As the BJP seeks to replicate its 303-seat win of 2019 in next year’s Lok Sabha polls, one of the issues it is trying to get a handle on are off-the-cuff remarks by party leaders and the continuing activities of its “fringe elements”, with the killing of two people recently on the Haryana-Rajasthan border allegedly by “gau rakshaks” returning the issue to the forefront.
At the BJP national executive meeting held in the national capital last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi cautioned leaders against making unnecessary remarks regarding films and personalities, saying this “overshadows the hard work we do”. It was not the first time he had made the remarks.
According to BJP sources, Modi has often warned “loudmouthed leaders who cannot resist from commenting on anything if they see a mic before them”.
The January remarks followed boycott calls against Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Pathaan by some senior BJP leaders, including Madhya Pradesh Home Minister Narrotam Mishra and Bhopal MP Pragya Thakur.
In a recent virtual address to party legislators, BJP national president J P Nadda asked them to refrain from comments on religion and culture, and to focus on development issues. In an interview with The Indian Express last year, Nadda had said he routinely cautions leaders about this. “But it’s true that there are some who always play to the gallery, to the media. You may have seen that many of them have gone quiet for some days. My job is to stop them at the initial stage itself… We make them understand. Ninety per cent say it (the outburst) was emotional… But I tell them not to (say such things).”
In June last year, the BJP had been quick to sack two spokespersons after their remarks regarding the Prophet saw a massive backlash from Gulf nations. The party said it “accords the highest respect to all religions” and that the remarks of the two “do not, in any manner, reflect the views of the Government of India. These are the views of fringe elements”.
Party members talking out of turn apart, a more protracted problem for the BJP is handling the cow issue. Cows have been on the BJP’s agenda, one way or the other, since its formation. In the 1984 elections, the party manifesto promised total ban on cow slaughter; in the next general elections, in 1989 and 1991, it vowed to work for “the welfare of cows”. The BJP also promised policies for the cow, including its progeny, in 1998, 1999, 2004, 2009 and 2014 – till it dropped the issue from the manifesto in 2019.
This came against the backdrop of the cow problem taking another form, with a crackdown on slaughter seeing a surge in the number of strays. In last year’s Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, one of the states worst hit by stray cows destroying crops, PM Modi himself had promised a new policy if the party was voted back to power, including making even the dung of the animal “lucrative”.
In January, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath pushed for developing a “self-sustainable model” for running gaushalas, while doing a review of cow shelters to be built across the state.
Earlier this month, Union minister Smriti Irani, the MP from Amethi in UP, shot off letters to district magistrates of Amethi and Rae Bareli districts over controlling the stray cattle menace. Flooded with complaints from farmers about cattle destroying the Rabi crop, Irani also sent teams of BJP workers to collect details regarding stray cattle block-wise. In the Amethi area alone, the number of stray cattle was found to be around 25,000.
In the current Lok Sabha, of the 12 people who raised questions regarding stray cattle and the government’s measures to rehabilitate them, 10 belonged to the BJP, of whom six were MPs from UP. They included Gomati Sai (Chhattisgarh); R K Singh Patel (UP); Sangam Lal Gupta (UP); Brijbhushan Sharan Singh (UP); Lallu Singh (UP); Devendra Bhole Singh (UP); Varun Gandhi (UP); Arvind Dharmapuri (Telangana); and Arjunlal Meena (Rajasthan).
Among the questions they raised were “Is the Central government aware of the increasing number of stray cattle in Uttar Pradesh?”, “Is the government taking any concrete steps on it?”, and “Has the government provided budgetary allocation to deal with the issue?”.
The 20th Livestock Census report released in 2019 put the number of stray cattle across the country at 50.21 lakh. In UP, the number went up from 10.09 lakh in 2012 to 11.84 lakh in 2019, according to the Union Ministry of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairying.
A BJP MP from UP said: “Cattle straying into fields and destroying crops was an issue in the last UP election and would have hurt the party had PM Modi not promised the electorate that he would take steps against it. Honestly speaking, there is no constituency in UP where party leaders are not facing angry farmers.”
Minister of State for Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairying Sanjeev Balyan told The Indian Express recently that the Centre will set up a Rs 63-crore pilot project to build a sanctuary for 5,000 cows in his constituency Muzaffarnagar. Once the project is in operation, in about four months, it will be replicated in all the districts, he said, admitting that stray cattle are a “serious issue”.