By any reckoning, the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had been dealt the best set of cards for Uttar Pradesh 2017. Its 2014 Lok Sabha performance — 71 of 80 seats won on a vote share of 42% — provided it with both an air of invincibility and a margin to withstand a large negative vote swing.
Yet today U.P. presents a confounding picture as the seven-phase election to the State Assembly enters midpoint. There are keenly fought triangular — and in places quadrangular — contests where only some months ago an emphatic lead for the BJP was treated as a given.
The uncertainty must explain why the BJP campaign, which started on a lofty note with a promise to stay above caste and religion, has begun to tread the familiar ground of Hindu consolidation. The references to kabristan (graveyard) and shamshaan (cremation ground) in a speech by Mr. Modi, and Amit Shah’s coinage of the acronym ‘Kasab’ (name of the Pakistani terrorist caught and hanged by India for 26/11) for his opponents, leave no scope for misunderstanding which way the BJP campaign is being led.
Mr. Modi and his party chief should rest easy. If they leave the pulpit for a few days and travel in western U.P., they might be stunned to discover that the model citizen of their imagination, who is one part proud Hindu and one part aspirational, already exists. This citizen has rote learnt and can recite at will all that has been communicated to him ever since the BJP became a major player in U.P. politics. And this ideological grooming is independent of who he might vote for in an election.
Which is why a BJP victory or defeat is really only for the record. The language and thought processes of U.P.’s people have already been transformed and conditioned by the corrosive discourse that has split the State on Hindu-Muslim lines. Analysts have welcomed the absence of communal violence and failed attempts at polarising voters along Hindu-Muslim blocks in this election as a sign of a State and its people returning to normality after four years of being held hostage to communal provocations. The Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 may have been physically located in western U.P. but the poison from it had travelled wide, thanks to hotheads such as Yogi Adityanath headquartered in eastern U.P. The lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri and the pernicious love jihad campaign were nothing if not Muzaffarnagar by another name.
On a recent tour of western U.P., I was astonished by how often a well-conducted, amicable conversation suddenly got diverted into hate talk and Muslim-bashing. This happened at almost every stop I made and was a pattern that cut across castes.
In one word, Muzaffarnagar, and the communal divide it has come to represent, hasn’t gone anywhere. In the 2014 election, voters primarily connected with Mr. Modi on the aspirational promise. However, they knew exactly what cues to pick up when he spoke in the same breath of Pakistan, the soldier dying on the border, and the “pink revolution” sweeping the country. The last mentioned was a euphemism for the rise in meat exports, with the further veiled suggestion that the meat in question was beef.
The reason why voters in the 2014 election readily absorbed the subtext to Mr. Modi’s messages was because they had already been primed for it by Muzaffarnagar. Mr. Modi’s instantly attractive ‘politics of transformation’ came wrapped in the tricolour: U.P. and its people could shine only if the nation could shine and the jawan was given his respect. That this could be understood as excluding Muslims was perhaps intended.
Travelling in western U.P., I found a deceptive calm in the parts where the 2013 riots had raged. Prima facie, it seemed that the wounds of the past had healed. There were examples of Jats voting for Muslim candidates in places such as Purqazi, a Jat-dominated reserved constituency in Muzaffarnagar district, and Thana Bhawan in Shamli district. Jat villagers in Kaji Kheda in Purqazi said they would vote for Choti Begum of the Ajit Singh-led Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) in preference to the BJP’s Pramod Utwal. Choti Begum is a Dalit married into a Muslim household and hence the Begum suffix. Jats have a history of hostility with Dalits while Jats and Muslims, once the backbone of Jat icon Chaudhary Charan Singh’s peasant parties, have been turned into two inimical blocks by the Muzaffarnagar violence. On both counts, Jats would seem to have transcended their prejudices.
In Thana Bhawan, the BJP’s candidate, Suresh Kumar, was pitted, among others, against the RLD’s Javed Rao. Mr. Rana was an accused in the Muzaffarnagar violence, which automatically placed him on the side of Jats, who saw themselves as primary victims in the Hindu-Muslim conflict. But Jats, or at least a section of them, seemed to have voted for Javed Rao.
Had I walked away after merely ascertaining the voting preferences of Jats in both places, I should have truly been happy and convinced that Jats and Muslims had finally reconciled to living in harmony. But longer conversations revealed that hate and suspicion lingered deep in Jat hearts. Ms. Begum and Mr. Rao were the preferred choices only because Jats felt betrayed by the BJP which had reneged on promises made to them. There was anger over denial of a job quota to the community, but bafflingly, the litany of complaints included the Modi government’s failure to abrogate Article 370 of the Constitution which gives Jammu and Kashmir its special status. To add to this, Jats were seized by guilt that in the 2014 election they had preferred the BJP to Mr. Singh, a fellow Jat and heir to the mantle of Charan Singh.
But, as they argued, their vote was to the RLD, not its Muslim candidates. “We swallowed a bitter pill,” they said. Further, in 2014, the BJP was their “only defence against the aggression of Muslims.” A few days after my interaction with Jats in Kaji Kheda, I received a call from Deependra Malik, who was among those I had spoken to. He said Jats had set out to vote the RLD’s Choti Begum, but on voting day a good number had switched to the BJP after hearing reports of a massive Muslim consolidation in favour of the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance: “An SP-Congress victory means return of Muslim supremacy which we will not allow.”
A ‘Hindu-Muslim’ election
In Khanpur village, which falls in the Siwalkhas Assembly constituency of Meerut district, the elder Jats unanimously placed their faith in Ajit Singh, reciting the by now familiar complaints against the BJP. However, the mood changed dramatically when a boisterous group of young Jats muscled into our conversation. They noisily proclaimed that Mr. Modi was and will remain their hero. A 16-year-old school boy, Anirudh Chhikara, was presented to me as the region’s ‘mini Sangeet Som’. The chief claim to fame of Mr. Som, the sitting MLA and current candidate from Sardhana, also in Meerut district, is that he is an accused in the 2013 riots. On January 17, 2017, Mr. Som, nicknamed Sangharshveer (brave warrior) for frontally fighting Muslims, had a case booked against him for showing video clips of the 2013 riots. However, for ‘mini Sangeet Som’ and other young Jats, this was only proof that he remained committed to protecting ‘us from them’.
As in the case of Jats, there were reports of Muslims voting for the SP-Congress’s Hindu candidates in preference to Muslims in the fray. Muslims I spoke to were more guarded in their choice of words, avoiding direct attacks on Hindus. But the tension was palpable. Babloo Saifi, a resident of Rafikabad Colony in Dhaulana constituency, said Muslims had made up their minds to vote the SP’s Dharmesh Singh Tomar. But Yogi Adityanath’s sudden tour of the region and his “calculatedly provocative” speeches had convinced a section that they would be safer voting the Bahujan Samaj Party’s Muslim candidate, Aslam Ali.
Everywhere, the conversation invariably revolved around Pakistan, the Indian flag, and how Muslims were not part of the nationalist narrative. What began as a cheerful interaction ended with, “This is a Hindu-Muslim election.” My impressions are from western U.P. but my takeaway is that Prime Minister Modi is popular and the BJP’s messaging has hit the target.
Vidya Subrahmaniam is Senior Fellow at the Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy