Will ‘gau raksha’ come in the way of the BJP expanding in the South and North East? An excerpt from Prashant Jha’s ‘How the BJP wins’.

Mission 2019 How the BJP plays its Hindutva card will decide its political future
Features Book Excerpt Friday, September 29, 2017 - 16:19

Make no mistake. Emphasizing its Hindu credentials, and in the process stoking resentment against Muslims and ‘secular’ political parties which also cater to Muslims, has helped the BJP. In this quest, the party is willing to deliberately use tools of deception. It is willing to disrupt social harmony. It is willing to stoke low-intensity conflict and even riots.

Many tend to view the BJP in a compartmentalized manner – as a modernist outfit which believes in vikas and prosperity, and as a Hindu revivalist party which believes in the politics of hate. And they tend to praise the former, and hope the latter will fade away or argue it is what keeps the BJP down.

This is an artificial, and false, division. The BJP is both. It is a Hindu party. Its leaders and support base harbour deep resentment against Muslims. It does not hesitate to sharpen the Hindu–Muslim divide in the pursuit of political power. And it also believes that infrastructure, investment and the modern economy are essential to catapult India to the global high table.

This formula has worked well for it. The 2014 elections had both strands. The UP election too, as this book documents, had a strong element of Hindutva rhetoric to accompany the BJP’s promise of development for all. In fact, the two were often interlinked, for the party claimed that under the SP regime Muslims had benefited disproportionately and that it would restore equality.

But anti-Muslim politics in itself is not enough to win the BJP elections.

And that is why the future of the party is also dependent on how it calibrates the use of the Hindutva card. The appointment of Yogi Adityanath was an acknowledgement, to some extent, of the ‘Hindu’ nature of the mandate and the Hindu unity which underpinned it. The crackdown on ‘illegal’ slaughterhouses may have been pushed under the framework of rule of law, and environmental regulations, but it was a signal to the Muslims. And the cow vigilantism we have witnessed – from Mohammad Akhlaq’s lynching in 2015 to Pehlu Khan’s murder in 2017 – is the most violent expression of Hindutva. The BJP and the Sangh ecosystem may distance themselves from it, and blame it on fringe groups, but there is no denying the political leadership has not dealt with it seriously, which in turn has been construed as tacit sanction.

The politics of gau raksha, in fact, offers interesting pointers on the trade-off involved in Hindutva politics for the BJP.

Many in the party are concerned neither about the killings nor about the criticism that inevitably follows such incidents. They believe that this helps the party consolidate Hindus. A party leader says, ‘The violence is wrong. But the fundamental question here is, should we respect the cow or not? Should we respect the sentiments of the Hindus of this country, or are only minority sentiments to be respected and privileged? Should beef consumption be allowed, hurting Hindu sentiments?’

The incidents, this school of thought argues, polarizes opinion on the issue. And when there is polarization, even though there may be critiques, there is also a section of society that gets consolidated. ‘Gau raksha is our old agenda. But today, the country is talking about it. You may not like it, but for the Hindu on the street, it is not the violence but the issue of cow protection that is important.’

But this is not a straightforward script, and even within the Sangh–BJP ecosystem, there is recognition that this kind of belligerent politics has costs.

For one, the BJP has national ambitions.

The 2019 strategy rests on expanding its presence in the North-East and the South. In fact, the North-East is the one region where the BJP has not spoken of cow protection and the issue of beef consumption at all. It knows that any such move will be seen as an attempt to impose North Indian Hindu mores on a region where subnational sentiments are strong, and would prove electorally suicidal. But can the region be insulated from what is happening in the rest of the country? How do BJP’s Kerala expansion plans, where beef festivals are celebrated, square off with what the party’s affiliates may be doing in UP? There are already instances of BJP leaders in states like Meghalaya quitting the party on the issue.

Two, even within its core areas of strength, it is not apparent that this form of cow politics is actually leading to Hindu consolidation. In fact, it may be alienating a section of the urban middle-class Hindu vote that went to the BJP in 2014.

From Mumbai bankers to Gurgaon entrepreneurs, all avid Modi supporters, one has heard disapproval of gau raksha, and disappointment that the BJP is not doing enough to stop it. Commentators of the right, who supported the party during 2014, have been relentlessly critical of the party’s turn. Whether they are merely uncomfortable with this form of politics or repelled enough to go against the BJP because of it is not clear. But the BJP will have to keep a close watch on the consequences of extremist politics on the incremental vote that came to the party in 2014.

And three, it is eroding the BJP’s claims of providing order and governance. Mob violence hits at the very core of the state monopoly over force. It generates insecurity. It can lead to widespread lawlessness and trigger major violence.

Indeed, Prime Minister Modi – who has ambitions of being recognized as a global leader – appears to have recognized the perils of this form of cow vigilantism and violence. At the end of June, in Sabarmati Ashramin Ahmedabad, Modi unequivocally condemned killing in the name of ‘gau bhakti’, said violence has no place in society, and evoked Mahatma Gandhi, who believed in cow protection, to say he would not have approved.

Both because of ideological and electoral reasons, the BJP will continue to play the Hindu card. Its leaders often claim that while Hindu consolidation may be its electoral tactic, its governance strategy remains sabka saath, sabka vikas. This is a matter of debate. But what is clear is that the BJP’s political future is closely linked to how it navigates Hindutva politics, whether this politics overwhelms the party itself or whether the party calibrates its use according to circumstances, timing and context, and whether it aids or cripples its plans to become a truly national party.

Excerpted with the permission of Juggernaut from the book “How the BJP wins: Inside India’s Greatest Election Machine” by Prashant Jha.

How the BJP Wins is published on Juggernaut.in

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