BJP leader Amit Shah’s talk of “izzat (honour)”, “apmaan” (insult) and “badla (revenge)” in the run-up to the election in Muzaffarnagar in UP is offensive — Muzaffarnagar is yet to recover from the communal violence it was convulsed by last year, there is a precarious truce between communities.
Shah’s rhetoric is also dispiriting. It indicates that, on the ground, the BJP campaign is not staying with the themes it projects in Delhi: its identification of sliding economic growth, price rise and corruption as the problems and its broadcasting of Narendra Modi, his leadership and the “Gujarat model” as solution. While even that message could be judged as problematic for its obsessive focus on the leader’s persona, it did seem to play down divisive issues. The gap that has been revealed now between Delhi and Muzaffarnagar cannot be ignored or excused. As the party that is widely seen as the strongest challenger for power at the Centre, the BJP must take responsibility and visible corrective action. Or, face the charge that its campaign speaks in two voices, using a moderate veneer to cover up a polarising politics.
There are several reasons why what Amit Shah says and does in Muzaffarnagar cannot be dismissed as a footsoldier’s departure from script. Shah, a former minister of state for home in Modi’s cabinet, currently out on bail on charges of extortion and conspiracy in connection with fake encounter cases, is a high-profile and controversial figure. On election-eve, this key Modi lieutenant was entrusted with the UP campaign, and parachuted in from Gujarat. Since then, he has worked to set the tenor of the BJP’s mobilisation in a state Modi has chosen to contest from as well. If Modi’s candidature from Varanasi acknowledged UP’s outsized grip on the national imagination, it also follows that what the BJP does in UP cannot now be played down as a matter of local context or compulsion.
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Only recently, the BJP loudly protested against Congress chief Sonia Gandhi’s meeting with the Shahi Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid, and accused her of “communalising” the election through her reported soliciting of the support of Muslims in this manner. The BJP may well have had a point, even though the Shahi Imam’s influence on the “Muslim vote” is vastly exaggerated. But the Amit Shah controversy now forces the party firmly on to the backfoot. The questions raised by his vicious campaign in Muzaffarnagar demand an answer from Modi. As the perceived frontrunner in this election, it is for him to take the call: does he want his 2014 bid for the Centre to be as discoloured by bitterness and fear as his campaign for Gujarat in the aftermath of the 2002 riots? As voting begins, Modi must decide whether he can afford to allow the Amit Shah message to linger on in the minds of potential allies and the people.