Let’s begin by letting loose our imagination and picturing an interaction between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav, as the Uttar Pradesh campaign reached its crescendo, over the iconic scene of the hit Hindi film, Deewar. Modi essays Shashi Kapoor’s role, while Yadav is the Amitabh Bachhan of this ‘unreel’ confrontation.
“Tumhare paas kya hai,” (what do you have?) starts this make-believe Yadav. “I have people’s despondency on my side, their memories of the COVID-19 pandemic’s tragedies, including deaths of innumerable near and dear ones, alongside your ineptitude in managing the pandemic, their empty wallets, people’s frustrations over rising joblessness, reminders of sores on their feet after walking hundreds of kilometres following the imposition of a lockdown at the notice of just a few hours, and so on. What do you have?”
Modi looks at Yadav, and in that signature style, says: “Mere paas Ram hai.” (I have Ram.) And the damru (drum) that Modi recently played at Varanasi resonates on the soundtrack.
A Clear Line Between 'Them' and 'Us'
In this imaginary dialogue, the use of ‘Ram’ is not literal or just a reference to the temple coming up in Ayodhya after decades of agitation. Instead, it is used as a metaphor for an all-encompassing idea. The Ram temple is a mere symbol of the success of a three-and-a-half-decades-old campaign, and its continuing construction is a sign of this being an ‘ongoing project’ as evidenced in the course of developments in Varanasi and the reiteration of claims during elections over the Shahi Idgah in Mathura.
Without a doubt, Hindutva was central to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) campaign. Make no mistake, this was possibly the most communally polarised election since the rise of Modi in 2014. Significantly, it did not require any leader to really whip it up.
It was evident that in public sentiment, a clear line between ‘them’ and ‘us’ existed. This eventually found expression in people’s electoral choices.
They may have been driven by occupational or class interest – and made common cause with the ‘other’ – while contesting the government on economic issues, the farm laws, for instance, but an overwhelming number of them voted on the basis of their religious and caste identities.
Despite the utmost efforts of Yogi Adityanath to raise the decibel level from the stage, this campaign did not go beyond the communal pitch of 2014, 2017 and 2019, as far as speeches from public platforms were concerned.
Even Amit Shah started public rallies in November by mocking the Friday Namaz, when the controversy in Gurugram was raging.
The 'Farak Saaf Hai' Rhetoric
But Modi was not the rabble-rouser of the previous polls. He instead spoke in more ‘civilisational’ terms, as while inaugurating the Kashi Vishwanath temple corridor in December, or in the last of his election speeches.
Yet, this was the most polarised election because Modi and the BJP have successfully ‘normalised’ their divisive discourse. For instance, the party was not just able to ensure that in people’s perception, law and order ‘improved’ in Adityanath’s tenure, but it also made ‘criminals’ and Muslims almost synonymous concepts.
The Muslim-Yadav unity and the charge that between 2012 and 2017 Akhilesh Yadav encouraged this combine, stuck to the SP and its allies decisively. This enabled the BJP to consolidate its support within the party’s core constituency.
The ‘farak saaf hai’ (the difference is clear) slogan, introduced early in the campaign in Uttar Pradesh, was certainly not aimed at claiming that people’s personal financial situation had improved, or that they had a multitude of job options, or that farm incomes had been doubled as Modi had promised to do by 2022.
This slogan served as a reminder for the early initiatives of Adityanath when he formed the so-called ‘anti-Romeo’ squads and virtually licensed the police to conduct ‘encounters’ or extra-judicial killings of actual and alleged ‘criminals’.
As a result, in people’s perception, the ‘difference’ was that Muslims had been ‘tamed’, and that though this government could be faulted on numerous grounds, it had at least ‘fixed’ the Muslims.
The 'Double-Engine' in UP
The massive endorsement of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, especially, can be attributed to the acceptance of the Sangh Parivar’s decades-old argument that this is ‘our’ nation. Or, as Mohan Bhagwat repeatedly states, this is a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ and while minorities are welcome to stay as citizens, they must not consider themselves a ‘distinct community.’
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has often said that its objective is that ‘samaj’ or society becomes the ‘Sangh’ or the saffron fraternity. This verdict, especially in Uttar Pradesh and its neighbouring state in the hills, takes it closer to its goal.
In the course of this campaign in Uttar Pradesh, questions were raised over the state following a ‘different model’ from that pursued in other BJP-ruled states. Although the phrase ‘double-engine ki sarkar’ (double-engine government) has been used for other states as well, in Uttar Pradesh, this had a different connotation because of Adityanath’s emergence as a charismatic leader on his own, certainly a notch higher than other BJP leaders in states, and even at the Centre.
'After Modi, Who?' Yogi, Perhaps.
Although the ‘after Modi, who?’ question has been discussed so far only in hushed tones, this issue may get vocalised in a more pronounced way as no political leader puts her or his ambition on hold. Adityanath has not directly ‘challenged’ Modi’s leadership so far. But in him, sections within the saffron clan see a candidate for the top position post-Modi.
To go beyond where he is at the moment, Adityanath will have to make himself more ‘acceptable’ to people who are the non-core supporters of the BJP, as Modi did in the run-up to the 2014 election.
The BJP also does not have a ‘principle of succession’, and developments on this shall need to be tracked as Modi will turn 75 in 2025. This campaign was essentially a contest between various shades of saffron. The response of people in states that are not intrinsically oriented towards Hindutva, yet, will now become significant.
(The writer is an NCR-based author and journalist. His latest book is The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India. His other books include The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)