The BJP seeks to unite Hindu votes in its favour while dividing Muslim votes between the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party Photograph: (Others)
The leading campaign issue in the Uttar Pradesh election is not the prospect of development but the politics around graveyards
Given its spectacular performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) was best placed to win the 2017 assembly election in Uttar Pradesh. Winning 71 of 80 seats on a vote share of 42 per cent provided it with a margin of invincibility to withstand a large negative vote swing. But the party’s changing campaign strategy betrays a lack of confidence in the outcome of the elections.
The campaign which started on the high note of development has begun to traverse the familiar ground of Hindu consolidation. This is very similar to 2014 when development-oriented politics made way for majoritarianism. The BJP knows that ultimately its success depends on Hindu unity; consequently, its leaders, operatives, and the members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh(RSS) resolutely focused on religious polarisation.
Known for its abysmal record in human development, one would think the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections would be all about progress and change. But no, this is not the case. The leading campaign issue is not the prospect of development but the politics around graveyards. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is taking up the case of discrimination against cremation grounds in comparison to graveyards. The political discourse has exposed BJP’s stress on polarisation as a strategy of mobilisation in this complex election.
The last few phases of the elections have, therefore, seen a sharp contest between ideologies of pluralism-inclusion on the one side and assimilation-exclusion on the other
The BJP seeks to unite Hindu votes in its favour while dividing Muslim votes between the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) who are vying for the support of Muslims. Implicit in this political belief is the apprehension that Muslims would vote for the SP-Congress combine and not for the BSP.
There are two concerted elements in BJP's majoritarian campaign this year. The two elements include divisive rhetoric on communal issues and debasing the development discourse. The strategy works directly by raising controversial issues, such as the triple talaq, Hindu migration from Kairana and other western UP towns, illegal abattoirs etc to appeal to the traditional middle-class voters in the state.
An election that started out as a contest about governance and development has changed since polarisation gradually entered the picture. The last few phases of the elections have, therefore, seen a sharp contest between ideologies of pluralism-inclusion on the one side and assimilation-exclusion on the other. Changing the terms of public discourse involved an unmistakable communalisation of development politics and, thereby, pulling people to its side.
The ostensible provocation for this shift was that both the BSP and the SP-Congress alliance have been vigorously appealing to the minorities for votes to keep the BJP at bay. Critics blame the BSP for starting this by giving 97 assembly tickets to Muslims. However, the dispute over who is to blame for the acceleration of polarisation seldom takes into account that the BJP has not given a single ticket to a Muslim.
In UP, even as the BJP was propagating its ‘vikas’ or development plans, it has lost no opportunity to communalise development politics. The party has been working actively on dividing communities along religious lines at the ground level since the violence in Muzaffarnagar in 2013; Modi’s speech at Fatehpur on February 19, 2017, was basically an attempt to give it a further push and this was immediately taken forward by the party president Amit Shah.
Amit Shah said, "If BJP is not voted to power, people’s money would be spent on building karbala aur kabristan. When BJP introduces programmes like Startup India, Make in India and so on, they are for everyone, but when the UP government starts a scholarship scheme, it is only for Muslim girls." Incidentally, Shah is referring here to the Kanya Vidya Dhan Yojana, under which the UP government provides assistance of Rs 30,000 to each girl student who has passed the 12th board examinations with distinction. Many Hindus have complained that Muslims are the only ones to benefit from this scheme; a claim which is yet to be verified. Moreover, BJP activists continue to allege leniency in the grading of exams at schools situated in Muslim neighborhoods, and that such leniency is responsible for more Muslim girls benefiting from this scheme.
The big question is whether communal polarisation at the grass root level electorally benefits the BJP, and what political impact will this electoral strategy have on India’s democracy
Clearly, post-truth is having a field day in UP, and not just in the United States. A blithe disregard for facts has characterised the propaganda campaign of the BJP in the UP election. This type of talk makes it clear that mobilisation gained through polarisation has become the principal instrument of the election campaign.
The BJP has regularly attacked the SP government for appeasement of one community in matters as diverse as power supply and laptop distribution under the government schemes. Accusing its rivals of Muslim appeasement has been the staple of BJP politics. This has happened even after official data and academic research show Muslims to be one of India’s most disadvantaged communities, and nowhere more so than in UP. Any attempt to redress the imbalance is damned as appeasement.
Finally, one thing is clear: the BJP is fighting the 2017 election with an unconcealed anti-Muslim propaganda. On the face of it, it seems that incendiary majoritarian nationalism and the language of polarisation has had an impact on the thought processes of a large number of people. Unfortunately, the acerbic discourse has split Uttar Pradesh, once defined by cultural syncretism, along Hindu-Muslim lines.
Everywhere, the BJP campaign targets Muslims and how they were not part of the (Hindu) nationalist narrative. There are many who are inclined to buy into BJP’s charges of minority appeasement because prejudice against minorities has crept into everyday life.
The big question is whether communal polarisation at the grass root level electorally benefits the BJP, and what political impact will this electoral strategy have on India’s democracy.