It’s a short hop for the BJP from development to polarisation. After the spectacular success of this campaign model in UP earlier this year, the polarisation juggernaut is on the move in Gujarat as the election process enters its final laps.
Resorting to Polarisation Again
The signal came from no less than Narendra Modi himself when he equated Rahul Gandhi’s elevation to Congress president with Aurangzeb Raj. The motif was deliberately picked as he twisted Mani Shankar Aiyar’s ill-chosen comparison out of context.
Aurangzeb, in popular collective memory, is a Hindu-baiter, destroyer of temples and perpetrator of the hated jiziya tax. Never mind historical facts. Myths prevail over truth. And Modi put them to good use.
Since then, the BJP has dropped all pretence of a lofty campaign and bared its knuckles.
Spokesperson Narasimha Rao called Rahul Gandhi a Babur bhakt and with the Padmavati row fresh in public memory, he added “Khilji kin’’ for good measure. UP’s saffron-clad chief minister Yogi Adityanath was summoned for another round of rallies at which he flagged the Ram mandir issue and flayed the Congress for opposing its construction.
Takeover of Poll Campaign by Personal Barbs
Posters have sprung up in Gujarat announcing Ahmed Patel as the Congress nominee for wazir-e-azam of the state. JNU “anti-nationals’’, Kashmir “terrorists’’, references to dadhi-topi (beard and cap) pepper speeches by BJP leaders and candidates.
Along with these communal motifs are personal barbs and below-the-belt insults. To be fair, both sides have stooped to coarsen the discourse with the Congress virtually abandoning its earlier single-minded focus on the Modi government’s economic performance to walk into the BJP’s trap. What else explains Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala’s doltish defence of Rahul as a “janeu-dhari Brahmin’’!
BJP Abandons ‘Vikas’
It’s not surprising that the BJP has abandoned vikas as the leitmotif of its poll campaign in Gujarat. A seamless shift from development to polarisation in the final laps of an election has become a hallmark of the Modi-Shah duo’s relentless crusade to colour the country saffron.
Vikas was the flavour till October. In his trips to his home state in September and October, Modi played vikas purush to the hilt. He laid foundation stones for a bridge between Okha and Beyt Dwarka and a modern airport at Rajkot. He inaugurated the new IIT building in Gandhinagar as well as a hospital and medical college in his hometown of Vadnagar.
The tone and tenor of the campaign changed when he returned for the final blitzkrieg a fortnight before the first phase of polling on 9 December. The gloves came off and polarisation became the new discourse.
Similarity with UP Campaign
Significantly, the trajectory of the BJP campaign in UP was much the same. Till the beginning of February, Modi and his party leaders spoke the language of hope and aspiration. Rise above caste and vote for development, Modi exhorted voters.
“We want development of the country, better health facilities and poverty eradication. It will not happen till UP doesn’t develop. We have to change the fate of UP,’’ he declared.
But soon, he introduced the motif that came to define the UP campaign. He talked of kabristaan versus shamshan ghat and Ramzan versus Diwali. The ground shifted rapidly after that with voters getting polarised on caste and communal lines to hand the BJP a stunning victory in 325 of the 400 seats in the UP Assembly.
Polarisation Ploy Didn’t Work in Bihar
Ironically, the same strategy was tried in Bihar in 2015 but it boomeranged badly. A formidable caste alliance between Lalu Yadav and Nitish Kumar trumped the BJP’s efforts to play the religion card. There was a concerted attempt to bring the cow into the discourse with BJP leader Sushil Modi declaring that the election was a contest between beef eaters and cow protectors and posters of a slaughtered cow springing up in communally sensitive areas.
The move proved to be a spectacular failure as the mahagathbandhan romped home with a two-thirds majority.
However, there was a significant difference between the Bihar strategy and the one employed in UP. In Bihar, Modi took the high road and stuck to talk of development. It was Amit Shah and local BJP leaders who used the language of polarisation.
Which Way Will Gujarat Go?
Perhaps it was the failure of the Bihar campaign that prompted Modi to revise the strategy for UP. Here, in this crucial state where he put himself out on a limb in a high-stakes game, he decided to use the polarisation card himself and not leave it to Shah and others. It certainly sparked a connection with voters and simplified the choice for them.
The question is this: Which way will Gujarat go, the UP way or the Bihar way? There is already a deep communal divide in Modi’s home state. The divide was created and nurtured by the RSS, VHP and BJP over two decades, earning Gujarat the reputation of being a laboratory for Hindutva. Consequently, as a tactic, polarisation may not give added benefits to the BJP.
This is the first election that the BJP is fighting since its spectacular victory in 2014 in which the Modi government’s policies, particularly on the economy, are being put to test. In a way, the Gujarat Assembly poll is a referendum, not just on the BJP, but on Modi himself. Can the Hindu Hriday Samrat triumph yet again? If he does, the roadmap for 2019 is clear. Polarisation is the way to go.
(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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