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Wednesday, Dec 11, 2019

The cracks in BJP’s dual approach, writes Rajdeep Sardesai

Hindutva alone won’t win votes. To attract allies and floating voters, focus on fixing the economy

columns Updated: Nov 22, 2019 08:17 IST
India’s Hindu identity is now effectively mainstreamed and is no longer a fringe phenomenon
India’s Hindu identity is now effectively mainstreamed and is no longer a fringe phenomenon (Hindustan Times)

It is not without irony that just days after the long-pending Ayodhya verdict was delivered by the Supreme Court, the Shiv Sena broke its long-standing alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Sena-BJP tie-up is the original Hindutva alliance, forged in the high noon of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement in the late 1980s. Without the demolition of the Babri Masjid, and its aftermath, it is highly likely that neither party would have been a serious contender for power in Delhi or Mumbai.

So, does the messy break-up mark the end of militant Hindutva politics as a potent instrument for political benefit, or does it reaffirm “opportunism” as the most durable ideological “ism” in politics? The BJP won a massive mandate in the general election, relying on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s appeal and a “trishul” of muscular nationalism, barely concealed majoritarianism, and well-targeted welfarism. In Maharashtra, the BJP-Sena alliance won 41 of the 48 seats and was leading in as many as 230 assembly segments. If they couldn’t repeat their success in the Vidhan Sabha, it shows that local issues often trump a pan-India agenda in a state election.

Take for example, the contentious temple-mosque dispute in Ayodhya. It may have galvanised the BJP’s core voter, but its resonance was always both socially and geographically limited, and to an extent, time-barred too. It initially made the BJP a “20%-plus” party, but the great leap to becoming the dominant national party has only happened in the last decade. The doubling of the BJP’s vote share from 18% in the 2009 general elections to over 37% in 2019 is a reflection of the decline of the Congress and the ascent of Modi. The incremental vote to the BJP didn’t come from its allegiance to a Ram Mandir, but from the hope and trust in Modi’s leadership and the growing frustration with the national alternatives.

In the Modi era, the BJP has attempted to ride on twin chariots, pushing the narrative of economic growth while retaining an unapologetic commitment to the core issues of Hindutva. Where an Atal Bihari Vajpayee sought to build a consensus on ideological issues, Modi, and his key lieutenant, Amit Shah, have felt no such compunctions. Within six months of Modi 2.0, the government has scrapped Article 370, obtained the court sanction to build a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, and criminalised triple talaq as a possible step towards implementing a broader Uniform Civil Code. An amended Citizenship Act that discriminates between communities is also firmly on its agenda. With State power used to promote overt religiosity, the Modi-Shah-led BJP has sent out an unambiguous message: India’s Hindu identity is now effectively mainstreamed and is no longer a fringe phenomenon.

And yet, while the chariot of majoritarian nationalism strides forward remorselessly, the other chariot of growth-development is now beginning to stall and sputter. The dream of a $5 trillion economy is now being pitted against the reality of a faltering growth engine, a serious job crisis, a stressed banking system, and a general lack of confidence in the investor community. Rather than admit to the scale of the problem, the government has chosen to treat the economy with a cavalier disregard of institutional checks and balances. So when a “leaked” National Statistical Office (NSO) report revealed troubling data on consumer spending and falling rural demand, the instinctive reaction was to junk the data altogether. This practice of either fudging figures, or hiding them, suggests that the government is deeply insecure when shown the mirror.

This is also perhaps why the government seeks refuge in its political calculus, rather than get tied to the more arduous task of getting the economy back on track. Politics affords the luxury of astute headline management, quite apart from keeping the citizen in a thrall of constant emotional engagement. If government sources are to be believed, the build-up to a grand Ram Temple will be just as impressive with a shilanyas planned around Ram Navmi next year. The belief seems to be that the voter will be so engrossed in Ram bhakti that concerns over roti will matter less. And if that doesn’t work, there is always the Sangh Parivaraffiliate, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, to step up its demands for “liberating” Kashi and Mathura next.

But this brand of populist politics driven by the fervour of religious nationalism has its limits. The recent events in Kashmir have damaged the Modi government’s global image and commitment to democratic rights. The Sena’s revolt, howsoever opportunistic, has confirmed that Hindutva alone is no longer a glue that binds. And the economic crisis can no longer be masked by clever slogans and catchwords. In the circumstances, the government may soon need a new formula to attract both its allies and the floating voter.

Post-script: On the very first day of the winter session of Parliament, the Sena staged a walk-out over the issue of farmer distress. A Sena back-bencher MP quipped: “Pehle kisan, Phir Bhagwan Ram! (First the farmer, then lord Ram).” Clearly, the times have changed.

Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author. His new book 2019: How Modi Won India
will be released next week
The views expressed are personal