A slippery slope for the BJP

Why is a prime minister super confident of his 10-year report card resorting to invoking imaginary communal ghosts?

Voters in the first phase of the Lok Sabha elections in Rajasthan on 19 April
Voters in the first phase of the Lok Sabha elections in Rajasthan on 19 April

Sharad Gupta

Just two days after the first phase of voting for the Lok Sabha election on 19 April, Prime Minister Narendra Modi suddenly broke into the most bitter rhetoric (even by his own standards) against the Congress and India's Muslims, shocking the country and sparking a flurry of complaints to the Election Commission of India (ECI).

Addressing a public meeting in Rajasthan’s Banswara on 21 April, Modi said, “The Congress is planning a survey of people’s property. It will take away your properties and assets to be distributed among those producing more children and infiltrators (ghuspaithiya).”

He went on to add, “I am not saying this on my own. This is what the Congress has mentioned in its election manifesto. And see who it wants to benefit. Remember, my predecessor [Dr Manmohan Singh] had said, ‘Muslims have first right on our national resources’. Just beware, the Congress is planning to snatch away even your mangalsutra.”

The first phase of voting had taken place for 102 seats across 10 states just two days before this. Was the prime minister’s statement a panic reaction to unfavourable reports on the likely tally? That is the only plausible explanation, since Modi again repeated this statement next day at a rally in Uttar Pradesh’s Aligarh, which has a significant Muslim population, and then again at a rally in Tonk-Sawai Madhopur in Rajasthan on 23 April.

But why would a prime minister super confident of his 10-year report card resort to such tactics, invoking imaginary communal ghosts? The facts are plain and simple. The Congress manifesto doesn’t mention anything like this. Not even obliquely. Dr Manmohan Singh never said that Muslims have the first right to the country’s resources. And finally, the reference to the mangalsutra is aimed at polarising the electorate on communal lines as this piece of jewellery is worn only by married Hindu women.

The BJP in general and Modi in particular have been so confident of their victory that they hoped to get 400 of the 543 total seats at stake. They were so self-assured of their impending electoral win that they didn’t make any more tall promises in their manifesto. Most of their ‘manifesto’ was a boast of their government’s 10-year performance and a promise to continue the same schemes with greater vigour.

Break the Opposition, if it won’t bend

And yet, the BJP tried so hard to weaken the Opposition, if not completely annihilate it, right before the elections. Two opposition chief ministers were put in jail on money-laundering charges, a non-bailable offence. One major opposition party, the Janata Dal (United), has been won over to join the NDA. Splits have been engineered in two other major opposition parties — the NCP (Nationalist Congress Party) and the Shiv Sena. The Left Front has almost run out of steam.

The bank accounts of the Congress, the largest Opposition party, were frozen just as the election schedule was announced. Raids and surveys were conducted at the residences and offices of senior opposition leaders of the Trinamool Congress, the Congress and others.

So why is Modi trying to polarise the voters still? Despite the bravado, is he afraid of losing the elections?

Dictator in distress

PM Modi’s recent antics bring to mind the old saying: uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. Why else would a prime minister peddle blatant lies? Rahul Gandhi noted other diversionary tactics like flying a sea-plane and performing an underwater puja for photo ops.

Modi said, “Congress ke shehzade kehte hain ki samudra ke neeche [in Beyt Dwarka] toh puja karne yogya kuch hai hi nahi. Hamari hazaron varsh ki aastha aur bhakti ko yeh log sirf vote bank ke liye khaarij kar rahe hain (the Congress’ prince says there is nothing underwater worth worshipping. These people are dismissing our millennia-old faith and religion for the sake of their vote bank).”

A dictator at sea? Modi snorkeling in Lakshadweep
A dictator at sea? Modi snorkeling in Lakshadweep

As the election progresses and political trends start pouring in, the picture the BJP leaders painted in their campaigns suddenly looks very different, though.

The first spanner in the BJP’s works was thrown in by its own leader from Gujarat, Parshottam Rupala, Union minister for fisheries and animal husbandry. At a function of the Valmiki community (a Dalit sub-caste), Rupala said, “Kshatriya Rajputs bought peace with Mughal invaders by offering their land, money and women. They forged marital relations and broke bread with the Mughals (roti-beti ka rishta).”

The statement irked the Rajputs no end, naturally. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and the Rajputs demanded that Rupala's candidature be withdrawn by the BJP.

The BJP so far hasn’t budged, realising that capitulation would mean antagonising the Patidar (Kadwa Patel) community to which Rupala belongs. It makes up a sizeable 16-17 per cent of Gujarat’s population. Therefore, it is in a position to make or mar the BJP’s chances in the rest of Saurashtra. Moreover, the Rajputs, despite being incensed with Rupala, hadn’t yet vowed to defeat the BJP.

The fire has spread

But lo and behold! the fire has since spread — to other states like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar as well. At a massive congregation in Meerut on 16 April, the Rajput leaders vowed to ensure the BJP’s defeat in the state.

The palpable anger in the Rajput community also emanates from its paucity of tickets this time. The BJP has apparently fielded less than half a dozen Rajputs in UP so far. Prominent Rajput candidates like Gen. V.K. Singh (retd) and Sangeet Som have been denied tickets. This despite the fact that Gen. Singh won the Ghaziabad seat with one of the highest victory margins (over 5 lakh votes) in 2019.

The Rajputs, aka the Thakurs, are a powerful community, making up 8-9 per cent of the population in UP. Add their influence over other communities in their village, especially the weaker sections, and it may result in a debacle at the polls for the BJP.

The way the BJP sidelined powerful leaders like Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh and Vasundhara Raje Scindia in Rajasthan has also made BJP leaders wary of the Modi-Shah duo. Both Chouhan and Raje, former chief ministers, slogged for the Assembly elections in late 2023, snatching victory from the jaws of certain defeat. This attitude seems to have alarmed even senior leaders like Yogi Adityanath.

“There is little doubt that Yogi too will be shunted out of the CM’s chair if Modi returns to power,” says political analyst V.S. Mishra.

No Modi wave

The BJP was finding the going tough already. There’s effectively no ‘Modi wave’ this election. The Ram Temple issue has not found traction among the masses either. People are tired of the Modi-Shah duo blaming Congress leaders, the Nehru-Gandhis especially, for every problem in the country.

Inflation, rising prices, unemployment are bigger issues for the people that affect their day to day lives. Yet they don’t figure on the BJP’s agenda. “They were in power for the past 10 years. If instead of showcasing their own good work, they still have to blame the Congress, the BJP leaders must have run out of ideas,” said Binnu Sharma, a pandit at Dashashwamedh Ghat in Varanasi. “Of course, I will vote for Modi, but rising prices are really pinching us.”

Has the BJP sensed that the situation is not as conducive to victory as it was in 2014 or 2019? The first phase of polling exposed the chinks in its armour, especially in western UP. A well-coordinated team of SP-BSP candidates doesn’t help matters either.

Tacit understandings

It seems the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) got tired of being labelled the BJP’s B-team. This time, they are out to hurt the BJP, rather than the Samajwadi Party or the Congress.

The BSP has fielded influential OBC leader Dara Singh Prajapati from Muzaffarnagar against Union minister Sanjeev Balyan, who is facing a backlash from the Thakurs as well as fellow Jats. This makes things easier for SP candidate Harendra Malik.

In neighbouring Kairana, which hit the headlines a few years ago due to the alleged ‘exodus’ of Hindus, ‘UK-returned’ lawyer Iqra Hasan is taking on the BJP’s incumbent MP, Pradeep Choudhary. BSP candidate Shripal Rana, of the Jat community, is eating into Choudhary’s votes though.

In highly polarised Bijnor, the BJP’s Chandan Chauhan, a Thakur, is facing the BSP’s influential Jat businessman Brijendra Singh, while the SP’s Deepak Saini is pulling the Sainis out of the BJP’s backward-classes vote bank.

In Aligarh, BJP incumbent Satish Kumar Gautam is seeing a split in his own caste, effected by the BSP’s Hitendra Upadhyay.

In Fatehpur Sikri, BJP candidate and sitting MP Raj Kumar Chahar is getting nightmares thanks to Chaudhary Babulal, former MP and party MLA. Babulal has got his son Rameshwar Singh to contest as an Independent against Chahar.

Even the gods…

The story is being repeated ad nauseum in most of the western UP constituencies.

Even the BJP has stopped considering the Meerut seat, its traditional domain, a safe bet. A Bania-dominated seat being represented by Rajendra Agrawal since 2009, this time it has Arun Govil — who played Lord Ram in the 1980s Doordarshan TV serial Ramayan — representing the BJP and the Banias. But Govil, born and brought up in Meerut, has a tough opponent in little-known SP candidate Sunita Verma, a Dalit, plus the BSP’s Devvrat Tyagi impacting the Tyagi vote bank the BJP counted on.

In both 2014 and 2019, the BJP won 15 of the 18 western Uttar Pradesh seats going to the polls on 26 April and 7 May. And yes, a large section is still happy with Prime Minister Modi’s hyper-nationalist agenda and free food grains. But a fast-growing segment seems disenchanted — and is increasingly vocal in its anger.

MPs Hema Malini and S.P. Singh Baghel — renominated from Mathura and Agra respectively — were castigated for their infrequent visits, for avoiding interactions with locals. In several constituencies — Aligarh, Fatehpur Sikri, Firozabad and Badaun — disappointed hopefuls either refused to cooperate with, or even worked against, the official candidates.

And all the ‘Sanatan pride’ has its downside. Sweet shop owner and 15-year BJP loyalist Manoj Agrawal may no longer pick the lotus. His complaint is the lack of development in temple towns Mathura, Vrindavan and Govardhan, while Allahabad (Prayag), Varanasi (Kashi) and Faizabad (Ayodhya) received major facelifts. If more of its core constituency has similar thoughts, the BJP and Modi might have painted themselves into a corner.

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