Union Home Minister Amit Shah sprung a surprise recently with his comment that hate speeches by BJP campaigners may have lost the party the Delhi elections. Triumphalism and bluster are hallmarks of the Modi-Shah BJP, which is why the minister’s apparent candour is intriguing. His ‘admission’ suggests that the BJP’s defeat is more than just another electoral loss. Having framed the campaign in coarse communal terms (India versus Pakistan, Hindus versus Shaheen Bagh), the party turned the battle for Delhi into a referendum of sorts on its idea of India. And lost.
Nobody understands better than Shah the gravity of the consequences because the stinging rejection of the BJP by Delhi voters has not only blunted the party’s preferred poll weapon of polarisation, but may also have damaged its larger Hindutva plank. By first decrying and then disowning communally-charged, vitriolic utterances of some campaigners, Shah appears to be attempting to firewall the BJP’s core ideology from further harm and recalibrate it for upcoming state elections where the Hindu-Muslim divide would continue to be a potent poll cry for the party.
Five are coming up over the next two years: Bihar in the second half of 2020, Assam, Kerala and West Bengal in 2021 and UP in early 2022. The BJP has huge stakes in all these.
Each state has a sizeable Muslim population. Bihar has 17%, Assam 34.22%, West Bengal 27.01% and UP 19.3%. This is fertile ground for the BJP to play its polarisation game with gusto. It has done so in the past with varying degrees of success.
Significantly, like Delhi, these states have seen strong protests against the CAA. In fact, West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee has herself been at the epicentre of some of these protests. And Lucknow has its own version of Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh around the Clocktower where Muslim women have defied Yogi Adityanath’s police and been on dharna for a month now.
The anti-CAA protests seem to have rattled the Modi government and the BJP. They came like a bolt out of the blue. Muslims did not react when other items on the Hindutva checklist were completed. The law banning triple talaq, the withdrawal of Article 370 from J&K and the Supreme Court verdict paving the way for the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya, all went through smoothly.
It was the CAA that brought them out in huge numbers. The BJP was caught unawares and is still trying to make sense of the outburst and the form it has taken. The protests have not been the stereotypical ones the saffron parivar associates with Muslims. There have been no bomb blasts or terrorist attacks. Instead, the protesters have been waving the national flag, singing the national anthem and clutching the Constitution. And Muslims protesters did not try to hide their identity. They boldly wore hijabs and skull caps and continued to do so even after PM Modi’s caustic comment about identifying protesters from their clothes.
It’s been a secular protest and most importantly, peaceful. And numbers swelled as large sections of Hindus, particularly students, weighed in with support. The protests have dominated headlines nationally and internationally, with the Modi government coming in for stringent criticism from western opinion makers and civil liberties groups.
This is the backdrop against which the BJP’s campaign in Delhi has to be viewed and the defeat analysed. Till a few weeks before the polls, the party showed little interest in contesting seriously. It seemed to have ceded the state to Arvind Kejriwal and his AAP. The strategy made sense. Delhi is not even a full-fledged state and its CM is actually a glorified mayor. As the party in power at the Centre, the BJP was already in control of key levers like the police, land authorities and bureaucratic appointments. Kejriwal could be no more than an irritant at worst.
The burgeoning anti-CAA agitations seem to have made the party change its strategy. It decided to use the election to send a strong signal to the protesters, and the world at large, that the issue has the support of a majority of Indians.
Shaheen Bagh became the cutting edge of the BJP’s campaign and the party pulled out every resource it had to prove its point. With Shah as the spearhead, the party pressed into service 70 union ministers, seven past and present CMs, 270 MPs and thousands of foot soldiers from across the country. It was a humungous effort. Campaigners addressed 6,650 meetings in all, including 52 by Shah alone. The minister was reduced to doing padyatras through Delhi’s lanes.
Emotions went haywire under the weight of such frenzy. The rhetoric turned violent, the speeches brazenly communal, and eventually, there was blood on the streets as elements of the lunatic fringe fired guns at anti-CAA protesters. Delhi has never seen a campaign so full of hate.
Because it raised the stakes so high, the BJP ended up conceding far more than it should have when it was defeated. Its message on the CAA got lost. Instead of polarising Hindus as it wanted to, its vicious campaign ended up polarising Muslims who voted with both hands and feet for the AAP. The campaign exposed the ugly face of Hindutva. The biggest loss is that the BJP can no longer claim monopoly over Hinduism, nationalism and development.
A new counter-narrative seems to be emerging. Kejriwal has shown that the saffron party can be defeated on its own turf. The women of Shaheen Bagh, buoyed by the BJP’s loss, are refusing to go home and continue to brandish an alternative nationalism on the streets.
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