Muralidhar Rao is one of the prominent party strategists from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's team. Photograph: (Twitter)
Rao told WION the BJP is not anti-Muslim and will occupy Congress space as a national party
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is looking for a wider space than its traditional core vote. It is emerging as the national alternative to the Congress party in its pre-1967 avatar with space for all religions and communities, believes Muralidhar Rao, BJP general secretary, and one of the prominent party strategists from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's team. Rao made his beginning with the BJP's youth wing ABVP and went on to work with the RSS's Swadeshi Jagaran Manch.
He told WION that the BJP has a non-sectarian agenda which will get clearer with time.
Q: Will the BJP win in Uttar Pradesh elections?
A: As election reactions started coming in, people have started accepting that BJP is ahead in UP. Those who don’t accept the BJP are saying that it will be a hung assembly and the BJP will emerge as the number one party. These are not people in tune with the ground reality of UP.
Modi's leadership and honesty is trusted by everybody in UP. You will not see this kind of trust, especially among the socially deprived sections, for other political parties. Modiji is a big asset for BJP in UP polls. People feel that under Modiji's leadership, Uttar Pradesh will get them the change he is known for. A number of new vote banks that supported us in the 2014 Parliamentary elections stayed with us in this election.
Q: So you are saying that Modi's charisma is going to work its magic in the assembly polls and the national agenda will be repeated in this election, too?
A: Absolutely, Modiji's image (of delivering on development) is relevant as far as Uttar Pradesh is concerned. Akhilesh Yadav (Samajwadi Party chief) has a problem. The voter has rejected Congress and its politics in this state. What is the signal you deliver when you join hands with them? status quo? What is the political alternative that you are offering to the voters? It is all right that they are against the BJP, but there was an alternative space that was emerging. Now that has been destroyed by joining hands with Congress.
Q: How did you tackle the negative impact of demonetisation?
A: Common people faced some problems during demonetisation and the Opposition tried to turn it into a political issue. It was definitely an issue for the public. But the people also felt that the PM wanted some change in the country. Who is affected by black money? It is the poor and they understood its impact well. They felt that even if they were facing some trouble, it was an attempt by Modi to improve things. The poor and marginalised supported us then and they have also accepted it as a policy. There is no negative impact and in fact it will work for us in this election.
Q: How many seats do you expect to notch up?
A: We will secure enough seats to independently form the government. The voters will give a decisive mandate.
Q: Is there a communal polarisation of votes given the statements made by the PM on graveyard and cremation grounds?
A: The issues raised by the PM were not ideological, theological or an interpretation of a religion. It is a practical issue. If people find a resonance with that statement, it will be in places where discrimination has taken place. Otherwise, they will not accept it. It is a grassroots issue and people will take a call in their villages (if this applied to them).
Q: For a very long time, both Congress and BJP have been out of power in UP. If BJP wins, you will have to start from scratch when it comes to creating a leadership on the ground. How will you handle that?
A: The kind of victory we got in the parliamentary polls enabled us to start preparing our leaders in the state from 2014 and people are now increasingly recognising them. The BJP also has the experience of forging a fresh pool of leaders, like in Haryana, Assam and Maharashtra. So a new leadership will emerge out of new sections of society and regions.
Q: A BJP win in UP will have an effect on the country's politics, but that will create a vacuum in the opposition space. What kind of impact do you foresee if Congress is wiped out in this election?
A: The non-BJP opposition has a problem that Congress is shrinking in its identity as a national party. Those practising alternative politics do not have leaders or organisational structure with a pan-India mandate. That is a problem. They don’t have a face or party that has a presence in every district of the country.
Q: The BJP has been working on forming a presence on the ground for years. For example, in the southern states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, you have been working for the past 10 years...
A: Today the BJP is taking the proportions of the pre-1967 Congress that was spread all over the country. We have won in Assam and won the Panchayat elections in Orissa. Our chances of winning in places where we are considered weak – Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Telangana or Andhra Pradesh – will increase tremendously.
Q: How big is Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's (RSS) role in this? It is said that the RSS is present even in places that have no BJP cadre, for decades...
A: The BJP always benefits from RSS presence. In places where you want to expand the party's work or want a team to work on local issues, RSS always offers us talent. Now the BJP is also making internal efforts for training and creating leadership and our own ability to build on our capacity has increased phenomenally.
Q: Are the BJP and RSS working in co-ordination, or is PM Narendra Modi maintaining his individuality?
A: The RSS does not have anything to do with this. Modiji is a BJP leader from the early days of its inception in 1980...
Q: He is supposed to have a mind of his own as was seen in Gujarat...
A: Working in an organisation does not mean that a prominent member cannot have his independent thought process. Everyone brings their strong points to the table. Consultation is ingrained in BJP leadership. Team functioning is the core of BJP activity, so I don’t think there is ever a problem of consultation.
Q: Like the BJP, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) is also trying to expand its base in universities across the country where it hasn’t been very strong. There is a situation of confrontation, in places like Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Hyderabad University and recently in Delhi University (DU). There are reports of skirmishes from Maharashtra as well...
A: The ABVP has expanded as a nationalist students' movement many years ago. The Communist movement is not something that is present all over the country, nor is this confrontation a pan-Indian experience. There are some pockets where the Communist work and they are used to Congress patronage. Today they are trying to make this confrontation (with the Right wing) an issue in an organised manner. It's not as if it is an exceptional resistance movement. The kind of issues they are raising, they are merely trying to brew conducive political circumstances. And people understand this...
Q: The students' wings of neither Congress, nor Aam Aadmi Party are confronting the ABVP. What is the reason?
A: The Congress students' movement is not very strong anywhere in the country...
Q: It is strong in DU...
A: In DU, the resistance to ABVP is from ultra-Left, Left groups. This is not new and has been going on forever...
Q: Are the NSUI and AAP students' group skirting this confrontation because they don’t want to openly go against the Nationalist agenda the ABVP is espousing?
A: Anyone seen as supporting separatists, terrorists or pro-Pakistan elements will have to pay a political price...
Q: The BJP is emerging in Kerala as a factor for the first time and the RSS is giving you a lot of back-up on the ground. Both the RSS and the BJP are nationalist in their ideology. Why don’t you devise a strategy to take the Muslims along?
A: Muslims considering the BJP as an enemy is not good for either. And the BJP is not keen on playing communal politics. Our opponents spread this sentiment that we are anti-Muslim. In a lot of places, the Muslims believe them. It is our duty to remove that misgiving as much as it is theirs. I don’t think the situation will be the same after two years. Earlier, the Christians did not support us in a lot of places, but now they are accepting the BJP in a lot of places like in Goa, Karnataka and Kerala. It's not as if all the Hindus supported the BJP earlier. Voting on the basis of religion is not something that will go on for long. As people's trust in BJP grows...
Q: Will the BJP expand its agenda?
A: The BJP does have a non-sectarian agenda and people will be convinced with time...