The BJP contested the 2014 general elections with the promise to bring back 'acchhe din' (good days), to India and was rewarded by the people who voted them back to power after a gap of 10 years. This election had two firsts for the BJP: one, it entered the electoral fray on the planks of 'good governance' and 'development', with the Hindutva agenda being diluted and consigned to the last few pages of the party's manifesto. Two, it received a clear mandate from the electorate for the first time since its inception.
The confrontational politics involving Sangh affiliates were seen as attempts to unleash the dominant community ideology on minority castes and communities.
On coming to power, the division of the executive was precisely done, with the party retaining the core ministries of Home, Finance and Defence and with a clear agenda of bolstering India's stature in world politics and revamping an economy hit hard by the policy paralysis of the previous government. The portfolios of culture and education, on the other hand, were assigned to RSS protégés in the party with the mandate for saffronization and expanding right wing ideology among the youth in the country.
The BJP innings started on a good note with Prime Minister Narendra Modi embarking on a spree of foreign visits to bring investment in India. At home, various initiatives were launched, such as auctioning coal blocks and spectrum in telecom sector, speeding up infrastructure projects like national highways, power sector reforms, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, FDI in the insurance sector, direct government-to-government deals for defence procurement. To revive the ailing Indian economy, the Budget presented in 2015 instilled confidence in investors by assuring them of a non-aggressive direct tax administration and simplifying tax rules. This was followed by an inclusive and pro-poor Budget in 2016 aimed at providing relief to the farm sector and the poor.
These initiatives are positive and pragmatic and will definitely benefit the country in the long term and bring electoral rewards for the party in the future.
Unfortunately, there's another side to the government evident in their involvement (although indirectly at times) in incidents pointing to religious intolerance and discrimination against certain communities. Hate-mongering speeches by party leaders, ghar wapsi (reconversions into Hinduism), moral policing and abrogation of extra-judicial powers, as well as perceived discrimination against students and certain sections of marginalized communities seem to have eclipsed the laudable efforts of the government in other areas.
The public debate was turned into a screaming match about 'national vs. anti-national' by the saffron brigade... driving a deep wedge in the already polarized public opinion.
The confrontational politics involving Sangh affiliates and fringe groups were seen as attempts to unleash the dominant community ideology and cultural practices on minority castes and communities. It not only threatened to polarize the people on religious and ethnic lines but also disturbed the prevailing peace and harmony in the country. This led to 'award wapsi', a form of protest in which writers and other intellectuals returned their state awards, but this effort soon faded. However, close on its heels came the widespread protests against the suicide of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula, who was held to be a victim of systemic violence. The recent crackdown on students in JNU for 'anti-national' activities also resulted in widespread protest from academia and students. The JNU row and the violence committed by lawyers against students in a court in Delhi are ominous signs of the communalization and politicization of state institutions. The public debate was turned into a screaming match about 'national vs. anti-national' by the saffron brigade in connivance with a few state actors and media houses, driving a deep wedge in the already polarized and fractured public opinion in the country.
With the announcement of polls in four states of West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and the union territory of Puducherry, BJP was quick to announce that it would raise the issue of nationalism among the electorate and expose the pseudo-nationalism propagated by the Congress and the Left parties.
Of polls and poles
It is important to decode the Jekyll and Hyde politics of the BJP and understand whether is driven by a binary strategy: a development agenda for national elections and confrontational politics for electoral competitions in states.
The compulsions of electoral politics compelled the propaganda machine in the BJP to politicize the [JNU protest] and position the party as the only nationalist one.
A quick recap of the electoral strategy of the BJP since the Lok Sabha elections reveals that the party banked on the development plank and the astute leadership of Narendra Modi to win seats. However in caste-ridden and communally fragile states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, it played the Hindutva/communal card for polarization of votes in its favour in conjunction with capitalizing on the 'Modi wave'.
The twin strategy worked very well to an extent in state elections, until the Delhi elections where it received a huge electoral setback. The next litmus test was Bihar, which was crucial for the party as a victory here would have increased their representation in the Rajya Sabha where treasury bills for big ticket reforms are being stalled by the Congress-led opposition. It started the campaign in the initial phases of elections on the development agenda and ending the prevailing misrule of the incumbent government but it failed to cut ice among the voters. The campaign was escalated to communal issues, but it backfired and the BJP suffered a humiliating defeat in the hands of a united opposition.
The BJP was staring in a political vacuum and knew it had to forge a new electoral strategy for upcoming polls given that the odds were stacked against it. Incidentally, the celebration of the 'martyrdom' of Afzal Guru and the raising of pro-Pakistani slogans in JNU by a handful of students happened last year too, but went largely unnoticed. The compulsions of electoral politics compelled the propaganda machine in the BJP to politicize the issue this time and position the party as the only nationalist one in the country. The Congress and the Left parties jumped into the fray and came out openly in support of the students accused of 'anti-national' activities in JNU and other universities.
The ongoing debate on nationalism vs. anti-nationalism has created a deep chasm among the youth in the country and will certainly have a political fallout. The decision on the JNU event being seditious or not is pending in the courts of law, but it will definitely become an election pitch and reverberate in the forthcoming state polls, becoming a decisive factor in shaping the electoral verdicts.
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