Amid mounting apprehensions over a persistent decline in popular support over the past six months, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the ruling party at the Centre as well as in 13 States, has been scrambling to overcome the sense of despair through a number of frenzied manoeuvres, including a flamboyant propaganda overdrive and dramatic shakeups in State-level organisational structures.
The episodes in this serial combination of despondency and bombast have unravelled since March 2021 in different parts of the country.
The central factor for the dispiritedness is the all-round governance failure, at the State and Central levels, on diverse fronts, including the management of the COVID-19 pandemic and the state of the economy.
The cover-up strategies to counter this have revolved around two familiar themes adopted for long by the BJP and its associates in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh-led (RSS) Sangh Parivar—blatant attempts at instigating communal polarisation and societal divide, along with efforts to aggressively project and promote Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the “messiah of the poor”. As a result of the rising tide of public discontent and inner-party rumblings, Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah have ended up playing pivotal crisis management roles, especially because the States that witnessed stormy inner-party tremors on account of declining popular support included Gujarat, where Modi was Chief Minister for 13 years, and Karnataka, the only southern State where the saffron party has come to power.
The public resentment and the consequent political tumult that were on display in Gujarat over the last six months were particularly striking because they thoroughly exposed as hollow the much-touted claims of the BJP and its Sangh Parivar associates that the State was a “pathbreaking development model”. During this period, similar social and political situations were witnessed in the northern States of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, too, and they were also marked by disillusionment among the public and tussles within the Sangh Parivar. Responding to this situation, Modi and Shah, along with BJP national president J.P. Nadda, changed the incumbent Chief Ministers in Gujarat and Karnataka—B.S. Yeddiyurappa and Vijay Rupani respectively—in September and July 2021. The changes were made without a modicum of democratic discussions with party legislators or the various echelons of leadership in these States.
In Uttarakhand, the party top brass carried out this manouvre twice in a matter of four months, first in March and then again in July. Trivendra Singh Rawat was removed in March and Tirath Singh Rawat, his replacement, was removed in July to make way for Pushkar Singh Dhami. However, in Uttar Pradesh, Chief Minister Adityanath succeeded in holding on to his position with the support of the RSS top brass, scoring weighty realpolitik points against Prime Minister Modi, who wanted to marginalise the Chief Minister and prop up some of his own favourites to important positions of power.
Significantly, Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Uttarakhand are scheduled to be held in 2022. A number of Sangh Parivar senior activists told Frontline that “managing the public mood and changing it from the current state of affairs, which is marked by public disapproval and rancour, is important”. They pointed out that the party’s manoeuvres in the States as well as at the national level were oriented towards electoral gains.
The latest in the series of shakeups was seen in Gujarat and the episode unravelled in the second and third weeks of September. It started with the “out of the blue” resignation of Chief Minister Vijay Rupani on September 12, when he had just about 14 months left to complete his five-year term. Rupani’s exit was followed by the elevation of Bhupendra Patel, a first-time member of the Legislative Assembly as Chief Minister but the drama and surprises did not end there. Taking more than 48 hours to contemplate on the composition of the Ministry and finalise it, the BJP dropped every single member of the Rupani Cabinet, including the powerful former Deputy Chief Minister Nitin Patel, and inducted a “brand new” 25-member Cabinet.
Given the composition of the new Ministry, political observers of the State are overwhelmingly of the view that this government would be completely under Central control. There is little doubt that this drastic upheaval left many senior State BJP leaders peeved. Nitin Patel made this absolutely clear when he stated publicly that “if some community, individual or district gets disgruntled, then it is not my responsibility now to look into it”.
Notwithstanding such public expressions of inner-party bitterness, the BJP and its associates in the Sangh Parivar launched a cover-up stratagem starting September 17, just a day after the formation of the new-look Gujarat Ministry, with the high-decibel campaign coinciding with the 71st birthday of Prime Minister Modi.
The BJP leadership announced that the campaign would continue non-stop for three weeks. Central to this campaign is the distribution of 14 crore bags across the country. The bags will carry Modi’s picture and a message of thanks to him for supplying poor people with 5 kilograms each of free grain. Party workers from all over the country will also send out five crore postcards with the same message.
During these three weeks, the party also plans to make thousands of audiovisual presentations and exhibitions focusing on “Modi’s life and work as well as his historical contributions to the country”. Speaking to Frontline, a senior RSS activist based in Lucknow said: “The idea is to make every Indian aware that Modiji is the real messiah of the poor and all the drawbacks of the BJP governments at the Centre and in the States can be set right only by continuing to support him.”.
The activist and several of his associates in different parts of Uttar Pradesh admitted that the “COVID crisis” as well as the longstanding farmers’ agitation against the three controversial farm laws have dented the Prime Minister’s image, although not significantly. He said: “There is this realisation within the Sangh Parivar as well as among senior officials in the government that the failures and foibles of various State administrations have made 2021-22 a difficult period for the BJP. The fact that the farmers’ agitation reached a new stage with the massive Muzzaffarnagar mahapanchayat has also added to these worries. Especially important is the communal harmony slogan of ‘Allah-u-Akbar, Har Har Mahadev’ raised by [farmer leader] Rakesh Tikait at the mahapanchayat.”
The activist added: “The demand for a caste census, raised by a number of political parties, including the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the Janata Dal (United), an ally of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in Bihar, is also a cause for concern. All this is not good news for the BJP, especially with elections scheduled for early 2022, and we are trying to set things right through the Modi-centric campaigns.”
Apart from Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Gujarat, Goa, Manipur, Himachal Pradesh will also be election-bound in 2022.
Although Sangh Parivar activists, including the senior RSS activist in Lucknow, publicly emphasised the Modi-centric campaigns, in private conversations their remarks were replete with references to the potential re-emergence of rampant communal polarisation closer to the elections “just as it happened in 2014 and 2017”. There was much focus on the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan as a huge factor in buttressing the BJP’s communal game plans.
On his part, Adityanath has already launched his own special plan in this direction. One of them, directly launched by the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, involved the controversy regarding distribution of rations during the previous S.P. governments. He accused the S.P. governments of giving rations only to ‘Abba jaan’, a euphemism for the Muslim community.
Adityanath went on to claim that Hindus in Uttar Pradesh began getting rations only after the BJP came to power in 2017. Government records, including those of the Union government, have exposed this as a blatant lie and communal propaganda. The National Food Security Act (NFSA) website showed that a total of 14.86 crore beneficiaries get rations in Uttar Pradesh through 3.59 crore ration cards. As per the 2011 Census, Uttar Pradesh’s population was 19.98 crore, consisting of 15.9 crore Hindus and 3.84 crore Muslims. NFSA records also showed that as of November 15, 2016, four months before the Adityanath government was sworn in, over 14.01 crore people were beneficiaries of ration cards in the State. Evidently, even if all Muslims were beneficiaries of ration cards, at least 10.42 crore members of other communities, predominantly Hindus, were also beneficiaries. But such facts do not bother Adityanath as he continues with his rabble-rousing rhetoric.
In Uttar Pradesh, the government has also passed several administrative orders aimed at provoking communal unrest. The banning of meat and liquor in 22 out of the 70 municipal wards in the twin temple towns of Mathura-Vrindavan, after classifying them as “pavitra teerth sthal” (holy pilgrimage sites), is a case in point. The ban, imposed in early September, has evoked adverse reactions from both Hindus and Muslims.
Trade association representatives who did not want to be named told Frontline that the twin towns had a thriving meat and poultry market. A Hindu trade association leader said: “Hindus and Muslims are involved in the business in equal number. As for consumption of both items, over 65 per cent of the consumers are Hindus. There is little doubt that the order is aimed at causing a social divide on communal lines. The campaign on this is bound to become more virulent as the elections get closer.”
According to Sangh Parivar activists, similar orders are already in force in other holy towns such as Ayodhya, Chitrakoot, and Naimisharanya, and the area around the Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi. They are also of the view that the Mathura order would give a new fillip to the implementation of the ban in other towns too.
Evidently, the net of communal polarisation is becoming larger even as the general public get more and more disenchanted with the BJP and its governments, manifestations of which are emerging from different parts of the country, forcing the party leadership to effect radical surgeries in their organisational and governance machinery.
This story first appeared on frontline.thehindu.com