Those who heard Smriti Irani’s speeches in Parliament this week may have discovered some new facets to her personality. “I am a practicing Hindu. I am a Durga worshipper,” the human resource development minister informed the Rajya Sabha on Friday.
She was self-effacing: “Many people called me anpadh mantri. I do not claim I am as erudite a speaker as (Sitaram) Yechuryji.” Born to a Bengali mother, she spoke Bengali with felicity to take swipes at the CPI(M) general secretary.
These remarks might not be relevant in the context of the debate regarding the arrest of a JNU student on sedition charge and Hyderabad University dalit scholar Rohith Vemula’s suicide. But, the underlying theme was unmistakable. She had her eyes on poll-bound West Bengal as she spoke in the two Houses of Parliament.
Participating in the debate in the Lok Sabha, her party colleague Anurag Thakur was all bluster, lashing out at the opposition for supporting those eulogising Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru and not showing respect to those who sacrificed themselves for “tiranga (tricolor)”.
Both Irani and Thakur drew applause from party colleagues. They succeeded in converting the debate on students into one on gods and demons and national-versus-anti-national. Opposition parties were left crying foul about what they saw as a concerted attempt to polarise voters along religious lines ahead of April-May assembly elections in four states and one union territory.
There are reasons for the opposition’s apprehension. After the drubbing in Delhi and Bihar assembly elections and then in civic polls in many states last year, BJP leaders seem unsure about the electoral appeal of their development plank. Remember the last time the Prime Minister or any senior BJP leader talked about achhe din!
In the coming polls, the BJP pins its best hope in Assam where Muslims officially constitute about one-third of the population; unofficial estimates peg their numbers much higher. Although Badruddin Ajmal of the AIUDF is expected to eat into the Congress’ votebank among Muslims, there are reports about growing consolidation of the minority population towards the Congress, which still retains hold on some sections of tribals. Polarisation along religious lines could spoil the electoral arithmetic of the Congress. The BJP had seen a significant surge in its voteshare in West Bengal- from around 4% in 2011 assembly polls to 17% in 2014 Lok Sabha polls. The party’s appeal in the state is said to be waning since then. Similarly, despite the RSS’ strong presence in Kerala, the BJP has not been open its account there.
The moot question is whether abandoning Narendra Modi’s development plan and returning to the original Hindutva plank would do the trick for the BJP in the coming polls. Jury is out on this, but this change of course mid-way could surely alienate the aspirational youth and students who had different expectations from Modi.