Bihar election: Will voters ignore the Hindutva effect and trust BJP’s development plank?

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October 19, 2015

BIHAR – It is an irony the BJP leaders can't but grimace at. No longer under the compulsion of having to dilute their agenda, because of the party winning a majority in the Lok Sabha last year, they now find the continuous cycle of state elections complicating the implementation of hot-button Hindutva issues.

October 19, 2015

BIHAR – It is an irony the BJP leaders can't but grimace at. No longer under the compulsion of having to dilute their agenda, because of the party winning a majority in the Lok Sabha last year, they now find the continuous cycle of state elections complicating the implementation of hot-button Hindutva issues.

There's always an election around to be wary of, an electorate waiting to judge the government's performance. A defeat is interpreted as a dip in the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP.

This is largely because the BJP under his leadership, in contrast to its electoral strategy when AB Vajpayee was the Prime Minister, wants to expand countrywide. It also wishes to capture one state after another to ensure its strength increases in the Rajya Sabha, thereby making it easier for it to enact legislations it considers imperative for good governance.

But the BJP has to also contend with the countervailing pull of Hindutva. No doubt, Hindutva distinguishes it from the other political entities and has a strong appeal for its traditional supporters, but it also triggers social conflict. A party perceived to be fomenting social unrest alienates its voters in most circumstances and also provokes its rivals to band together for their own political survival.

It is the BJP's ability to balance Hindutva with other aspects on its agenda which is on test in Bihar. Will its electorate opt for its rhetoric on development, sweeping aside the destabilising aspects of Hindutva? As such, it is now accepted that the BJP has frittered away its earlier advantage after its leaders expressed their yearning, however camouflaged, to switch to an economic-based reservation policy and stridently, and intemperately, argued on the issue of cow-slaughter.

The election in Bihar is the last one this year. However, in 2016, four states will have Assembly polls – Assam, West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. In 2017, six states will go to polls – Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Gujarat and Manipur. Should it fail to form the government in Uttar Pradesh, or lose Gujarat, the BJP and Modi would find their sheen diminish considerably.

Through the next two years and a little more, therefore, the questions which will haunt the BJP are: What aspects of Hindutva should it try to implement, to what degree and how? Or should it push the contentious issues of its agenda on the backburner, as it had during Vajpayee's regime, and concentrate on governance?

From this perspective, the BJP will have to draw lessons from its victory or defeat in the Bihar Assembly election. This will impact on the BJP's future electoral strategy, which, in turn, is bound to determine the country's social ambience and, therefore, polity.

What lies ahead for the BJP can be discerned from an analysis of the electoral strategy the BJP adopted over the last one-year-and-a-half years. This is because Hindutva is both a philosophy and an electoral strategy. Since Hindutva bears on social relations, it is bound to be more controversial than, say, policies on industry and environment.

Following the Lok Sabha election of 2014, four states have had Assembly elections. The BJP formed the government in three of these- Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand. It received a drubbing in Delhi. The Bihar result will now demonstrate whether the defeat in Delhi was a fluke or whether the party is indeed on the decline.

Indeed, from love jihad to ghar wapsi to a ban on cow-slaughter, each of these issues, coincidentally or otherwise, was debated furiously at the time one state or another was going to the polls.

Love jihad popped up at the time UP was to have the bypolls in 11 Assembly constituencies last year. That love jihad was an electoral strategy is borne out by the investigation of the Indian Express. It quoted police records to show that nearly 60 per cent of all communal clashes recorded between May 16, when the Lok Sabha election results were announced, and July-end, had occurred in and around these 11 Assembly constituencies which were due for the bypolls. However, the BJP managed to win only three seats.

Was this poor performance the reason why the BJP consciously brought about a subtle change in its electoral strategy over the next few months? It is hard to tell. Yet weeks before Haryana and Maharashtra were to have their Assembly elections, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat triggered the ghar wapsi debate. He said, "We will bring back those who have lost their way. They did not go on their own (into other religions). They were lured into leaving (Hinduism)." He also said conversion was the real motive underlying Mother Teresa's charity.

Curiously, ghar wapsi didn't overwhelmingly define the rhetoric of BJP leaders campaigning in Maharashtra and Haryana. Led by Modi, it was all about development and good, clean governance. Nevertheless, the debate on ghar wapsi played out on TV channels, night after night, as Hindtuva hotheads threatened to carry out mass conversion programmes in states other than Haryana and Maharashtra. Ghar wapsi and love jihad became national issues overnight.

It's easy to see the advantages in pursuing this dual strategy. The debates on love jihad and ghar wapsi persuaded the BJP cadres and its traditional supporters that the party was indeed working for the Hindutva cause so dear to them. Simultaneously, both Maharashtra and Haryana were insulated from the anxieties about social instability these programmes could have generated had these been executed there.

The debate on ghar wapsi had a definite echo in Jharkhand, which has witnessed a few decades of social tension on the conversion issue. But the Sangh foot soldiers didn't go around menacing the tribal Christians into the fold of Hinduism. Here too, Modi concentrated on speaking on development. The BJP won Jharkhand.

Yet, two days after the Jharkhand results were announced, the Modi government observed Good Governance Day on Christmas. The message inherent in this observance – Christians and Christmas don't matter – wasn't lost to Delhi, the ethos of which derives from it being a city of bureaucrats.

Perhaps the in-your-face Hindutva had to be resorted because Assembly elections in Delhi were due in February. And unlike the rival chief ministerial candidates in Maharashtra, Haryana, and Jharkhand, Arvind Kejriwal enjoyed credibility and wasn't a pushover.

By then, Delhi had already witnessed rioting in Trilokpuri. There were attempts to foment communal polarization through that tired, century-old method of throwing beef or pork at religious places. Churches were attacked and burnt. Though the BJP claimed it was wrong to accuse it of engineering these attacks, the intemperate remarks of its leaders had vitiated the social ambience, tacitly encouraging such onslaughts.

However, the BJP received a drubbing in Delhi. Perhaps the severity of the defeat prompted the BJP to adopt for Bihar the electoral strategy it had pursued in the other three states where it had won. It became relatively silent on the Hindutva issues, promised to bring an end to the jungle raj in Bihar, and pooh-poohed Nitish Kumar's record of governance.

But then Bhagwat stepped in, suggesting a relook at the reservation policy. The battle for Bihar increasingly became a contest between the forward and backward castes. The lynching of a Muslim in Dadri on the suspicion he had consumed beef had a string of BJP leaders articulate the Hindutva position on cow-slaughter, rekindling the debate which had petered out following the governments of Haryana and Maharashtra enacting stringent legislations on it.

Once again, it can be said that a debate on Hindutva constitutes the national backdrop against which a state election is being fought. Should the BJP win Bihar, it will possibly become the norm – in the weeks before an Assembly election, expect a national debate on one of the Hindutva pet peeves.

Should the BJP lose in Bihar, the struggle for determining the party's line is bound to escalate. The hardliners will push their line saying a more vigorous Hindutva component in the poll strategy could have helped them win the state, hoping to swamp those wanting the governance issue to dominate the party's agenda.

But this tussle will not be easy to resolve. This is because Hindutva enables the party to establish its uniqueness. It's inevitable that confusion over the precise proportion of development and Hindutva in the BJP's electoral cocktail will lead to much experimenting to decide on the right flavour. All this will undoubtedly lead to social distress and tension, which militate against the very fundamental idea of development and progress.


Courtesy: Firstpost