorate – by demonising everyone else, primarily Muslims. This is an arithmetically simple approach, since Hindus as a block would naturally be larger than any other collection of communities. But it is also hard to achieve, because of the many internal contradictions within such a block, whether on caste or class lines.
This leads to some truly amazing attempts from the BJP to insist that the Congress is the one attempting to divide people. Take, for example, this small snippet from an Adityanath rally: “He [Rahul Gandhi] doesn’t have any issue to speak about in this poll, thus frustration is natural. He is now visiting temples, but he doesn’t know how to sit and pray in a temple… he sits as if he is offering namaz,” the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister said in Sayajigunj, according to the Indian Express. “He says he is a ‘janeu dhari’. By saying this, he has divided even Hindu culture. A Hindu is not any caste or creed, it is not religion, but it is cultural identity of India.”
The dog-whistle – “he sits as if he is offering namaz”, meaning the Muslim prayer – is hardly subtle. But the follow-up is truly stunning. While there is much to question in the Congress’ attempt to insist that Gandhi is “janeu dhari”, meaning a high-caste Hindu, it is another thing to insist that this statement divides Hindu society on caste lines, not the very existence of casteism.
Will it work?
We have already seen two different ways this can play out. It was spectacularly successful in Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP has been laying the ground work for years now. It flopped in Bihar, where community bonds seemed to have trumped this attempt at creating a broader Hindu identity.
But in Gujarat something else will be tested: How durable is it? The “Hindu block” is something that Modi and current BJP President Amit Shah built on in that state after the gruesome riots of 2002, and it has been a very successful formula over the last three elections. Indeed, some believe it has been so successful as to make the Muslim vote essentially unimportant, since any attempt to win over that community might end up uniting the much larger Hindu block.
But fissures within such a large group are bound to emerge, and that is what seems to have happened with the Patidars in particular, a dominant caste and community that is nevertheless unhappy with its lot in Gujarat. That the Patidars and a supportive Congress are gaining currency at all is interesting, considering the belief until less than a year ago that the BJP’s efforts in the state had been so successful that its supporter base was essentially unassailable. That image has been dented, but Modi, Shah and the rest of the BJP are attempting to shore upt their defences by forcefully playing the Hindutva card. Will it be enough to keep the BJP in power?