Is UP’s Kushinagar Airport a BJP Bid To Woo Both Dalits & Sri Lanka?

The new airport is an interesting step to gain an advantage both at home and abroad.

4 min read
Hindi Female

The inauguration by Prime Minister Narendra Modi of Uttar Pradesh’s third international airport at the Buddhist pilgrimage spot of Kushinagar is an interesting ploy to gain an advantage both at home and abroad.

Although Buddhists comprise barely a fraction of the total population of by far the most populous state in the country, the religion has particular symbolic value to the large and politically crucial Dalit segment in Uttar Pradesh, even if it has not chosen to convert. This is because the most revered figure among Dalits, Babasaheb Ambedkar, converted to Buddhism with a small band of chosen followers in 1956. Despite not being Buddhists themselves, the religion’s association with a Dalit icon, who is seen as the foremost leader who fought for their rights and enshrined them in the Indian Constitution, will have deep political significance, with just a few months left for the Assembly election in the state.


Will It Sway Dalits in UP?

Indeed, with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) supremo, Mayawati, considerably losing her earlier stronghold over the Dalit vote, and with younger rivals like Chandrasekhar Azad lacking the resources and organisation to make a major pitch in the election, the BJP is making a concerted effort to win over at least a section of the Dalits who are confused about who to vote for. The Prime Minister’s glowing tributes to the Buddha would not at all harm his party’s cause in pitching the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as a party that’s no longer seeking exclusively the upper caste vote.

It remains to be seen whether inaugurating an airport facilitating Buddhist pilgrims from across India and the world will actually sway Dalits in Uttar Pradesh towards the BJP despite the continuing atrocities across the state against the community by upper castes. There is little inclination or effort by the BJP government led by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath to take firm action. But the fact that the Prime Minister chose to inaugurate the Kushinath airport to celebrate the Buddha, who is revered by many Dalits because of Babasaheb Ambedkar, shows the relentless drive by the BJP to increase its vote base.

Going by the last two elections — both parliamentary and state Assembly polls — there is reason to believe that a fairly large section of non-Jatav votes has been steadily moving towards the BJP.

This may well have encouraged the BJP to further intensify its efforts to leave no stone unturned to snatch the Dalit vote from its competitors.


The China Factor

The other and even more palpable strategy to spend several hundred crores for building an airport in Uttar Pradesh for Buddhist pilgrims is clearly aimed at increasing India’s clout among Buddhist countries across the world, but more specifically, neighbouring Sri Lanka. This assumes significance at a time when Sri Lanka is seen as increasingly leaning towards China, which has used its vast financial resources and manufacturing know-how to aid the island state. New Delhi has been steadily marginalised by Beijing’s aggressive diplomacy and has lost much of its earlier leverage with the Sri Lankan leadership.

The fact that the inauguration of the Kushinagar airport was witnessed by Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajpaksa and accompanied by a 125-strong delegation will no doubt serve as some kind of counter to China’s barnstorming tactics to marginalise India in the region. Yet, while the Indian government’s gesture could well tickle the ego of the Buddhist nation, which has its own brand of religious fundamentalism, a much more diplomatic hard-sell is required by the South Bloc to dent China’s growing supremacy in the region diminishing India’s stature.

In the past, Rajapaksa has been seen leaning towards China, which has cleverly played on the former general Sri Lankan strongman’s antipathy towards the West, particularly the latter’s espousal of the human rights situation in Sri Lanka under the current regime.

Since the current Indian leadership is as callous as the Chinese on human rights issues, the Modi government is quite happy to hold out the olive branch of friendship to Rajapaksa. However, it is still too early to say whether India will persist in its efforts to woo Sri Lanka without getting much in return.


The RSS-BJP Bias Against Muslims

Significantly, the rabid Buddhist nationalism in recent years in Sri Lanka has been increasingly targeting Muslims, unlike in the past when the large population of Hindu Tamils living in the island state was the primary target for religious persecution.

This overt bias against Muslims in Sri Lanka by Buddhist ultra-nationalists has a certain resonance within the RSS and related bodies seeking to raise a common bogey against Islamic terror.

It’s too early to say whether this by itself will be enough to mend the partially dented ties between India and Sri Lanka. But if it does not, it will not be because of a lack of trying by Prime Minister Modi and his aides.

(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist and the author of ‘Behenji: A Political Biography of Mayawati’. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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Topics:  Modi   Uttar Pradesh 

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