Are Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statements lashing out at cow vigilantes and perpetrators of Dalit atrocities a tipping point in the cosy relationship between the BJP and its ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh?
Over the weekend, Modi broke his silence on the growing incidents of attacks by self-styled cow protectors across India, asking for action against bovine vigilante groups and saying 70-80% of all cow protectors were “anti-social” elements.
This particular statement riled many Hindu groups, who say the prime minister is choosing political expediency over ideological consistency. They perceive the statements as castigation of their own ; alienating the people who pump time and resource to coalesce the Hindu vote.
On Monday, RSS spokesperson Manmohan Vaidya told the media that Modi should have avoided the remark. The remarks may also dominate a meeting of RSS members in Delhi on Tuesday.
Modi’s statements came after massive protests against the flogging of four Dalit youth in Gujarat by alleged cow protectors and were seen as reaching out to the sizeable scheduled caste community ahead of a clutch of state polls next year.
But many in the RSS say Modi’s new “avatar” will not endear him to Muslims, the Dalits and those who traditionally support the Congress; rather it will alienate hardline Hindutva supporters.
They say the move to shed the tag of a “Hindu party” for a “secular” credential doesn’t bode well for a party trying hard to retain its Hindu vote, especially in poll-bound Uttar Pradesh.
They fear a drubbing in places such as eastern UP, where Modi’s statements may erode the clout of leaders such as Yogi Adiyanath, the torchbearer of the Hindutava brigade who often lashes out at minorities.
But apart from politics, many Hindu leaders are also hurt by what they see as a personal volte-face by Modi, who was hailed as a “Hindu hriday samrat” by the Sangh and others.
During a speech in Bihar’s Nawada in April 2014, Modi, then the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, accused the Congress-led UPA government of promoting “a pink revolution” (meat export and cow slaughter).
For Hindu communities -- particularly the Yadavs ,a core electorate of the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar and Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh -- Modi’s statement resonated with their own reverence for the cow.
“There is no subsidy for farmers or for rearing cattle, but the Congress gives subsidy to those who slaughter cows,” he had said.
This cemented Modi’s place as the leader of Hindus and late Vishwa Hindu Parishad chief Ashok Singhal described Modi’s Lok Sabha victory as the return of Hindu Swabhiman (pride) in Delhi “after 800 years”.
The Hindu right that was pursuing a nationwide ban on cow slaughter saw in Modi an ally who would help shape a pan-India Hindu identity. But his recent statements appeared to have shattered the dream.
Hindu leaders reject the BJP’s stand of fighting polls solely on a development agenda and say in the rough-and-tumble of Indian elections, caste combinations and religious affinities will dominate.
The Sangh also feels that recent incidents of cow-slaughter-related violence – the lynching of a Muslim man last year, attacks on Dalits in Gujarat and others – were just law and order problems that didn’t call for the “PM’s intervention”.
They consider the PM’s speech an overreach; insisting that these issues should have been dealt with at the “administrative level”.
The Sangh, which campaigns for social harmony and the eradication of casteism, has not applauded the PM speaking out against Dalit atrocities as well.
On Sunday, the PM told a gathering in Hyderabad , “If you want to attack, attack me, not Dalits. If you want to shoot, shoot me”.
How is the PM’s statement at cross purposes with the Sangh then?
The Sangh see his affirmation of atrocities against Dalits as widening and deepening the chasm between dominant and backward castes. They see it as a fracture that threatens to divide the Hindu vote.
Are then the PM’s statements similar to RSS supremo Mohan Bhagwat’s comments against caste-based reservation ahead of the Bihar polls that cost the BJP that election? Many in the Sangh Parivaar already think so.