BJP's divisive Delhi campaign unlikely to pay off

BJP's divisive Delhi campaign unlikely to pay off

This strategy, coupled with a large dose of jingoist nationalism, worked in the past, including in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, recent state elections suggest that Amit Shah may well be barking up the wrong tree

Union Home Minister and BJP leader Amit Shah (C) with party candidate Manish Choudhary (L) during an election campaign ahead of the forthcoming Delhi Assembly elections, at Rithala constituency in New Delhi, Monday, Jan. 27, 2020. (Credit: PTI Photo)

Faced with an opponent who is riding the 'we have performed' mantra and because of the absence of a chief ministerial face, Union Home Minister, Amit Shah, has blown the bugle for his party's campaign in the Delhi assembly elections in the only way he can at this juncture. While addressing an election rally in the Indian capital on January 26, he exhorted the citizens of Delhi to vote with anger, and with such intensity that the protestors in Shaheen Bagh "feel the current". 

Shah's attack on the peaceful sit-in, that is fast becoming the symbol of contemporary satyagraha and has been replicated in several towns and cities across India, has previously been vilified by several BJP leaders. Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Yogi Adityanath took a hugely sexist dig at the anti Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and pro-Constitution protesters when he claimed the men of Shaheen Bagh were hiding inside the quilts of the women. Joining this list now is West Delhi MP Parvesh Varma, whose explicit communal statements about the protestors of Shaheen Bagh have plumbed new lows in a low-level campaign and Union Minister Anurag Thakur. 

Back to old tropes

While the acerbic comments of BJP leaders can be attributed to the ire at the unprecedented protests that have rocked the nation, Shah's words are no ordinary ones. It indicates that the BJP, barely nine months after receiving an enhanced mandate, has no positive issue to secure votes of the capital's electorate but harp on familiar themes embedded in the politics of divisiveness. The effort is blatant – polarise Delhi on communal lines by portraying the ongoing unrest as mainly an agitation of the Muslims and accuse them and other supporters as being pro-illegal immigrants. 

While this strategy, coupled with a large dose of jingoist nationalism has worked in the past, including in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, recent state elections suggest that Shah may well be barking up the wrong tree. Voters in Maharashtra and Jharkhand demonstrated that as far as Assembly elections are concerned, their vote is decided not in 'anger' but by circumspection and driven by local interests. It is evident that not just the leadership, but the cadre too is restive and realises that polarisation can be the only potential brahmastra or trump card. This alone explains the provocative slogans shouted in the presence of Shah and state BJP president, Manoj Tiwari.

It is true that the anti-foreigner plank of the BJP was erected in the initial years of this campaign in Delhi too, mainly in localities in southeast Delhi, in colonies close to Jamia Millia Islamia and nearby residential areas. But Delhi has demographically altered in the past three decades and there are a greater number of people who are first willing to look at their bottomline, at least as far as local governance is concerned.

Will it work?

Despite the fear of being berated by the ghost of Arun Jaitley – no one can deny his copyright over several contemporary political phrases including 'anecdotal evidence' – it is pertinent to recall a conversation with a group of doctors. The exchange, on a social occasion, began with knowledge of each other's position having interacted previously. The group comprised of enthusiastic supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and they had voted for him in 2014 as well as 2019. Yet, they appeared a disillusioned lot. When asked 'why', one of them had a ready answer to which the others nodded.

"He is doing his kaam or work, not ours. We had not voted him for all this (what he has focussed on since re-election), but to fix things that affect our daily lives," the doctor said.

True, the sentiment may not have many takers and most Modi-backers may still be loving it that there's no dilution of the BJP's majoritarian agenda. But, even a small section drifting away from BJP would not be happy augury for the ruling party on the eve of elections in Delhi.

AAP strategy

In contrast to the nationalistic thrust of the BJP, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) campaign is completely centred on local issues and on egalitarian deliveries that the state government has made in the past five years. Arvind Kejriwal has been politically astute and while he has been critical of the government for its CAA-NRC pincer, he has not championed the cause of protesters. He in fact, neither visited Shaheen Bagh nor Jawaharlal Nehru University. Smartly, he has lent support to students of the university too, but did not wear their cause on his sleeve. Kejriwal has made a conscious bid to insulate this poll from national issues. It is evident that he was aware that the BJP, bereft of local issues and floundering on the economic front at the national level, would eventually replay its old tracks. The BJP has done this amply. Before Shah's statement eliciting people's anger, Modi has infamously asserted that the agitators could be "recognised" by the "clothes they wear." Furthermore, at a recent party event, he said there was no need to pursue inclusive politics.

The BJP's task has become more difficult because it cannot criticise Kejriwal for his largesse and consistent distribution of freebies to the people. The BJP government at the Centre, it may be recalled, publicised its micro-economic deliveries to offset it failure on the macro-economic front. Kejriwal is also not very consultative on party matters and has at times appeared to mirror Modi in terms of persona and work style. He has learnt his lessons and jettisoned the image of being of a whiner and someone given to  disrupting governance. The BJP missed reading what Kejriwal was upto in the months leading the polls and appears certain to pay the price for this.

The BJP will certainly hope for a split in the anti-BJP vote and wish the Congress garners enough votes in every constituency to give it a fighting chance. But the Congress remains rudderless, at the local level as well as nationally. Since 2013 when the AAP made a transition from being a movement to a party, the polity in the Capital has become progressively bipolar. With the Congress having done little to reverse this process and secure the confidence of voters, it remains headed for benches reserved for also-rans. 

It is important for Modi and the BJP to regain political momentum because another reverse in the capital will hamper poll preparations in Bihar. With the Northeast already in ferment over CAA the stakes for the BJP have become bigger. There are still several days before Delhi goes to the polls and importantly, Modi is yet to get into campaign mode. But, the AAP has a captive support base which may well be guided once again by the past sentiment: ‘Upar Modi, neeche Kejriwal’ or Modi at the Centre and Kejriwal in the state. Only that Modi-Shah may not be enjoying the hollowing out of the saffron flavour from region after region.

(Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based journalist and author. His latest book is RSS: Icons Of The Indian Right. He has also written Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times (2013))  

The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.