The folly of polarization boomerangs
Normally no great importance is attached to by-elections in this country which should explain why no Prime Minister has ever canvassed during them. Interestingly, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her son and party vice-president Rahul Gandhi have stuck to this routine even after losing power. During the most recent by-elections to 33 assembly and three parliamentary seats, the Congress’ First Family chose to be abroad.
It must have regretted this because it lost the opportunity to celebrate the jolt the Bharatiya Janata Party has suffered exactly four months after its spectacular success in the parliamentary poll under Narendra Modi’s leadership. Particularly prominent is the saffron party’s overwhelming defeat in the politically key state of Uttar Pradesh where it had won 71 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats on May 16. This time around it has surrendered eight of 11 assembly seats to the Samajwadi Party that rules the state even though the latter’s own record is conspicuously poor.
Even more hurtful to the BJP is that the Congress that was virtually wiped out in the Lok Sabha elections has wrested from it three assembly seats each in the BJP’s bastions, Rajasthan and Mr.Modi’s Gujarat. In UP, however, the Congress has drawn a complete blank. Having slid in nine of the 10 states where by-elections were held, the BJP has a cause for comfort only in West Bengal, where it has wrested a seat from Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress. From the day the Modi government came to power, there have been 50 by-elections across the country.
Of these the BJP and its allies have won only 18 and lost all others. The reason for this serious setback is crystal clear and it is writ large on the political landscape.Mr. Modi may have spoken about development and good governance in the past. Those in charge of the by-elections or chief campaigners in the by-elections never used these expressions. Arrogantly confident of coming to power in this most populous state in 1917, the BJP adopted the wrong, disruptive and dangerous strategy of polarization along religious lines. “Love jihad” was one of its favorite slogans.
As time passed, the tone of the BJP’s UP leaders – such as the president of the party’s state unit, Lakshamikant Bajpai, and the saffron-clad Yogi Adityanath, a five-time MP and the principal campaigner in the state – became more provocative and indeed poisonous. It is noteworthy that neither Prime Minister Modi, nor party president Amit Shah, nor any other senior leader did anything to restrain the Hindutva hotheads. On the contrary, their silence greatly encouraged those spewing venom.
The situation is not without irony. At a time when Bajpai and Yogi Adityanath were shouting hoarse about “love jihad”, an oxymoron that is supposed to mean that Muslims were busy luring Hindu women to marry them and then convert to Islam, the country’s Home Minister and a former president of the BJP, Rajnath Singh, told a press conference that he didn’t know what “love jihad” was. Exactly at that time, Sakshi Maharaj, another saffron-wearing BJP leader in UP, harangued his audience and the media not only about “love jihad” but also about “education in terrorism”.
He thundered that madrasas were teaching “terrorism” to their pupils and “motivating” youth to lure women of other religions with “offers of cash awards – Rs 11 lakh for an affair with a Sikh girl, Rs 10 lakh with a Hindu girl and Rs 7 lakh for a Jain girl”. Not to be left behind, Usha Thakur, a BJP MLA in Madhya Pradesh who is also the vice-president of the party unit in the state, made another startling disclosure: At the prolonged Hindu festival of Garba, according to her, Muslims joined in large numbers. Consequently at the end of this festival every year, four and a half lakh Hindu women were converted to Islam.
Yogi Adityanath reaffirmed that wherever in India the proportion of Muslims in the population was 35 per cent or more “non- Muslims could not be safe”. At this stage no less a person than Union Cabinet minister Maneka Gandhi intervened to declare that “profits made from the trade in slaughtered animals was financing terrorism” and to demand that the slaughter of all animals should be “banned completely”. If this strange and highly controversial statement went relatively unnoticed the reason is that by-election results had started coming and it was immediately obvious that the electorate in UP had rejected with contempt the BJP’s strategy to polarize and divide the country along religious lines.
An accompanying development of significance is that the Election Commission took note of some of Yogi Adityanath’s “hate speeches” and “use of religion for electoral purposes”. He has been asked to explain why requisite action should not be taken against him. An earlier FIR against the BJP’s national president Amit Shah, issued by the UP police, was set aside by a district judge. The critically important need now is for the BJP to abandon its dangerously disastrous electoral strategy of polarization that has already boomeranged.
So Mr. Modi must give priority to this for two reasons, and make up his mind on the subject because he alone can take crucial decisions. The first reason is that assembly elections are due in Maharashtra and Haryana very soon, and the saffron party would be courting huge trouble if it repeats in these two states what it did in UP. It should fully exploit the heavy anti-incumbency the Congress has piled up against itself in both these states. The second reason is that in view of the worsening of the overall situation, our duty is to promote communal harmony, not communal hatred.
(The author is a senior journalist and editor.)