BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi kicked off his election bid from Varanasi, an ancient seat of Hinduism, with a blog beholden to the city’s multicultural traditions.
Modi’s passionate invocation of Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb, a North Indian term for shared heritage, cuts away from some fiery campaign speeches bordering on religious bigotry — some by his own partymen.
In his blog, Modi describes Varanasi as a “confluence of tradition, history, culture and harmony”. He mentions a host of great Indians with roots in this labyrinth of a city rising from the ghats, including Gautam Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, and Kabir, a poet-saint revered by Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs alike.
Despite its pre-eminence as a Hindu pilgrimage town, Modi has extolled Varanasi’s multi-faith legacies. He called the city’s large Muslim weaver community an “integral part” of its “history, present and future”.
Modi fondly recalls Ustad Bismillah Khan, the Muslim shehnai maestro, as the “greatest symbol of Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb”. He also invokes Mirza Ghalib, the 19th century Delhi poet, referring to his rich secular soubriquet of Varanasi as the Kaba-e-Hindustan” (Mecca of India).
Modi’s musings on Varanasi represent one of his most unequivocal endorsements of India’s cultural and religious diversity. Yet, political observers say the BJP’s campaign has so far been strategically driven at two levels.
“The BJP has always campaigned at two levels. There is the Vajpayee-style of good governance. In remote areas, it has always been mandir,” said Sudha Pai, the author of Oxford Handbook of Politics in Indian States.
With 100 million youthful new voters, it was being widely held that old-style politics along caste and religious lines wouldn’t bring in the votes. Although the BJP’s mainstay has been good governance, it is simultaneously appealing for votes on divisive issues.
In UP, communal polarisation made a quiet comeback when Modi’s aide Amit Shah’s privately called on Jats to vote for “revenge”. Modi himself, at least on two occasions, has referred to “cow slaughter”, an old flashpoint in Hindu-Muslim relations.
In 1980s, the BJP’s Ram Janmabhoomi campaign saw the party expand rapidly — from just eight Lok Sabha seats and 7.58% vote share in 1989 to 51 seats and 32.82% votes in 1991. But with two successive defeats — in 2004 and 2009 — the party began to see Hindutva as a short-term asset, but a long-term liability. It began to appear that the 2014 polls would be fought on issues of economic opportunities, prices and jobs.
However, it is possible that politics of development alone, as epitomized by BJP mascot Modi, wouldn’t be enough. “Therefore, the easier option is to play one community off against the other,” says Mohd Sanjeer Alam, a scholar with Delhi’s Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.
When India’s economy flounders, a restless Indian middle-class becomes prone to easy mobilization. In a recent study, political scientists Anjali Thomas Bohlken of the University of British Columbia and Ernest John Sergenti of the World Bank, using a statistical model, found that just a 1% rise in India’s GDP decreased the expected number of riots by over 5%.
Driving a wedge between majority Hindus and Muslims, India’s largest minority, tends to help all parties. “Secular parties often tend to play a double game. First you create a sense of insecurity in the minority community and then seek to address them,” said Alam.