Sometimes it is difficult to separate Hindutva ‘hero’ Narendra Modi from the Prime Minister of India. Every few months, there comes a time in the Indian polity when both the identities converge, erasing the difference between the leader of an ideology and the leader of a country.
That familiar moment made its expected appearance on Monday (April 1) when Modi fired the BJP’s favourite weapon in the battle for 2019. “Congress labelled peace-loving Hindus as terrorists,” he said at a rally in Maharashtra. But, he added ominously for his rivals, the Hindus have now woken up and decided to punish the Congress.
In an election speech, Modi’s favourite word is usually Modi. Since he loves to speak about himself in third person — “Modi hit Pakistan in its own backyard,” or “the opposition is crying Modi conducted surgical strikes,” for instance — his own name is repeated with rhetorical consistency in his rallies. Only on rare occasions is that familiar proper noun replaced with something else. But, when that happens, it is a sign that in the PM’s mind, something more important has replaced the hum of his own name.
Monday was one of those days when the word Hindus was pronounced with remarkable prominence during the campaign in Maharashtra. Apart from attacking the Congress for “denigrating” Hindus, he mourned the coinage of the term “Hindu terror,” asked his audience if “they were hurt when they heard Hindus being blamed for terror attacks” and then argued that the Congress chief had retreated to Wayanad — a constituency in Kerala — because of the fear of Hindu backlash. He concluded by narrating a brief history of Hindus — from his own perspective, of course — by saying in the thousands of years of their history, not a single incident of terror was attributed to the Hindus.
(Incidentally, Modi conveniently forgot that the very land he was standing on — Maharashtra — had given India its first known terrorists, a Hindu called Nathuram Godse and his collaborators in the murder of Mahatma Gandhi. But that’s a different story.) The word saffron terror first came into vogue after a series of bomb blasts in 2007 that targeted the Pakistan-bound Samjhauta Express and a few Muslim and Islamic shrines.
In the aftermath of the blasts, the National Investigation Agency had arrested a few Hindu hardliners and alleged that the attacks were planned by an underground cell led by Hindutva leaders. In February, an NIA court acquitted all those accused in the Samjhauta blast case citing lack of evidence. The court lamented the fact that perpetrators of the blasts that killed 70 persons could not be brought to justice because of the shoddy probe by the NIA.
In any other country, the inability of a premier probe agency to bring terrorists to justice would have been a matter a shame, an indictment of the system. But, candidate Modi has decided to use it as a weapon against the opposition, as a poll issue to deepen the communal divide. This is, however, standard operating procedure for the BJP in a poll campaign. Since its vote base comprises Hindutva flag bearers, it always reaches out to them in an election in a bid to convey to them the BJP is still the party of the majority and its rivals are the enemies of the community. The messaging is aimed also at uniting the Hindutva family in case its members get divided on caste lines.
India’s electoral history suggests, the BJP uses its Hindutva missile usually when it is not sure of the efficacy of the other weapons in its arsenal. It is generally perceived as its final attempt to destroy an opposition that’s not being pulverised by its strategies. So far, in this election, the BJP has talked about surgical strikes, air raids on the Balakot terror camp, successful test of India’s anti-satellite technology; it has sought vote on the issue of nationalism and the PM’s performance. Its decision to mobilise Hindutva and send it to battle suggests the party needs more help to win the 2019 battle.
A similar strategy was on display in Delhi during the 2015 assembly polls when the BJP, unable to push back the AAP, amped up the Hindutva narrative by sending some of its hotheads to campaign. But its effort to create a fake binary between “Ramzaade (sons of Lord Rama) and haramzaade (those born out of wedlock) misfired. A few months later, caught in a tough battle with the Nitish Kumar-led alliance in Bihar, the BJP tried to pitch itself as the party of Hindus and its rivals as heroes of Pakistan. At a rally, BJP chief Amit Shah claimed if the JD(U)-RJD alliance were to win, celebrations would start in Pakistan. That argument too failed to convince voters.
In spite of some setbacks, Hindutva has usually worked for the BJP. In 2017, the BJP positioned itself as a party of Hindus, derided the Samajwadi and Bahujan Samaj parties for favouring the minorities. This was underlined by Modi’s controversial claims that during the then CM Akhilesh Yadav’s tenure there were power cuts on Diwali but not on Eid and that land was easily available for kabristan (burial ground for Muslims) but not for shamshan (crematorium for Hindus).
The BJP further played up its Hindutva credentials by not fielding a single Muslim candidate in UP. The strategy helped BJP sweep the election in a state where communal divisions run deep and can be easily exploited. His speech in Maharashtra suggests the BJP is once again ready to practise its patent philosophy: when in doubt, use Hindutva.