Why the BJP's polarisation is failing in the Deccan

Attempts to deepen any Hindu–Muslim divide in Maharashtra have instead backfired for the BJP, now forced to protect an opponent (Sharad Pawar) from their own!

Eknath Shinde and Devendra Fadnavis (Photo: NH File photo)
Eknath Shinde and Devendra Fadnavis (Photo: NH File photo)

Sujata Anandan

Nine years into the Modi regime, it is very clear that this dispensation has nothing to go to the polls with except communal polarisation and the Hindu–Muslim divide — a narrative they are trying their best to create in areas where even today these do not really exist.

South India and Maharashtra are the biggest examples of this. Muslims who came to India by sea came as traders and largely settled in the southern parts of the country as shopkeepers and import/export merchants.

Those who came via land entered India mostly from the north and were conquerors and empire builders, so largely there was strife between the two communities in those regions for centuries.

There was a confluence of the two in the region of the Deccan (mostly northern Karnataka, Telangana and southern Maharashtra), which is why you had several Islamic dynasties settled in the south with the Mughals pushing in from the north, and Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj squashed between the two.

But he chose to befriend the southern dynasties against Aurangzeb, whose focus was not so much Shivaji as ensuring that only one Islamic dynasty ruled India—his.

So, in this century, Karnataka might have temporarily been disrupted by the extreme Hindutva forces, but last month’s elections clearly demonstrated that the polarisation ultimately failed the BJP despite Narendra Modi having asked for votes in the name of Bajrangbali.

Something similar is happening now in Maharashtra, among the most socially progressive states in the country. The current Shinde–Fadnavis government has had little to show for itself in the past year, and the BJP in the state is highly troubled by internal survey reports that suggest breaking up the Shiv Sena has not brought them the dividends they expected, that Uddhav Thackeray’s party is doing far better on the ground than Eknath Shinde’s faction of the Shiv Sena, that the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) is sticking together despite all contrary pressures and that, as a result of all the above factors, the BJP is likely to lose at least 50 of its existing 105 seats in the Maharashtra assembly.

So it is resorting to extreme polarisation again, and the political discourse in the state has descended to despicably low levels, led by none other than Devendra Fadnavis, the deputy chief minister, who recently  described Muslims in the state as “Aurangzeb ki aulad (children of Aurangzeb)”.

To an extent, the ploy succeeded: the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) chief Asaduddin Owaisi retaliated by describing Fadnavis and others in the BJP as “Godse ki aulad (children of Nathuram Godse, assassin of Mahatma Gandhi)”.

Where the BJP is headed in its preparations for the 2024 elections is also clear from the communal twist they are attempting to give to the triple train pile-up in Orissa. Railway officials across the country have told many reporters, off the record, that within hours of the accident, it was clear to them that it was a signal failure that had caused the crash. But they could say nothing in face of the government’s insistence that it was sabotage and a conspiracy.

The “Aurangzeb ki aulad” comment, also directed at Sharad Pawar, only underlines the BJP’s impoverishment with regard to real-life bread-and-butter issues. But now their frustration grows, as the station master they accused of sabotaging the trains turns out to be Hindu, not Muslim, and the ‘mosque’ in the vicinity of the rail tracks emerges as an ISKCON temple and not a bolt hole for conspirators.

Moreover, the men they accused of destroying the idols at a temple in Uttar Pradesh also turned out to be drunken revellers of the Hindu faith and not Muslims as they had hoped.

Then again, a woman who threw an egg at a poster of Lord Ram in Aurangabad in Maharashtra, whose photo was taken viral as a ‘Jihadi Khatoon (Jihadi Lady)’ turned out to be a mentally disturbed Hindu nurse. The stones the Sakal Hindu Samaj pelted at a mosque in Jalna, again in Maharashtra, did not bring about retaliatory violence.

The Hindu girl that BJP MP Pragya Thakur tried to prevent from marrying a Muslim boy remained unconvinced and eloped with him anyway, apparently even after being taken to a screening of The Kerala Story... The causes of frustration are many.

But with so much effort put in, why is the whole nation, and particularly Maharashtra — which saw one of the bloodiest riots in the wake of the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 — not erupting into violence?

For it is not as though the polarisation is not taking place. Young Muslim boys in their teens are definitely raring to hit the streets. But they are being reined in by their wiser elders. So now, at least in Maharashtra, most of their protests erupt in the glorification of Aurangzeb or Tipu Sultan on their WhatsApp statuses.

It is also a fact that those who today uphold Chhatrapati Shivaji as a slayer of Muslims do not understand that his war was against the Mughals, not Muslims per se, and that a lot of Muslims in the Deccan were also opposed to the Mughals, quite happy to help Shivaji along in his campaign to rid the Deccan of Aurangzeb.

That spirit of co-operation to rid the nation of a common enemy is now being evoked by the Muslim community in Maharashtra, and it is startling to note that many of their WhatsApp statuses carry pictures of Uddhav Thackeray and appeal for a return of his faction of the Shiv Sena to Maharashtra. 

That is a tectonic shift in the Muslim sentiment in the state and, with Sharad Pawar evoking the (Jyotiba)Phule–Shahu (Maharaj)–(BR )Ambedkar socialist ethos of the state to broker peace among Muslims and various people not necessarily professing the RSS ideology, it is no wonder that he should now be threatened with assassination by a BJP worker openly on Twitter. Ironically for their cause, it has put the BJP leadership on the back foot and led to an impossible situation for Fadnavis, who is also the home minister.

Fadnavis has been taunting Pawar as an old man past his prime for ages now, but Pawar simply refuses to fade into the oblivion. Today he is the one who holds the MVA together and could well be an architect of the BJP’s defeat in 2024. Yet Fadnavis must now extend Pawar tight protection to keep him safe from his own party workers’s designs.

For if any BJP member were to cause any harm to Pawar, that would be the end of both Fadnavis and the BJP in Maharashtra, a state crucial to Lok Sabha numbers at the Centre. So Fadnavis is damned if he does and damned even if he does not.

Perhaps he and his party might be better off addressing the bread-and-butter better issues of the people, rather than hoping to run for office by dividing communities that now clearly refuse to be divided.

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