BJP’s dilemma: To hate or not to hate, tuning machismo up or down for Bihar, Bengal and Assam polls? 

As Union home minister Amit Shah’s subdued body language during a recent media interview showed, the BJP has been shell-shocked by the Delhi defeat. It is also aware why the party was trounced

PM Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah (File photo)
PM Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah (File photo)
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Amulya Ganguli/IPA

As Union home minister Amit Shah’s subdued body language during a recent media interview showed, the BJP has been shell-shocked by the Delhi defeat. It is also aware why the party was trounced.

As Shah’s distancing of the party from the “goli maro” (shoot them) comment of one of his cabinet colleagues during the campaign underlined, the BJP has realized that hate speeches directed against its opponents comprising, in the party’s view, anti-national/pro-Pakistan/urban Naxalite/tukde-tukde and Khan market gangs are yielding diminishing returns.

Yet, the fact that the BJP indulged in spewing venom during the campaign demonstrated that up until the results induced second thoughts, the party presumed that such vile invectives paved the pathway to victory. A probable reason why it thought so is that incendiary anti-minority diatribes have been a feature of the saffron brotherhood’s tactics ever since the “ocular provocation”, in L.K. Advani’s words, of the Babri masjid, was targeted.

Since that time in the 1990s which saw the BJP moving from the fringes of politics to centre-stage, the vicious castigation of “Babur ki aulad”, or the children of Babur, has been the BJP’s leitmotif. In course of time, this vilification was extended from the Muslims to all of the BJP’s adversaries who were depicted as “gaddaar” or traitors who should be shot, as the Union minister said during the Delhi campaign.

Arguably, the BJP might have been more restrained if it hadn’t been wrong-footed by the large gathering of Muslim women in the national capital’s Shaheen Bagh locality who were protesting against the new citizenship laws.

Since their gender and nationwide, even worldwide, visibility because of television coverage precluded the possibility of unleashing the police on them (as had been done in U.P.) or letting loose masked goons as in Jawaharlal Nehru University, the BJP apparently was clueless about how to deal with the protesters except abusing them. One of the slanders that were used was to say, as a Union minister did, that Shaheen Bagh was a breeding ground of suicide bombers.

Now that the electoral outcome has sent the message that foul language does not help a party, the BJP will have to mull over its tactics for the forthcoming election in Bihar. The reconsideration will be needed all the more since several of its allies have summoned up courage presumably because of the BJP’s miserable performance to advise Big Brother to shun divisiveness.

However, there is a section in the BJP which believes that notwithstanding the single-digit tally of seats, the increase in the party’s vote share from 32.8 per cent to 38.4 suggests that there is no immediate need to tone down its acidic rhetoric. Arguably, the BJP will be more moderate in Bihar in deference to the National Democratic Alliance’s leader, chief minister Nitish Kumar, who may have realized from the Delhi results that he has almost completely lost the Muslim vote.

But what about West Bengal next year where the BJP faces a stiff challenge from chief minister Mamata Banerjee? In West Bengal, the tone for anti-Muslim diatribes has already been set by the BJP’s state unit chief, Dilip Ghosh, who has accused the Shaheen Bagh-type protesters at Kolkata’s Park Circus maidan of being “illiterate women” who are subsisting on foreign funds and eating biryani.

Assam, too, will be a tough contest for the BJP next year because of the unrest in the state over the National Register of Citizens, which forced the cancellation of the Modi-Shinzo Abe meeting in Guwahati. The powerful All Assam Students Union (AASU) has turned against both the Asom Gana Parishad, which grew out of the AASU, and the BJP for betraying the people of the state.

The BJP’s dilemma, therefore, is to choose between those who prefer a more restrained attitude and those who want to carry on with its present belligerence based on the belief that the party finally has the chance to end 1,200 years of “slavery” under Muslim and British rule and usher in a Hindu Rashtra.

At the same time, the BJP may wonder whether a show of moderation a la Atal Behari Vajpayee will bewilder and confuse its rank and file if only because it will be completely out of sync with the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah dispensation’s style of politics. While Vajpayee had put Article 370, Ram temple and uniform civil code on the back burner, the Modi-Shah due has been going full steam ahead with the implementation of the party’s and the Sanghparivar’s Hindutva agenda.

A back-tracking will not only perplex the cadres, but also dent Modi’s and Shah’s macho images. Yet, after the four successive setbacks – in Haryana, Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Delhi – the BJP can hardly afford to persist with its present aggressive approach which has antagonized not only the Muslims – the party is not too bothered about them – but also a large number of students and a cross-section of civil society, not all of whom can be dismissed as unpatriotic.

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