In Jaipur on Wednesday, BJP president Amit Shah touched on issues and spoke of them in a language that must be heard as a signal and a warning. It is a signal, an intimation of the tone and content of the electioneering for 2019 that may have already begun. It is a warning that the campaign will be more stripped of compassion and civility than is already anticipated and feared.
As the chief of the party that rules at the Centre and in a majority of the states, what Shah says, the words he chooses, matter. So if the BJP president issues a “chun chun ke nikalenge (we will expel them, one by one)” threat to the illegal Bangladeshi (read Muslim) immigrant while welcoming Hindus from there as “our brothers” and “asylum seekers”, if he refers to the lynching of 50-year-old Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri three Septembers ago on the mere suspicion of storing beef, and the “award wapsi” campaign mirroring civil society outrage that followed it, as events that could not stand in the way of the BJP’s electoral success, if he repeats unproven and unprovable canards against the civil society activists arrested and raided recently while painting a dire opposition between “human rights” and “national security”, it means that the country may be in for a contest that could drag politics to new lows.
The BJP has always had a multi-layered appeal, speaking, often in the same breath, of development and change, Hindutva and hard nationalism, hope and fear. With the elevation of Narendra Modi to its high command, the package seemed to expand and grow, to include the leader’s charisma, a new appetite to win power and exercise it, a more unforgiving approach to opposition and the political opponent.
Through the BJP’s tenure in power at the Centre since 2014, these elements in its package have not just coexisted, they have also clashed and collided. But if Shah’s sharpened focus in Jaipur on a set of issues — Akhlaq lynching, Bangladeshi immigrants, National Register of Citizens, surgical strikes on Pakistan, and a national pride that feeds on the rhetoric of “urban Naxals” — is indication, the 2019 die has been cast in favour of a BJP that is a harder, narrower version of itself.
While “sabka saath, sabka vikas” may always have been more slogan less policy, it will sit ever more uneasily with the kind of party that was glimpsed in its president’s speeches in Jaipur. In the end, the BJP is a political party free to make its own electoral calculus. And Shah is right, Mohammad Akhlaq’s murder probably did not cost the party any votes. Yet, Amit Shah’s BJP must ask itself: Is it losing something more intangible by choosing the politics of fear? Even as it wins elections in a diverse polity, what’s the cost of that victory?