Monday, November 09, 2015

How the BJP went from selling development as a holy cow to banking on the cow being holy

For the Bihar campaign, the party went back to its Hindutva roots, using anti-Muslim rhetoric to sell itself to voters

Shoaib Daniyal  · Nov 06, 2015 · 07:30 am

In the electric campaign for the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the Bharatiya Janata Party went to town selling vikaas, development. Wherever Narendra Modi went, he spoke of the wonderful things he was going to do for the lives of ordinary Indians. He sold the youth the dream of the Gujarat Model. Of roads and, most importantly, electricity.  There were a few lapses into religion, such as when Modi hinted darkly at a “pink revolution”, which maintained that certain people were making a lot of money selling Indian beef to foreigners. But on the whole, Modi in 2014 seemed to be the embodiment of change that everyone welcomed.

That was then. The BJP, propped up by the charisma of Modi, was so ahead of a beleaguered Congress that it didn’t need to put much effort into its Lok Sabha campaign. The party’s core Hindutva supporters secure, its talk of development helped reach out to millions of voters who did not necessarily aligned themselves with its religious nationalism.

Bihar 2015 is a different matter. Here the BJP started off as a laggard, given the electoral firepower the alliance of the Janata Dal (United) and Rashtriya Janata Dal bought to the battle. Moreover, in Bihar, it was Nitish Kumar of the JD(U) who was associated with development, having bought transformational changes to the state in the past decade. Lastly, Modi himself wasn’t really such a big factor in this election. In 2014, Biharis were voting directly for Modi as prime minister, which wasn’t the case anymore. Besides, a year and a half meant that some of the Modi sheen had worn off.

However, combating OBC-based formations isn’t a new battle for the BJP. Its been doing this every since it became a major player in the Hindi heartland in the late 1980s ­. Remember the rise of Hindutva in India was accompanied by the rise of backward caste politics ­– the famous Mandal-Kamandal twin poles of Hindi heartland politics in the 1990s. For the Bihar polls, therefore, it just went back to its old playbook. Out came the anti-Muslim rhetoric and a politics that appealed to faith.

1) Muslim reservation bogey
The biggest problem the BJP faced was that Grand Alliance of Nitish Kumar's JD(u) and Lalu Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal seemed to have cornered the support of the backward castes. The upper castes were still with the BJP but it wasn’t going to win the election just on that. Matters were made worse by the fact that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s chief Mohan Bhagwat went in and made some comments that appeared to question India’s system of reserving seats in educational institutions and government jobs for people from marginal communities.  The Grand Alliance took this chance to attack the BJP frontally.

Scrambling for a response, the BJP attempted to polarise voters on religious lines. Pitting Bihar’s poorest communities against each other, Prime Minster Modi spoke of a conspiracy by the Grand Alliance to snatch away a part of the reservation benefits from lower castes and hand it over to Muslims:

    “Five percent from the Dalits, five percent from Mahadalits, 5% from Backwards, 5% from Extremely Backwards. There is a conspiracy to take away from their quota to give to another community.”

As it turns out, the Grand Alliance had said nothing of this sort. In fact, reservation along these lines is not even possible constitutionally. But the BJP was banking on innuendo to trump fact. As the campaign progressed, the Election Commission barred a BJP advertisement that tried to repeat this Muslim quota allegation.

2) The Pakistan/terror dog whistle describes the phrase “dog whistle” as “a political strategy, statement, slogan, etc., that conveys a controversial, secondary message understood only by those who support the message”. In India, both “Pakistan” and “terror” are used as dog whistles in order to attack Muslims.

Narendra Modi kicked off proceedings by accusing Nitish Kumar of “sheltering terrorists” who were a part of the so-called Darbhanga Module. Apart from the impropriety of accusing an elected chief minster of terrorism, this was an ironic accusation to make since the BJP was also a part of Nitish Kumar’s government at the time when it was accused of supporting terror.

Later on, BJP president Amit Shah chimed in with a, by now de rigueur, Pakistan comment. He claimed that if the BJP lost, fireworks would go off in Pakistan, a not-so-subtle dig at the Muslim support for the Grand Alliance.

Somewhat comically, some BJP leaders also pointed to the fact that the website of the Pakistani newspaper, Dawn was carrying ads for Nitish Kumar as clinching proof of the Pakistani hand behind the Grand Alliances campaign. Of course, ads on are served by Google Ads based on the user’s location and browsing history. They are placed automatically based on the service's guesses about the reader's interests.
 Rajiv Pratap Rudy's tweet, which he consequently deleted.

The BJP also placed ads in local newspapers around the issue of the Grand Alliance engendering terrorism. Like the Muslim quota ads, the Election Commission barred these ads, citing their potential to create communal disharmony.

3) Bihar’s moo-ver and shaker
It didn't seem surprising that the cow made its way into the Bihar election, as an attempt to play up the BJP’s Hindu nationalist side and attract voters.  On October 5, party leader Sushil Modi set the ball rolling by claiming that the BJP would ban cow slaughter in Bihar if it comes to power. Trying to frame the election in theocratic terms, the senior BJP leader said, “The forthcoming Assembly polls in Bihar is going to be a direct contest between those, who justify beef eating and those seeking effective ban on cow slaughter.”

A few days later, the other Modi took up the baton from his namesake. The prime minister attacked Lalu Prasad Yadav for claiming that some Hindus eat beef too. Modi mentioned that he was from the land of Lord Krishna and claimed that Lalu had insulted the Yadav caste with this beef comment.

A BJP ad focussed on the cow was pulled out by the Election Commission as well. The ad had a picture of a woman passionately hugging a milky-white cow with the pro-beef eating statements of a number of Congress and Rashtriya Janata Dal leaders posted alongside.
BJP's ad against beef eating.

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