The lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq in Dadri near Delhi, over false accusations of possessing cow meat, had started a debate over beef in 2015. This was around the time campaigning for the Bihar assembly elections were at its peak. An ANI reporter asked Lalu Yadav what he thought of the beef controversy. In his rambling reply, Yadav said some Hindus also eat beef/meat, adding that they should not (video). He even said eating beef caused illnesses.
During elections, Hindi news channels aren't content with being pro-BJP. They turn into party channels, actively campaigning for them. So they picked up the bits where he said some Hindus also eat beef, and played it into endless loop and cooked up a controversy. 'Lalu says Hindus eat beef,' became a matter of debate.
With BJP president Amit Shah himself stationed in Patna, the BJP decided to turn beef into a major election issue. As if the news channels weren't enough, the RSS started taking out early morning marches on the issue. The BJP attacked the Mahagatbandhan day in and day out over the comment, seeking to polarise voters.
'Do you agree with Lalu that Hindus eat beef?' was the question being asked. Locally, rumours were spread that the Nitish-Lalu-Congress 'Grand Alliance' would open cow slaughterhouses in every district if they came to power. The BJP's Sushil Modi said the BJP would ban cow slaughter if it came to power, never mind that cow slaughter has been banned in Bihar since 1955.
Do not answer
In such a situation, the Mahagatbandhan feared losing the narrative to the BJP. Lalu Yadav issued customary denials but the Mahagatbandhan did not fall into the trap. It knew that responding too much to the beef campaign of the BJP would actually make it an issue. It didn't matter what they would have said, saying anything over the word 'beef' would have helped the BJP.
Instead, the Mahagatbandhan decided to change the narrative. Lalu Yadav became even more aggressive over RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat's remark on re-thinking reservations for OBCs. He started carrying with him MS Golwalkar's Bunch Of Thoughts, alleging he had made anti-OBC remarks, daring the BJP to disown Golwalkar.
The more the BJP said 'beef?', the more Lalu replied 'backwards?' referring to OBCs, the Other Backward Classes. This went on for about two weeks, eventually leaving the BJP wondering why 'beef' was not working.
Apart from Delhi, the Bihar assembly election is the only one the BJP had a good chance of winning but lost. (It is easy for the pundits to say caste numbers were with the Mahagatbandhan. Had 'beef' managed to polarise voters and make the BJP win, the same pundits would have said the Mahagatbandhan lost due to 'Muslim appeasement'.)
The lesson from this Bihar story is that Hindutva is best defeated by ignoring it. Merely ignoring it is not enough though, one has to change the conversation, make something else a popular political narrative so that Hindutva doesn't occupy mindspace.
Turn right for Hindutva
This is important in 2017, when the Modi government seems to have taken a decisive turn towards Hindutva. Making Hindutva figure Yogi Adityanath the Uttar Pradesh chief minister, reviving the Babri Masjid issue by asking courts to expedite the trial of BJP leaders in the case, aggressively raising the issue of triple talaq as if there is no other problem India's women face, and a concerted push at all levels against meat-eating – all of these together suggest that post-demonetisation, the Modi government has decided to actively pursue Hindutva.
The farm loan waiver in Uttar Pradesh, going contrary to assertions the BJP doesn't believe in 'doles' like the Congress, was in some measure admission of the failure of 'Modinomics'. Demonetisation didn't destroy any black money as the government had hoped. Private investment refuses to pick up, the GDP growth rate is falling. The government doesn't have money for 'universal basic income'.
The 'Make in India' campaign promised manufacturing jobs but unemployment figures are gloomier by the day. The Ganga hasn't been cleaned up, the villages don't have high-speed internet through lines, and India is not rid of open defecation, Kahsmir and Chattisgarh continue to bring coffins home.
Reclaiming the 'Vikas' narrative
Such things by the third year of a government are usually the dawn of 'anti-incumbency'. Before that could set in, the Modi government has cleverly sought to shift public discussion from Swachh Bharat to Ram temple; from Make in India to meat eating; from demonetisation to Muslim personal law; from Namami Gange to Yogi Adityanath, and so on.
If the opposition responds to these, it will fall in the BJP trap and help make Hindutva the central political issue – as we see every day. Organising beef festivals or butchering a calf isn't the best way to resist Hindutva. What the opposition needs to do, instead, is to bring attention back to rural distress, unemployment, river and air pollution, caste justice and so on.
In Uttar Pradesh, the Babri trial quickly shifted attention from atrocities against Dalits in Saharnpur. A smart opposition would shift the focus back to current law and order problems, not the demolition of a mosque decades ago.
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