The recently concluded general election saw the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party run a campaign based explicitly on religious identity. Prime Minister Modi alleged that the then Congress president Rahul Gandhi was fighting a second Lok Sabha seat from Wayanad in Kerala because he was “scared of contesting from constituencies dominated by the majority population”. BJP president Amit Shah also promised that if elected to power, the party would amend citizenship laws on communal lines in order to explicitly favour “Hindus, Buddhist and Sikhs”.

The result of the election: the BJP won 56% of the seats in the Lok Sabha getting 37% of the popular vote. Modi became the only prime minister after Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi to come back to power with a full majority. And much of the credit for this victory could go to the BJP’s focus on religious identity. The saffron party won by creating a Hindu vote bank which cut across castes. Muslim votes were rendered irrelevant across most states. The BJP got only 8% of the Muslim vote – same as it did in 2014.

Minority outreach

Yet, somewhat inexplicably, once the BJP took office after this Hindu nationalist-driven victory, the party put the brakes somewhat on its Hindutva rhetoric. In fact, the BJP has even pushed schemes aimed at minorities that in an earlier, more belligerent avatar, the party would have attacked as examples of “pseudo-secularism” or “appeasement”.

On June 12, less than a fortnight after the new government has assumed office, the Economic Times reported that the “Modi government is working on a major outreach to the minorities in the country through a slew of programmes”.

The Modi government would concentrate on “Education, Employment and Empowerment”, explained the minority affairs minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi. This would involve providing 5 crore scholarships, building schools and colleges in minority-dominated areas as well as providing 25 lakh jobs to minorities using programmes like skill development.

A month later, the Modi government substantially increased budget allocation for minority community candidates appearing in the Union Public Service Commission exam (that selects the cream of the Indian bureacracy) in order to provide them with free coaching. On Tuesday, the Union government announced that it would set up a 100 common service centres across the country in order to help minorities to get their work done in district magistrate and chief minister offices.

Social media ripples

While many of the schemes are small and simply continue earlier programmes, coming as they do after the high-voltage election campaign centred on Hindutva, even this minimum outreach has created eddies amongst the more radical sections of the BJP support base. They see any minority outreach as a betrayal of the party’s Hindu nationalist ideology.

Reacting to the scheme to help minorities better access government services, former academic Madhu Kishwar, a strong pro-BJP voice on social media, criticised Modi. “As Gujarat chief minister he stood firm against Muslim pandering with sabka saath sabka vikas slogan [development for all]. It paid huge dividends,” said Kishwar. “Now he’s outdoing Congress in appeasement. His real vote bank cursing him because he treats them with disdain.”

Hari Om, a former professor of history at Jammu University and a BJP ideologue till 2015, asked rhetorically if Hindus endorsed the Modi government’s minority scholarship scheme. “I don’t endorse. I oppose,” Om tweeted. “I consider it murder of the mandate the Hindus gave with hope and enthusiasm, [the] worst form of appeasement and negation of secularism.”

Rity Rathaur, a part of the BJP’s vast social media support base with more than one lakh followers on Twitter called the BJP’s minority outreach “injustice with hindus”

Sankrant Sanu, another influential BJP supporter on social media, called it “an insult to the [2019] mandate”.

Shefali Vaidya, a columnist at the right-leaning Swarajya magazine and a Hindutva social media superstar with nearly 4 lakh followers on Twitter, connected the UPSC coaching scheme to a common allegation in Hindu nationalist circles that held that the Indian state was extracting revenue from Hindu temples.

Another user, Pooja Singh, followed on Twitter by Modi himself, asked sarcastically in Hindi: “Hadn’t Modi come to finish off appeasement? What do you say blind bhakts?”

Counter argument

However, even as this criticism took off, some right wing supporters of the BJP rallied in support. One user called this criticism “ignorant of the epochal changes wrought by Modi and Shah”.

The negative feedback from the saffron party’s support base on social media was apparently strong enough to merit a rebuttal on OpIndia, the right-wing web portal which leans towards the BJP.

Headlined, “Is there a concerted attempt to sow doubts against PM Modi among his most loyal base?” the author Abhishek Banerjee, an Assistant Professor at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, attempted to rebut the “new theory in town”: “That PM Modi has suddenly decided to go ‘secular’.”

While the article concedes that “there merit in the claim that the BJP has not done enough to break down the pseudo-secular old establishment” it also argues that “there has been no sudden change in BJP policy which would warrant the sudden outrage”.

The article then goes on to float a conspiracy theory of people trying to “sow fear and dissension in BJP’s core base”.

A new politics

Whether there is any merit in the allegation that the BJP is softening its majoritarianism or not, the episode highlights the importance of the party’s radical social media support base. While these supporters have helped the BJP capture the narrative, they now also seek to influence the party’s policies once the elections are done.

This creates an interesting situation in Indian politics, where a group of people who neither have direct links with a party, nor provide it with a substantial chunk of votes, now act as a pressure group which seeks to influence party policy.

This phenomenon is enabled by the BJP’s nature as a party driven by ideology. The party is acutely responsive to Hindu nationalism and a significant chunk of its extensive social media base is recruited as a result of this ideological fidelity. Of course, a party driven substantially by ideology is then also open to the charge that it is diverting from it. This is exactly from where BJP’s social media critics now draw their power – they are critising the saffron party for not being saffron enough.

A similar feedback mechanism is also reflected in ideology-heavy Marxist systems, where intellectuals could criticise communist parties from the left. Of course, the drastic shrinking of the communists in India means the BJP is practically the only example of such a system left on the national stage.