In shadow of lynchings, Congress replicates ‘Gujarat model’ for Alwar

By-election in Alwar is scheduled to be held on January 29. Bypolls in both Ajmer and Alwar have come to acquire enormous significance as the outcome will define the mood for the Rajasthan assembly polls in December.

india Updated: Jan 27, 2018 07:27 IST
Prashant Jha
Prashant Jha
Hindustan Times, Alwar
Alwar bypolls,Rajasthan state assembly,Rajasthan bypolls
Anguri Begum, mother of lynching victim Pehlu Khan, sits on a dharna, demanding justice for her son.(HT File Photo)

It has been the site of brutal lynchings, vigilante raids on those allegedly smuggling cows, and divisive rhetoric. It’s a site that has left Muslims scared, and sparked a debate within the community.

Some believe that in the ‘new India’, freedom is being curtailed and everyone should be left to eat what they want. Others believe it was miscreants and smugglers from neighbouring Haryana who broke law and traded in cattle — and deserve punishment. But they all agree that the BJP sought to capitalise on it, and “defame” Muslims.

Yet, despite bypolls on January 29, one would not know that this very site — Alwar — is home to such debates and churning within a section of its electorate sparked by cow vigilantism. For the BJP, it remains an issue to consolidate Hindus, along with other tools. For the Congress, inspired by its recent tactics in Gujarat where party president Rahul Gandhi visibly wooed Hindus with his temple-hopping while remaining distant from Muslim shrines or issues specific to the community, it is a “trap” that must not be entered. And in that lies the story of how one bypoll shows how the terms of the political debate have shifted across western India.

BJP’s calculation

The BJP election office is buzzing; a roadshow for chief minister Vasundhara Raje is to be organised.

District president Dharamveer Sharma is directing heads of the SC, Mahila, Intellectual fronts to mobilise people.

In the middle, he gives an interview to a TV channel. And keeps track of where BJP candidate Jaswant Yadav, a minister in the state government, is campaigning.

Sharma says the party is confident because of its robust organisation, a “dynamic candidate”, Congress factionalism, and a wide social coalition.

The BJP is relying on a section of the Yadav and Brahmin vote; the majority of the Bania, Rajput, Saini, Punjabi vote; and a slice of the Meena and Dalit vote.

Another senior BJP leader, who wanted to remain anonymous, says: “We are in government in Delhi and in Jaipur. We are telling voters it is a waste to go with the Congress when it will have no impact on power dynamics. Why antagonise us? Work with us instead.”

The BJP is also relying on the election acquiring a Hindu-Muslim shade.

Gyandev Ahuja, an MLA from the district, said last month: “If you smuggle and slaughter cows, you will be killed.”

Banwari Lal Singhal, another MLA from the district, wrote in a Facebook post: “The way Muslim population is increasing, the existence of Hindus is in danger ... Hindus will become secondary citizens if Muslims become lawmakers.”

And Jaswant Yadav, the candidate himself, is reported to have remarked: “If you are a Hindu, vote for me. If you are a Muslim, vote for the Congress.”

When asked about these remarks, BJP district president Sharma shot back: “What is wrong? Their people are increasing. It is not a lie. No one except Muslims will be bothered if this truth is spoken. And before the election, they are dividing people. Congress Muslim leader, Zubair Khan, said that if the BJP comes to power, minorities will be attacked.”

But what about instances of cow vigilantism?

“When cows are stolen, these leftists and Congress leaders don’t speak. When cows are smuggled, they don’t speak. But when people try to protect the cow, they start speaking against it. This is sin. They will pay a price for it,” Sharma says.

Congress’ response

The Congress appears to have evolved a careful multi-pronged response, all of which avoids publicly courting Muslims.

For one, it is sticking to the “development card” and anti-incumbency. Bhanwar Jitendra Singh, a close associate of the Congress president, is the party’s tallest leader in the region. A former MP, he has decided to sit out this by-election. The ticket has gone to Karan Singh Yadav, a doctor who has served as an MP from the constituency and was an MLA too. But Singh is campaigning hard. At a public meeting in Rajgarh, he says: “Dr Yadav is my candidate. This is my election. Do I even need to ask for votes here?” Someone in the crowd assures him of 80% votes. He says: “Only 80. I want more.” The crowd shouts: “99%.”

In his car, on the campaign trail, Singh says the party’s primary plank is development projects he had brought as an MP, which the BJP government had allegedly stalled. “We got a Sainik school here, a medical college, a high-speed train connecting Delhi and Alwar, and many more projects. This government has stalled them all. People feel cheated.”

In four years, the chief minister visited Alwar seven times, all brief tours in a chopper, he alleges. “Now she is roaming around, making promises.”

Wouldn’t the fact that the BJP will remain in power give it an advantage? “No. I see it the other way round. People are angry and want to give the government a wake-up call.”

Two, the Congress is hoping that its selection of candidates can generate a broad social coalition, including several Hindu castes.

“Yadav has been given the ticket because we know this will divide the Yadav vote completely, and bring a large section to us … We hope to get Brahmin votes since the community is angry that the BJP did not give a ticket to a Brahmin leader. And then we have Gujjars and Malis, who we hope will vote for us because Sachin Pilot and Ashok Gehlot are from these communities. And Dalits and Meenas are our traditional vote anyway,” says a Congress leader.

And three, while quietly consolidating the Muslims, the Congress is also avoiding responding to the BJP’s aspersions that only Muslims vote for the party. “We won’t fall into the trap. We have told our Muslim leaders that they just need to mobilise quietly. That is the way to beat the BJP,” says a Rajasthan Congress leader.

The community’s voice may not be publicly articulated but Muslims of Alwar are invested in the contest. In the Tijara assembly segment, Rashid Khan says: “We want to teach the BJP a lesson … Don’t defame us, and stop targeting us.” The Alwar outcome will show if the BJP’s hold in Rajasthan and strategy to polarise on religious lines will be enough or if the Congress’s tactic of publicly wooing Hindu castes and remaining silent on Muslim issues while consolidating their vote will work.

First Published: Jan 27, 2018 07:27 IST