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Why the BJP Won’t – and Can’t – Give Up on Hindutva as an Electoral Strategy

Karnataka has shown, as West Bengal did earlier, that divisive issues and polarisation don’t work everywhere.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi campaigning for the BJP in Karnataka, May 3, 2023. Photo: Twitter/@narendramodi

In 1980, the then Jan Sangh held a convention on the Bandra reclamation grounds in Mumbai to announce that it was changing its name to the Bharatiya Janata Party. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was elected as the president of the party and it was announced that after a lot of deliberations, the party had decided that its main thrust would be ‘Gandhian socialism.’

The reporters present there were aghast as were, one suspects, some of the delegates. Neither word came remotely close to the Jan Sangh/BJP’s core beliefs. 

The mood at the convention was glum and downbeat. The Jan Sangh leaders had had to part ways with the Janata Party on the question of dual membership of the larger Janata and the RSS. Both Vajpayee and L.K. Advani held good high profile portfolios – external affairs and information and broadcasting – but Madhu Limaye’s incessant attacks on the RSS had forced them to quit. The Janata Party government had fallen, but the Sangh members were neither here nor there. Nobody wanted them. 

It was in these circumstances that the convention was held and it was probably felt that a change of name and a new ‘brand positioning’ would help it to revive its fortunes.

That opportunity came in 1987, when V.P. Singh left the Rajiv Gandhi government with a martyr’s halo around him and soon began touring the country to build up his own image. In the 1989 elections, Singh became the power prime minister, backed by the National Front, consisting of his Janata Dal and supported by the BJP, and other parties.

The BJP, as was its wont, had latched on the rising star and was back in the game. But soon, when Singh, looking extremely shaky, declared that he would implement the long dormant Mandal Report and offer reservations to the OBCs, the BJP pulled out and saw its biggest opportunity – rouse the ‘upper’ caste middle classes, urban and rural — and Advani went on his Rath Yatra. The Babri Masjid was demolished and political Hindutva was born. Gandhian socialism was given a quiet burial somewhere.

Demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992. Photo: PTI

From then on, this political Hindutva has been the central message of the BJP and it has paid handsome dividends. It brought the first BJP government to power at the Union government which lasted a full five years. It was headed by Vajpayee, who spoke of development and the economy, but he was just the ‘mukhota’ (mask). History books were being changed even then and muscular nationalism was very much on display. 

The government did not come back to power, mainly because its claims of having created a glittering economy – ‘Shining India’ – were hollow because the poor were suffering. But it was Hindutva that brought Narendra Modi to power in 2001 and he continued to rule for 11 years.

He put on another mukhota when he was campaigning for the top job in Delhi, talking of economic growth and getting rid of corruption, which charmed the urban middle and upper middle classes. These are sections that have never liked the Congress for its pro-poor programmes and detest the words subsidy, conveniently ignoring the fact that the IITs, IIMs, medical colleges etc are hugely subsidised. Nonetheless, they bought into Modi and it was only after he came into power, he began to talk the language of Hindutva, especially during state election campaigns. 

Forces were unleashed which used violence to subdue the minorities; the legal system did its bit to give them even more reasons to indulge in violence. The ban on beef was one, which was a perfect weapon to use against Muslims. When the next elections came, Modi the great developer had vanished; now it was Modi the aggressive Hindutva spokesperson. 

The voters didn’t seem to mind – the urban middle classes were fully invested in him, and the small town and rural voters were devoted to him. The BJP won in Uttar Pradesh, were Adityanath outdid Modi in pushing the line, and it won in Gujarat, where Modi has no challenger. In no other major state has the BJP won a majority on its own, but still it formed the government by snatching MLAs through a variety of stratagems. When it lost in Maharashtra, and the Shiv Sena spurned it in 2019, it simply broke the Sena. And in each place, the BJP seats have come by campaigning on the Hindutva platform, some nods to welfarism and local culture.

Since Modi’s second term began, it has fully won only two big states – UP and Gujarat. In all other elections, it is in power in a coalition made up of willing and unwilling partners. 

In two critical elections — West Bengal and recently, Karnataka — the BJP used Hindutva to the fullest which involved raising divisive issues and using strongly anti-Muslim language. Modi was the star campaigner, and he spoke in Hindi. The BJP lost in both. Clearly, neither West Bengal nor Karnataka were impressed by the BJP’s attempts to polarise the voters, nor the use of shush Hindi. In Karnataka, issues like hijab ban, removing of the 4% reservation for Muslims, failed to enthuse the voters. Its voting percentage remained intact, but it got half the seats the Congress did.

Union home minister Amit Shah campaigning in Karnataka. Photo: Twitter/@BJP4Karnataka

What is more significant is that away from these two states, where local factors and local culture plays a significant role, the BJP has not been able to convince the voters of Madhya Pradesh or Rajasthan, where Hindi is understood. And yet, it is a fair prediction that it will not be able to win a majority – Shivraj Singh Chauhan, who was doing well before Modi arrived on the national scene, is ruling with the help of Congress renegades and Ashok Gehlot has proved to be tough to dislodge, however much the BJP or Sachin Pilot have tried. 

So is Hindutva now passe as an election winner?

Are voters fed up of divisive talk which pits them against their neighbours?

Is it back to the two staples of Indian elections – caste factors and roti and butter issues? And in any case, does Hindutva even work in every state?

The short answer to this is no, the BJP will not jettison a Hindutva push – and that includes divisive talk, attempts to polarise, demonising the minorities and privileging Hindus. Not now, not for a long time. Despite the hard evidence that the one size fits all approach – Hindutva plus hard nationalism – does not work, it will not because of two fundamental reasons: that is the core of its philosophy and is embedded in its DNA and because it does not have anything else to offer. 

It can offer economic sops to the poor and declare freebies, which the other parties do, but that are just embellishments. Just like some parties talk about social justice and the Congress now talks about fighting divisiveness (it has gone silent on secularism) the BJP can only talk of Hindutva. And since all the others are opposed to the BJP’s Hindutva project, it opens it to attacks by the others, who have something to unite against.

Rahul Gandhi in all his marches, hugged people – old, young, poor and otherwise, displaying human warmth and empathy. Hindutva is essentially top down, paternalistic and remote, which is why Narendra Modi finds it difficult to engage with the poor. Rarely, if at all, has he been photographed embracing say, a poor farmer. 

To the urban middle classes this may be fine, because they are not likely to mix with farmers, but this is still a country that has a large number of poor people, whatever the pink papers and investors may say. The leader of the nation has to keep them in mind when he devises policies. As we have seen, this does not happen in this case.

The BJP and its parent organisation the RSS, are focussed on their ultimate objective of Hindu Rashtra, the domination of Hindus and for that they have to bring all ‘Hindus’ under one banner. They do not understand that people belonging to different denominations may resent being lumped under the same rubric, and that too the BJP’s version of what Hinduism is.

They do not want to subsume their centuries old traditions under this narrow definition of being Ram Bhakti or for that matter hate all Muslims. They don’t want to be ruled by the laws of Manu Smriti. So they resist every time the BJP pushes its agenda, especially during elections. The BJP doesn’t seem to get it – it keeps pushing and pushing and losing and not learning its lessons. And so it will continue.

This piece was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.

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