Here’s a simple question: why did the Modi magic work in Uttar Pradesh so gloriously but fail so conspicuously to cast its charm in Punjab, Goa and Manipur? If the Bharatiya Janata Party is the new pan-India party and if Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the only pan-Indian leader, as was loudly claimed after the civic polls in Maharashtra, then why have the party and the leader failed to click beyond good old UP?
The answer is simple: a Hindu vote bank has been cobbled together and sustained there because UP has a sizeable Muslim population, against whom ancient prejudices and new resentments could be stimulated. This is the bottom line of an otherwise complicated electoral contest.
The Modi crowd can be expected to reject any suggestion of a Hindu vote-bank and the secular parties and leaders may also refuse to acknowledge it, but there is only one way to read the UP vote: the Hindu vote stands consecrated.
The process that was initiated prior to the 2014 Lok Sabha campaign was never allowed to fade away. The Muzaffarnagar violence of 2013 and its memory were assiduously kept alive. Even Kabir’s famous verse ‘Rahiman dhaga prem ka’ had to be cited to remind one and all of the knotted connection that had come to define Hindu-Muslim ties in village after village.
It may be instructive to remind ourselves that the BJP and its allies did not field a single Muslim candidate in Uttar Pradesh. The party contested 380 seats and left 23 for its allies. This exclusion was a matter of conscious choice, a part of an unsentimental, unconfused strategy. It had worked so well in 2014 when for the first time since 1952 Uttar Pradesh did not elect a single Muslim to the Lok Sabha. In 2014, a message was successfully transmitted that the majority community was under siege and that the BJP, under Modi’s leadership, was the only party that could see to it that the community’s interests were defended and its values preserved.
It has been suggested that the UP verdict is a vote on demonetisation, as well as an endorsement of the ‘surgical strikes’. The suggestion is that voters were happy to put up with all the notebandi-centric dislocations and disruptions because it had put the terrorists out of business and that Pakistan’s dirty designs had come to naught. But then why should this nationalistic messaging be confined to UP? No one can argue that voters in Punjab, Goa and Manipur lack in patriotism; Punjab being a border state has every reason to be receptive to any anti-Pakistan sales-pitch. Yet, the BJP lost even the Pathankot, Dinanagar and Gurdaspur assembly seats, where terror-attacks took place under Modi’s watch. In fact, the BJP contested 23 seats in Punjab and managed to win only three. Similarly, Goa has the honour of being the home state of our hon’ble defence minister – who single-handedly instigated the government’s muscular anti-Pakistani narrative. Modi campaigned in all the other three states, though not in every galli as he did in eastern Uttar Pradesh. Yet the electorate remained immune to the Modi charm, as also to the presumed curative power of his leadership.
Three steps to a vote-bank
The Modi magic worked in Uttar Pradesh because of a very sizeable Muslim presence. That made it easy to effortlessly inject zero-sum sentimentality into the election-time discourse. This is not the first time a Hindu consolidation has been attempted. It has been working rather well in Gujarat since 2002. It worked in UP in 2017 perfectly because of three convergences. First, the Hindus could be made to feel aggrieved. The BJP’s two principal rivals – the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party – could be portrayed as being too solicitous and too eager to court the Muslim voter. A certain kind of moral authority was grafted around the Hindus’ perceived sense of grievances. In particular, the upper castes and the non-Yadav OBCs could be made to feel the threat of being deprived of their legitimate share in the power arrangements because both the BSP and the SP (along with the old culprit, the Congress) were pandering to the Muslims. With behan Mayawati’s BSP openly basing its electoral pitch on a Dalit-Muslim axis, the BJP rhetoric and tactics seemed morally justified to the upper castes. A kind of moral equivalence was manufactured about speaking up for the Hindus.
Second, the Hindus in UP could be summoned to a kind of solidarity because the anti-Muslim sentiment was served up with an anti-Pakistani dressing. The prime minister’s reference to the Kanpur rail accident and to the “conspirators” sitting across the borders was not at all an innocent invocation. The trick has always been to make the Hindus see a connection between India’s Muslims and Pakistan. The BJP president used the acronym ‘KASAB’ to make the point — and the connection.
Third, Modi is an authentic salesman for the “Hindu cause.” At the core of his appeal, since 2002, is a political persona that is unapologetically committed to securing the majority community’s interests. He does not suffer from any secular squeamishness. His Fatehpur speech, on February 23, was a classic: “If you create a kabristan in a village, then a shamshaan should also be created … Bhedbhaav nahin hona chahiye [there should be no discrimination].”
Pitch perfect. Modi’s BJP has won a famous victory in Uttar Pradesh on a stupendous scale that eluded the party during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s heyday. The ‘Modi wave’ has eclipsed the ‘Ram wave’ of the 1990s. For now, Corporate India will be expected to shed its reluctance to invest, just as the foreign investor would also feel emboldened to take a few risks. The Indian polity stands re-jigged. First after 2014, and now after 2017, the message is clear: Muslim votes are not needed to capture power in India because a Hindu vote-bank has come into existence and it will not be allowed to disintegrate. A kind of politics of exclusion would inevitably assert itself.
The votes have been counted, a mandate procured, and Narendra Modi’s unchallenged leadership established. What next? Will a renewed Modi do a better job of protecting and securing our best national interest? The primary responsibility of a leader, anywhere and at any time in any society, is to establish and deepen social harmony and trust among communities and citizens. That task has just become a little complicated. At the moment of his resounding success, Modi has also deepened a fault-line for the Indian state.
Harish Khare is Editor-in-Chief of The Tribune, where this article first appeared.