On the last day’s campaign for 49 seats of eastern UP, a roadshow in Gorakhpur featured BJP president Amit Shah with MP Adityanath, who also spearheads the hardline Hindu Yuva Vahini. What had looked like an unspoken resolve of the BJP, that it would not keep openly repeating its commitment to Hindutva, appears shaken.
Ramesh Chandra Ratan, general secretary of the BJP’s Scheduled Castes Morcha, denies any Hindutva character to the campaign. “We have done very well in all phases, the first three especially. Now it is just a matter of 89 seats [49 and 40] and we have it all under control,” he says in Kushi Nagar.
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However, as the PM invoked graveyards and shamshans, there was a sense of the BJP using a theme thought to have been put on the back-burner, at least its explicit use, after securing New Delhi in 2014. That election, as the BJP rode a smart campaign, few could fault it for running a purely Hindutva campaign. No doubt, Narendra Modi took up a “pink revolution” theme and Amit Shah made some allusions to badla, but the positioning was such that it appeared the BJP no longer felt it necessary to re-emphasise Hindutva — Modi’s personality was so strongly an emblem of Hindutva that nothing needed to be added. What was devised was a sophisticated commitment to “development” and “10 crore jobs in 5 years”.
The BJP would have ideally liked to campaign on vikas this time too. Surveys by scholar G K Leiten in the mid-1990s had revealed a longing for development in rural UP, very much akin to urban areas outside the state and a longing for a cleaner government. That longing has actually deepened with the slowdown in India.
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So what led to the sudden shift in the BJP’s strategy?
First, the Samajwadi Party transformed after Akhilesh’s capture of the party. The slogan Kaam bolta hai and an acceptance of his “intentions” and his image, among even critics, helped turn vikas into a strong Akhilesh attribute. Also, events in Gujarat made vikas a dodgy gold standard for the BJP to cite, with the SP using “no Metro in the state” to counter the BJP-as-modern assertion.
Again, Mayawati’s image as a no-nonsense administrator has made “law and order” an identifier for her regime. Further, crime statistics cited by the PM were robustly contested by the BJP’s opponents citing MP and Rajasthan as bigger crime states.
What was clear ever since the BJP manifesto came out in early February, and which has gathered pace, was vikas and “law and order” with a no-holds-barred Hindutva context. So, “law and order” was expressed through fears of a “Hindu exodus” in Kairana. And vikas had to be laced with references such as “bijli during Ramzan” versus “bijli during “Diwali”.
On February 27, in rallies he addressed with Rahul Gandhi across Gorakhpur, Akhilesh tried to counter the Hindutva twist to development symbols by daring Adityanath (referred to as Baba) to “touch any wire outside his ashram and confirm that power is running”.
The BJP, coming back from a 42.3% share in the Lok Sabha election, has tried to fit this election into a remembrance of the “Vote for Modi” campaign. Dozens of Union ministers and the overdrive in Varanasi, the PM’s Lok Sabha seat, have marked the campaign in this round. Some local BJP old-timers note, however, that after anti-Romeo, Kairana, Kabristan-Shamshan and “Ka-sa-b”, there is little difference between the party and the Hindu Yuva Vahini’s militant rhetoric.
Professor-writer Kumar Harsh can see why the BJP chose to take up emotional Hindutva in this last phase: “This region, while bubbling over with real issues, is still rooted in old-time politics of emotion. The Gorakhpur MP’s address for 27 years has been C/o Gorakhnath Mandir and in assembly seats like Siswa, since 1963, members of only one family have won. So the BJP, desperate by hook or by crook to win this state, has had to fall back on a campaign strategy that is old Hindutva even if in new packaging.”