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Has BJP’s ‘Saam, Daam, Dand, Bhed’ Recipe Gone Stale?

politics
A political attack that worked five years ago will not necessarily work again. Like any successful show, the audience will get tired of the same old tropes utilised by the BJP.
Home minister Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: PTI

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.

Saam’, ‘Daam’, ‘Dand’ and ‘Bhed’, four Hindi words whose collective implication is victory by any means, is an apt way to describe the BJP’s politics. Originally purported to have been used by Devendra Fadnavis in a leaked audio tape, it is seen as the BJP’s brand of politics. The BJP has used ‘Saam’ in Meghalaya after failing to make a dent in that state electorally by allying with its sitting chief minister Conrad Sangma, after calling his government the most corrupt in the country during the election campaign. ‘Daam’ or ‘price’ has many examples from Operation Lotus in Karnataka to Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, exercised through plum posts in administration, including the chief minister’s post in Maharashtra. ‘Dand’ or punishment is liberally administered through the CBI and the ED against opposition politicians while ‘Bhed’ is the BJP’s stock-in-trade with its unabashed majoritarian politics. Let’s give credit where it’s due – it has worked well for the BJP. But unfortunately for it, success often carries within it the seeds of eventual failure.

The disingenuous attacks on Rahul Gandhi for his purported comments in a series of public meetings in the UK have shown the worst possible quality of a party which is still more of an electoral machine than a governing force, and that is laziness. The lazy attack on Rahul Gandhi which started with false allegations of him having asked foreign states to intervene in India has now gone on to the more general trope that the Indian government must not be criticised from foreign soil.

Firstly, with a government ― and its Prime Minister ― which has turned hitherto unremarkable foreign delegation visits into public relations extravaganzas, the blame for blurring the line between domestic and foreign must be laid at its door. When the PM boasted about his disastrous demonetisation policy in Japan in 2016, he did not honour this principle, which his party is now seeking to champion, that Indian politics must only be played on Indian soil. Before this, the PM had sought to project his favoured “nothing happened in the last 70 years” political pitch in China and South Korea, claiming that the average Indian used to feel ashamed about having been born in India. He said similar things in Muscat and New York, attacking the Congress in foreign climes. For the BJP to now attack Rahul Gandhi for answering some questions strains credulity. Worse, the famed BJP PR machine comes across as hackneyed.

The issue of national politics played on a foreign stage is always fraught. Yet, Gandhi cannot be considered to have crossed any lines. His comments were made in academic debates and public discussions where issues related to Indian democracy were raised and were sought to be discussed, unlike the PM, who has repeatedly organised meetings of supporters outside India which closely resembled BJP rallies. These rallies are then shown off in India as evidence of the extraordinary popularity of the Prime Minister. That is using foreign soil for Indian politics. Gandhi does not seem to have said anything outside India directed at the Indian people, using foreign states or the foreign audience as a medium to magnify his message. If anything, the BJP’s current outrage betrays an anxiety about simply being questioned.

Rahul Gandhi (left) and Narendra Modi. In the background is a Google Map showing Europe, Africa and Asia.

The ‘Bhed’ part of the BJP’s politics comes out rather desperately when dealing with Rahul Gandhi. It is desperate to show him in a ‘foreign light’. After many years of publicly outraging over his private foreign visits, the BJP is now trying out this new avenue to distract and divert public debate from the issues of inflation, investor pessimism and social insecurity. The ultimate victim of the BJP’s politics is the truth. This is a government which seems to take pride in obfuscation which can be seen, among other examples, through the systematic dismantling of the RTI system. Vague declarations of development by the government have a shelf life, the reality of a crumbling polity and economy are rather more permanent. The government operates in a miasma of fear, of being outed as draconian and not very competent. Questions are avoided not only because answers are tricky, but because a question by itself is enough to trigger thoughts and emotions which do not suit the party in power.

The attack on Gandhi is clearly a more lazy one than has been seen in the past. There is a weariness to the narrative, which has been played over and over again. A political attack that worked five years ago will not necessarily work again, especially not against a person who, after the Bharat Jodo Yatra, is being seen in a new light. Like any successful show, the audience will get tired of the same old tropes utilised by the BJP. The BJP would be well advised to shift its focus. ‘Saam, daam, dand, bhed’ may have had their day, for now.

Sarim Naved is a lawyer based in Delhi.

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