NEW DELHI -- Despite its failure to divide voters on religious lines in the Bihar polls, the Bharatiya Janata Party has unleashed a polarizing campaign for a by-election in Muzaffarnagar, one of Uttar Pradesh’s most communally sensitive spots. On Saturday, by-polls to three assembly constituencies will be held in UP--Muzaffarnagar, Deoband and Bikapur.
A vacuum of new ideas and the absence of a strong leader in U.P. is forcing the BJP to test how far communal polarization can still work as a strategy to woo voters for the big show down of the State Assembly Election in 2017, experts say.
"It is a trial balloon. BJP is making Muzaffarnagar as an iconic electoral plan. It (communal polarization) was key to their victory in the Lok Sabha election and they want to know whether it could be repeated," said Ashutosh Misra, a political science professor at Lucknow University. "So, they are speaking out in public meetings and doing so unapologetically."
While campaigning for the assembly by-election in Muzaffarnagar, BJP leaders have been gloating about the deadly religious violence which engulfed the countryside of Muzaffarnagar in the autumn of 2014, driving tens of thousands from their homes, and ripping apart communities which had lived together for centuries.
Speaking at an election rally in Muzaffarnagar, last week, Umesh Malik, a local BJP leader, declared that embers from the Muzaffarnagar communal violence spread to the rest of the country, "and made Narendra Modi the prime minister.”
Raising the cry of Bahu-Beti Ke Samman Mein, BJP Maidan Mein (BJP is in the field to protect your daughters), BJP campaigners are setting the party up as the protector of the honour of Hindu Jats, who have accused the Samajwadi Party government of targeting innocent men in their community to appease Muslims. The BJP also assumed the role of guarding Hindu women against the advances of Muslim men. Two years on, these two reasons still resonate in the hinterland.
BJP's campaigners in Muzaffarnagar are men charged with inciting the violence in 2013--Sanjeev Balyan, Hukum Singh, Suresh Rana and Sangeet Singh Som, The Indian Express reported.
While Modi was promising "development" if his party came to power in the national election, Balyan called a spade a spade. "It is about swabhiman (self-esteem), not sadak (road)," he said.
Balyan, who won from the Muzaffarnagar constituency, was made Union Minister of State for Agriculture in the Modi government. Singh also won a seat from Kairana constituency in riot-hit western Uttar Pradesh. Rana and Som are BJP lawmakers in the State Assembly.
In the Lok Sabha election in 2014, BJP won 71 out of 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh. In the 2012 State Assembly election, BJP came in third after the ruling-Samajvadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, with 51 seats.
Amit Shah, whose remark about fireworks in Pakistan was widely regarded as distasteful during the Bihar campaign, has just been reelected as the party president for a second term. While BJP lost Bihar under Shah, he engineered his party's sweeping victory in the Lok Sabha election, held six months after the Muzaffarnagar riots.
Shah set the tone for the 2017 polls in U.P. while speaking at the opening ceremony of the Priyakantju Temple in Vrindavan on Monday. Shah said that Modi was a guardian of Hinduism, and BJP state governments were also protecting "our culture." "Jitna aur saath hoga utni gati tez hogi (the more support we get, the faster would be our pace)," he said, The Times of India reported.
BJP's strategy of religious polarization could still work in Uttar Pradesh because its politics and politicians are different from Bihar's priorities and leaders, experts say.
The obvious difference is that caste rather than religion is the dominant factor in Bihar, but it is even more significant that Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar simply didn't respond to BJP's communalizing tactics, said Badri Narayan Tiwari, a professor at the G.B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad. On the other hand, the Samajwadi Party and the Congress Party strive to get the Muslim vote, which attracts Hindus to BJP's polarising ploys, he said.
For the by-election in Muzaffarnagar, the Congress Party is fielding Salman Saeed, who was also charged for making inflammatory speeches ahead of the religious violence.
"Bihar and UP are different," said Tiwari.
It isn't just Muzaffarnagar. In the communally sensitive Deoband constituency in Saharanpur, home to the Islamic seminary Darul Uloom, BJP is fielding former Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) activist Rampal Pundir.
“Ek bhay hoga unke andar. Hamara terror hoga unke upar, unke gundon par (Muslims will feel scared. They and their hooligans will feel our terror)," he told The Indian Express. “This election has become a fight between Hindus and Muslims because Hindus are unsafe."
In Bikapur, the BJP candidate is long-time Ram Temple activist, Ram Krishna Tiwari, BJP's president for Faizabad district, who was jailed in 2013 for defying the state government's ban on the 84-Kosi Parikrama.
But all the polarizing candidates at the local level can't mask the absence of one leader to carry the election for the BJP, pointed out A.K. Verma, a political science professor at Christ Church College in Kanpur. "The nature of contest is becoming presidential in India, and their most crucial problem is that they have not been able to project a face in Uttar Pradesh," he said.
Lacking ingenuity and a face for the election, Misra believes that BJP will be more, not less, aggressive with its communalizing agenda whether it "clicks or not."
"U.P. is a matter of life and death for them. And it is make or break for Modi and Shah. They will use all the tools in their tool box and communalism will be the most potent weapon in their armoury," he said.
So far, neither the Modi government nor the senior leadership of the BJP have reined in their local leaders or their vitriol.
Even local observers are taken aback by the directness of BJP's Hindutva messaging in this Muzaffarnagar by-election, especially after the backlash against the Modi government for rising intolerance triggered by the Dadri Lynching, which also occurred in western Uttar Pradesh, last year.
During his trip to the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told a foreign journalist that not a single incident of intolerance was acceptable in the land of Gandhi and Buddha, but Malik recently boasted about the meeting which triggered the violence in Muzaffaranagar. “Friends, the mahapanchayat did take place. The entire planning was done in jail,” he said.
"This is the only language they know, where they see a possibility. They have been successful here and think they can do it again," said Tiwari.