Even by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP's) twisted standards of ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’, the ticket switch saga in Rajasthan’s Masuda seat seems a fresh feat for the Saffron brigade. Despite announcing party leader Abhishek Singh as its Masuda candidate, the BJP dumped him after rumours emerged on social media that he is not a Hindu, but a Muslim.
Though Singh says he is a Rawat-Rajput and a follower of Hinduism, the BJP declared Virendra Kanawat as its Masuda candidate. The BJP has given no official reason for this replacement but dropping Singh over rumours of him being a Muslim seems entirely in sync with the party’s decision not to name a single Muslim candidate for Rajasthan’s 200 seats.
Hindu-Muslim Row Frontlines BJP's Poll Strategy
Besides changing the Masuda candidate to bolster its Hindutva agenda, the BJP has also fielded a saffron-clad seer, Bal Mukund Acharya from Jaipur’s Hawa Mahal seat to push the politics of polarisation.
Sidelining career politicians, the BJP gave its ticket to Acharya though he was never even a party member. His chief claim to fame is a sudden campaign he started recently for the upkeep of Hindu temples in Jaipur which he claimed were in ruins due to 'appeasement’ politics.
The Hawa Mahal seat has a large Muslim population and Acharya’s candidature is designed to polarise voters in Jaipur’s Walled City area where allegations of forced Hindu migration have often been made by BJP leaders.
Among Hindutva hardliners fielded by the BJP, the most talked about is Baba Balaknath, the candidate in Alwar's Tijara seat in the heart of the Mewat region infamous for cow lynching and communal tensions. To burnish his aggressive image, Balaknath prides himself on being called ‘Rajasthan’s Yogi’, filed his nomination on a bulldozer and UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath came to Tijara to push his campaign. Posters and hoardings beaming the two saffron mahants together in Tijara reflect the BJP’s intent in this communally sensitive region.
The Baba’s polarising rhetoric is shrill as he accuses CM Ashok Gehlot of creating a “fatwa regime” that works solely for Muslims. With the Congress fielding a Muslim candidate against him, Balaknath has likened his election to an ‘India-Pakistan match’. In a viral video, he claims, “this is an India-Pakistan match this time.…Those ‘kabilas’ (tribes) have united and we have to defeat their plans…so that in future they never dare to unite and conspire to defeat our Sanatan Dharma.”
Though he refuses to elaborate on ‘kabilas’, the reference is to Muslim voters who he claims vote as a block and the Baba is keen to push Hindus to vote purely on religious lines.
Ram Mandir Issue Takes Centre Stage
It's not just a few candidates or local leaders, polarising rhetoric is dominating the BJP’s campaign narrative across Rajasthan. In Western part of the state, Union Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat is seen in a viral video urging people to vote for the BJP by arguing - Kandhon se Badi Chhati nahin hoti, Dharma se badi Jati nahin hoti. Ye Sanatan Dharma bachaane ka chunaav hai” (Shoulders can’t be bigger than the Chest, And Caste can’t be bigger than Religion. This is an election to save Sanatan Dharma).
It is assertions of this nature by BJP stalwarts in September which made many wonder whether the party was running a 'Parivartan' or 'Polarisation' Yatra in the desert state.
Similarly, in east Rajasthan, BJP MP Ramesh Bidhuri is seen in a viral video claiming that Pakistan is keeping an eye on Rajasthan polls and asserting, “Lahore is keeping an eye on the Tonk seat. We have to take care that laddus should not be distributed in Lahore after the election takes place.” He even claims that terrorists of Hamas have their eye on the outcome of the upcoming polls.
Just days after his anti-Muslim slurs at BSP MP Danish Ali in the Lok Sabha, Bidhuri was made the BJP election in-charge of Tonk where Sachin Pilot is the Congress candidate.
Even BJP biggies are attacking the Gehlot government over communal frictions in the state. Citing several incidents, especially the beheading of Kanhaiya Lal in Udaipur, restrictions on Hindu festivals in some violence-hit towns, and acquittal of all the accused in the 2008 Jaipur Blasts case, they accuse Congress of practicing ‘appeasement politics’. At a rally last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi recalled the Kanhaiya Lal beheading to claim, “the murder of Kanhaiya Lal is a big stain on the state government which sympathizes with terrorists.”
BJP leaders are also keeping the Ram Temple in Ayodhya at the centre of their campaign. While the inauguration ceremonies of Ram Mandir will be held next January, given electoral calculations, BJP leaders are keen to link people with this issue in Rajasthan.
From PM Modi to Home Minister Amit Shah to UP CM Adityanath, everyone is raising the Ram Temple theme in election rallies. Shah promises that Rajasthan will celebrate Diwali thrice this year, with the third celebration after the Ram temple's ‘pran pratishtha’ ceremony in January!
Congress’ Pro-Hindu Rhetoric vs BJP’s Hindutva
While the BJP attempts to galvanise voters on the Hindutva pitch are hardly a novelty, it’s the Congress response that’s rather new and surprising.
Firstly, the party is staying focused on secular issues and the welfare schemes of the Gehlot government which it sees as a winning mantra. Instead of responding to ‘appeasement’ politics barbs, the Congress is highlighting its work ranging from Chiranjeevi Health Insurance scheme to reviving the Old Pension Scheme and giving Minimum Guaranteed Income for the entire adult population.
Secondly, the Congress is underlining its promise for a caste census whereby, it hopes to revive the Mandal/Kamandal narrative as many in Rajasthan usually prioritise caste over religion. Addressing election rallies in the state last week, Rahul Gandhi asserted that the party would conduct a caste survey in Rajasthan if elected to power in the upcoming Assembly polls.
By raising the caste census pitch, Congress is specially promising that Other Backward Classes (OBC) would get benefits proportionate to their population in a bid to combat the polarisation around religion.
Significantly, though rather controversially, the Congress is also striving to neutralise BJP’s Hindutva by deploying its own brand of religious symbolism. While CM Gehlot is not flaunting his Hindu-ness as liberally as Kamal Nath in Madhya Pradesh, he is keen to showcase the Hindu-friendly initiatives started by his government. These range from larger grants to Gaushalas for cows to crores spent on the renovation of prominent temples across the state and to improve facilities for pilgrims.
Recently, when the Congress started its ‘Guarantee Yatra’, Gehlot and the party's State in-charge – Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa offered prayers at Jaipur’s most famous Ganesh temple. Likewise, when major party leaders come for election rallies, they are specially visiting local temples in a bid to wipe off the anti-Hindu taint the BJP often gives the Congress. Party General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi even chanted the ’Gayatri Mantra’ at a public rally in Dungarpur district.
Inevitably, many liberals are upset at this brand of soft Hindutva. However, party leaders claim this strategy is blunting the BJP’s oft-repeated charge about the Congress being anti-Hindu.
A Lopsided Narrative
Party insiders say by visibly adopting religious symbolism, the Congress is carrying out an experiment to project itself as a better Hindu compared to the BJP. Ever since the AK Antony report on the 2019 debacle to the Udaipur Chintan Shivir and Raipur Plenary, the Congress has struggled on ‘how to remove the anti-Hindu tag’.
The current strategy aims to prevent the loss of votes due to the BJP’s repeated effort to portray the Congress as 'anti-Hindu'. The jury is out on how far this experiment will succeed but the mix of tactical silence on BJP barbs and the strategic use of Hindu symbolism by the Congress seems a unique endeavour.
As Hindutva debates rage on, minority issues and concerns are being badly ignored. While the BJP pursues aggressive polarisation, no party has questioned why the BJP has not fielded a single Muslim candidate though the community is over 9% of the Rajasthan population by the 2011 census.
Similarly, while Muslims are often targeted by Hindutva loonies, there’s little discussion on why justice eludes most victims. Though the Kanhaiya Lal murder has evoked shrill poll rhetoric, the horrific double murder of Nasir and Junaid, two Muslims from Bharatpur burnt to death by cow vigilantes this year, is hardly being mentioned.
For the moment, polarising politics remains a dominant theme in the Rajasthan poll battle. While the BJP is banking on aggressive polarisation as its core campaign strategy, the Congress too is pedaling a Hindu symbolism strategy to woo the majority community through religious appeals even though its welfare schemes and pro-poor approach remain its prime plank.
It's unclear which narrative will ultimately triumph but election results on 3 December will perhaps provide some vital feedback that may be useful even for Lok Sabha polls next year.
(The author is a veteran journalist and expert on Rajasthan politics. Besides serving as a Resident Editor at NDTV, he has been a Professor of Journalism at the University of Rajasthan in Jaipur. He tweets at @rajanmahan. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)