The BJP’s expansion plans cover the minorities and eastern states | analysis | Hindustan Times
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The BJP’s expansion plans cover the minorities and eastern states

At the national executive, the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah led BJP’s aspiration to expand its constituency became apparent . Orissa (like Assam, Manipur and perhaps someday Bengal and Kerala) represents a geographical expansion. Yet, the nub of Prime Minister Modi’s interventions was on social expansion.

analysis Updated: Apr 27, 2017 13:07 IST
BJP National Executive
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with party president Amit Shah at BJP's National executive meet in Bhubaneswar on Saturday. (PTI)

Not every meeting of the BJP national executive sends important political messages. Some are routine, and used for nothing more than rallying the faithful and taking account of recent events. In that sense, the past week’s national executive in Bhubaneswar was different. The very fact that Orissa and not Gujarat – where assembly elections are due in November and which was expected to play host – was selected as venue was suggestive of the party’s new ambition.

In the early 2020s, it will be the east – Orissa and neighbouring Bengal – that the BJP hopes will be its sunrise states. As quickly as the 2019 Lok Sabha election, they could start yielding seats, at least an increment from the two in Bengal and one in Orissa that the party won in 2014. That is why the choice of Orissa, where the party did spectacularly in the recent panchayat elections and is now poised to replace the Congress as the challenger to the ruling (and still very strong) Biju Janata Dal, told a story.

At the national executive itself, the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah-led BJP’s aspiration to expand its constituency became apparent in other ways too. Orissa (like Assam, Manipur and perhaps someday Bengal and Kerala) represents a geographical expansion. Yet, the nub of Prime Minister Modi’s interventions was on social expansion.

First, despite the Uttar Pradesh verdict and the widespread hysteria about Hindutva and religious issues becoming paramount, Modi stuck to the sober – for critics, boring – theme of development and poverty elimination. Determinedly, since 2014, Modi has anchored his party and government in the concerns of underprivileged Indians. He has not lost sight of that imperative, whether as a moral compass for his administration or as a political necessity for his party. Indeed, the party has carried forward that message on behalf of the government.

As a result of this close coordination between government and party – and of course due to Modi’s popularity simply soaring – incumbency, far from becoming a drag, has been a tonic for the BJP. Not surprisingly then this positioning of the government, as rooted in social and political realities, was iterated by Modi in Bhubaneswar.

Second, the BJP is gradually beginning its conversation with Muslims. As India’s largest party, it needs to do this, irrespective of how many Muslims may or may not vote for it. Even so, rather than reward a few token Muslim leaders with key posts and pretend that is “empowerment”, Modi has opted to dive deeper.

He has offered political backing to gender rights, seeing the triple talaq issue as crucial in this regard. He has also reached out to socially and economically backward (or OBC) Muslims, by singling them out for mention. Of course, he has been careful and correct to seek for them the same opportunities that are available to their Hindu peers – no more and no less. There was no question of any single group having a “first claim on resources”, to use the UPA government’s ungainly phrase.

The triple talaq case is in the courts, but the political, legal and public debate on it has been in full swing. It has put conservative, patriarchal elements in the Muslim clergy – who defend the practice of triple talaq even as many Muslim-majority countries have abandoned it – on the defensive. Can a combination of a court order and backing for it by the Modi government lead to the abolition of triple talaq?

As a social and political construct, this will reverse a trend going back to the Rajiv Gandhi government’s use of parliamentary legislation to nullify the Shah Bano judgement of 1985. What will be its political impact? That was one of the tantalising takeaways from Modi’s speech in Bhubaneswar.

The author is distinguished fellow, Observer Research Foundation

The views expressed are personal