SURIR, Uttar Pradesh — "In UP, the cow is mummy, but in Goa, the cow is yummy," Amit Jani roared into the mike, as he ripped into the Bharatiya Janata Party, accusing its leaders of using Hindutva just to get votes.
The crowd of a few hundred spectators obliged, snickering and pumping their fists in the air when Jani targeted Manohar Parrikar, Goa's chief minister, who had warned cow vigilantes to back off in the coastal state.
There was, however, barely a ripple in the crowd when Jani, a wealthy businessman from Meerut, introduced his star candidates for next year's Lok Sabha election: three men accused of violent hate crimes against Muslims.
Jani, a natural performer, thundered: "Have you heard of Dadri? Raise your hands if you have heard of Dadri. Have you heard of Bisada village? A cow was killed and beef was found in the house of Mohammad Akhlaq!" Jani roared. (The UP police has not established whether there was beef in Akhlaq's house).
Sisodia is one of the 17 men accused of beating Akhlaq, a Muslim ironsmith, to death in September 2015. Sherawat is the prime accused in the murder ofJunaid Khan, a 16-year-old boy who was stabbed on a Mathura-bound train in June 2017.
Jani's Uttar Pradesh Navnirman Sena, a radical Hindutva outfit based in Meerut, is also fielding Shambu Lal Raigar, who hacked a Muslim man to death in December 2017.
When Jani first announced that he would use his considerable wealth to help three men accused of lynching Muslims elected to the Lok Sabha, it was not clear whether the wealthy businessman from Meerut was just trying to garner attention or whether he meant to follow through. What also remained to be seen was whether people would respond to his politics of hate.
At the time, HuffPost India had pointed out that the very existence of such a political front was a consequence of the rabid Hindu-radicalisation of the country's public discourse and electoral process since Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party swept to power.
On Sunday, dressed in a saffron kurta, Sherawat, who was released on bail last week, folded his hands in front of the spectators. Sisodia, who is also out on bail, looked visibly uncomfortable when Jani made him out to be a hero of the lynching in Dadri. After all, while the 28-year-old has said that he supports violence in the name of cow protection, he maintains that he did not kill Akhlaq.
"Hariom Sisodia, you have spent two years in jail in the name of gau raksha so please be our candidate in the election from Noida," Jani boomed. The applause came only from Jani's supporters who were on the stage.
"Will you call up your comrades in Noida and tell them to vote for Hariom Sisodia?" Only one voice was heard saying, "Yes, of course."
While his image was plastered on the rally posters, Raigar, who is currently lodged in jail, was not present at the venue. His brother, however, had brought supporters on a bus from their hometown in Jodhpur, Rajasthan.
When Jani asked if they would vote for these "lions" of Hindutva, the spectators remained non-committal.
Earlier in the day, there were claims that at least 2,000 people would attend the rally, but only a couple of hundred turned up. As they crowded around the stage, the fraying red carpets that were laid out for people to sit remained unused.
But the poor turnout did not dampen Jani, who announced that the UP Navnirman Sena would contest all 80 seats in Lok Sabha.
As it became clear that his message of violent Hindutva had not drawn many people to the rally, Jani, who used to work for the Samajwadi Party, sought to downplay the reaction. "This is the very first rally. It does not matter if there are two or two thousand who come. We take one spectator as fifty spectators," he told HuffPost India.
Just a few weeks ago, Jani had blustered about lakhs of supporters spread across Uttar Pradesh and hinted at emerging as the Bal Thackeray of India's most populous state.
When asked if Hindutva had reached its sell-by date, in the backdrop of staggering unemployment and record-high fuel prices, Jani said, "If 2002 had not happened, then Modi would not be prime minister", referring to the Gujarat riots which had erupted when Modi, now prime minister, was chief minister of the state.
"People are moving away from Modi not from Hindutva," he said.
Politics of hate
In an interview with HuffPost India earlier this month, Jani had explained why he thought that fielding men accused of lynching Muslims would help him carve out a space in Indian politics.
The 36-year-old father of two children rationalised that the BJP incited communal hatred, leading young Hindu men to take the law into their own hands. But then the party would back off, leaving the accused to fend for themselves.
Jihadis, he said, were assured that they would go to heaven for committing violent acts to protect Islam. But there was no force—divine or political—looking out for Hindus. Fielding three candidates accused of lynching Muslims would be "incentive", and make it easier to recruit Hindu "fidayeens", he claimed.
Jani said that he plans to open a free "weapons training centre", where Hindus can learn to handle guns. He called it a one-time investment in Hindutva.
Blame it on the helicopter
Jani exudes confidence that his campaign of hate will gain momentum, but even his close aides believe that another Hindutva front would serve only to divide local BJP votes in the constituencies that he is planning to field his candidates.
Observers say that Jani's presence bothers local BJP leaders, who, in light of Modi's diminishing appeal, will have to fight to retain their seats in 2019 election. This unease explains why the local administration came under pressure to cancel Jani's request to land a helicopter at the rally ground after granting him permission.
Earlier in the day, Jani had confided that a big selling point for the rally had been his arriving in a helicopter. En route to the rally ground, as news of the poor numbers tricked in, he questioned why the local administration had retracted permission.
"The reason they have given is Navratri. Did they not know Navratri was happening when they granted permission in the first place?" he seethed, while explaining that he had made arrangements not to land in a "small" helicopter but the kind used by the prime minister and chief minister.
"They probably thought it was okay as long as he was landing in some small helicopter, but when they saw it was the best, then they cancelled permission," he said. "People think that someone landing in a big helicopter means the person is serious and must be taken seriously. That is what I wanted. Perception is everything in politics."
The posters for the event had said that Jani would arrive in a helicopter.
As Jani got down from his car at the rally grounds, a local man announced, "Amit Jani, whom we all have been waiting for is here, but he has come in a car instead of a helicopter."
Paging Yogi Adityanath
Even Jani's political circles believe the extreme step he has taken is aimed at grabbing public attention in the hope of making his way into the BJP.
"I have worked as a politician for many years but you do not know my name, but after he announced that he was fielding three accused men, everyone is talking about him," said his friend, speaking on condition of anonymity.
If that is the case, then Jani is doing little more than using men accused of hate crimes to serve his personal ambition.
Speaking to local channels after the rally, Jani attacked Modi and praised Yogi Adityanath.
"Hindus will continue working until Yogi Adityanath is Prime Minister," he said. "We have announced that we want Yogi to be PM. Modi has done fraud in the name of Ram Temple, Article 370, Kashmir issue, population-control law, Ganga cleaning and gau raksha. He is fraudster and UP will no longer tolerate this fraudster from Gujarat. If the CM is from UP then the PM should also be from UP."
Point of view
Harish Singh, a local farmer, who was sitting outside the pandal and smoking a beedi, said that he had heard about Jani and his rally earlier in the day and had come to take a look.
Singh said that he liked Jani because the UP Navnirman Sena chief had attacked the Modi government for amending the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, which now allows for the registering of an FIR without an initial inquiry, and allows the officer on duty to do so without permission from a senior official.
The 60-year-old claimed that false cases were being registered against Rajputs, and this was the only issue that mattered to him and his community.
"We won't vote for Modi this time around," he said. "Mark my words, the amendments to the SC/ST act will be the downfall of Modi."
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