Did Narendra Modi really discard the traditional electoral ploys of caste and religion in his campaign, as the media claims? JYOTI PUNWANI’s analysis of his speeches proves otherwise. A HOOT special.
Posted/Updated Thursday, Jun 05 12:34:59, 2014

One of the myths doing the rounds in the English media, even before the election results were out, was that of “Modi the moderate’’. Media analyses of the results reinforced the myth that the traditional electoral ploys of caste and religion had been discarded by Narendra Modi, who had succeeded in reaching out to everyone on the plank of vikas/development for all.

That is so not true. A study of his campaign speeches reveals that Narendra Modi’s own campaign (as different from the RSS’ or Amit Shah’s) was very much a Hindutva campaign. Not only were Hinduism and nationalism linked by him; but, while the Congress went around crying that the “idea of India’’ was under threat from Modi, he presented an alternate “idea of India’’: one in which Sardar Patel was juxtaposed with Jawaharlal Nehru, where the Congress and Nehru were blamed for Partition, the formation of linguistic states, the Kashmir issue…The Congress was made into a symbol of manipulative divisiveness; Modi became the symbol of a new whole some politics, conveying the vision of a united nation where all differences became irrelevant, a successor to Sardar Patel- as Modi saw him.

Modi focused his attacks on the “vote bank’’ politics of the Congress and other parties who call themselves secular, but in doing so, created another vote bank – the Hindu vote-bank.

At the same time, both caste and religion were freely used by Modi both to enhance his own appeal, and also to create resentment against the ‘other’. Wherever possible, as in UP, Assam and Bengal, differences and resentments between different sections of voters were highlighted. Modi accused the Congress of practicing the British ‘divide and rule’ policy, but he did the same himself.

By the end of the campaign, Modi succeeded in reducing the term “secularism’’ to a joke at best, an abuse at worst. He successfully demonstrated that for the Congress (and others like it), secularism was indeed a ‘veil’ (“burqa of secularism” was a phrase used by him early on in Pune in July 2013, but never repeated) behind which all flaws could be hidden, be itthe failure to deliver basic needs to the people, or the massive scams in which people were cheated. On the other hand, “real’’ secularism was what Modi claimed to have practised in Gujarat: development for all, without any special favours to anyone.

The irony is that this message was delivered through one of the most divisive campaigns ever.

This is not to say that the concept of ‘development for all’, which appealed specially to youngsters, was not used. Indeed it was, with great effect, the best example being hiscall to Hindus and Muslims in Patna (October 27), at his first rally in Bihar, to come together and fight poverty instead of fighting each other. The crowd roared its approval. Had Modi stuck to this call throughout his campaign, it would have created a groundswell of unity across religion, unique in its impact, given his ability to connect to the audience and his unbelievable appeal. It could then truly have been said of him what the English media kept saying: that Narendra Modi had reinvented himself, that Muslims had no need to be wary of him.

Alas, he chose to tread a different path. Could he have been Narendra Modi had he not?

Modi used some recurring themes through his campaign.

Theme 1: Invoking Hindu deities and symbols linked to the places where he campaigned

Apart from actually praying at various famous temples (Tirupati, Sri Kalahasti, Vaishno Devi, Gorakhnath), Modi would start his speech by paying his respects to the local deities: Vaishno Devi in Udhampur, Mata Kamakhya in Assam, Sitamata in Bihar, Lord Venkateswara in Tirupati and Madanapalle, Sri Ram in Faizabad. In Kolkata, he invoked Ma Sharda, the Ramakrishna Mission and Sri Aurobindo; in Bangalore, he kicked off his Karanataka campaign by invoking Basaveshwara and Kanakadasa. In Haryana, he spoke of Swami Dayanand Saraswati. In UP, he referred to the Triveni (the sangam of three rivers), called Ambedkar Nagar “Shiv baba ki pavitra dharti’’ (the pure land of Lord Shiva) and in Mathura, he spoke of Lord Krishna.

In Bangalore, he wished his listeners on Ram Navami. He compared the eight states of the Northeast to ‘ashtalakshmi’. In Patna, his rally began with the blowing of conch shells, the traditional beginning of Hindu auspicious occasions in east India. Invitations for his Jhansi rally in the villages were accompanied by haldi-smeared rice, another Hindu custom. Before his Kanpur rally held last October, posters of him were put up all over the city depicting him as Lord Ram, aiming his arrow at Ravan, whose 10 heads denoted along with corruption, criminalisation and inflation, also Muslim appeasement. He often spoke of his desire to convert India into a ‘vishwa guru’.

Modi thus appeared before voters as a Hindu steeped in his religious tradition. But he did more than that: he linked these Hindu deities and symbols to nationalism, and nationalism to getting rid of the Congress which had destroyed the nation. In his last speech in Ballia, Uttar Pradesh (UP), on May 10, Modi spoke of his “good fortune to have begun his Bharat Vijay campaign at Vaishno Devi in Udhampur on March 26 and  be ending it in the land of Mangal Pandey.’’ It was Gudi Padwa when he campaigned in Amravati; he asked the audience totake a vow on the auspicious day to free India.In Jhansi, the BJP’s symbol –the lotus was linked to “Lakshmi’’ and “Lakshmi’’ to“roti’’. The Ramayan was referredto, to  draw parallels to current situations: in Patna, he made the crowd chant after him the advice he claimed Jambuwant had given to Hanuman, which awakened the latter to his latent strength: “Ka chup saadhi, hunkar bharo hunkar bharo’’. In Faizabad, where chants of ‘Jai Sri Ram’ from the audience punctuated his speech, and a giant picture of Ram adorned the stage, he quoted the famous Tulsidas saying related to Ram: pran jaaye par vachan na jaaye, and asked the audience if they could, in “Prabhu Ram’s bhoomi’’, tolerate those who went back on their word (i.e. the Congress). By the end of his speech, the crowd was chanting “Har Har Modi’’.

Bombs had exploded during Modi’s first rally in Patna. At that time, he had made no mention of them despite knowing what was happening at one end of the maidan. But he more than made up for his discretion at later rallies in Bihar, where he described the scene in graphic hyperbole. In Ujiyarpur, the punch line of the description of blood and gore came at the end – he had been saved only because he came from the land of Dwarka, Krishna’s kingdom, and it was only the blessings of Lord Krishna that had saved him and allowed him to be present before the audience.

Interestingly, Modi also invoked Mahavir, Gautam Buddha, emperor Ashok, Chandragupta and Guru Gobind Singh at the places linked to them. But not once did he refer to any Muslim peer, not even in Ajmer. He campaigned in historic Shahjahanpur, where liethe mazaars of two famous freedom fighters: Maulvi Ahmadullah Shah who fought in the 1857 war of Independence, and Ashfaqullah Khan who was hanged for the 1925 Kakori train robbery. But that was April 14, Ambedkar Jayanti, and Shahjahanpur is a reserved constituency, so Modi chose to focus on caste, saying not a word about these martyrs, though in earlier speeches he had described the 1857 rebellion as the real example of secularism where Hindus and Muslims had fought together.

Many Muslims would have been familiar with the Hindu symbols and references Modi spoke of. But what’s important is that the man presenting himself as the future PM of all Indians, the man decrying differences of caste and community, consciously presented himself as a Hindu. He didn’t have to do that.

The media reported these speeches; in fact, channels such as NDTV, Zee News and India TV reported most of his speeches live. So did websites like Firstpost and Niticentral. Yet, reporters didn’t think it fit to point out all this.

Theme 2: Projecting “vote bank politics’’ as harmful to the nation

Modi launched a no-holds-barred attack on the “vote bank politics’’ practiced by the Congress, the Samajwadi party, the BSP, the Trinamool Congress, the RJD, the JD(U) and the CPI(M).Without spelling out specific communities/castes allegedly cultivated by these parties, he made a blanket accusation that the latter had used the former as vote banks only to keep them apart from others,but had done little for them. He, on the other hand declared, that he had helped everyone prosper.

Modi spoke of how well Muslims had fared in his state, citing the Sachar Committee Report to do so. The Sachar Committee report is one of the achievements of UPA I – it is the most accurate report on the status of Muslims today. Modi used the report as it suited him:both as an example of “vote bank politics”, and as proof of his own ‘sabka vikas’ brand of politics. He decried the Sachar Committee’s request to the army to provide a religious breakdown of its ranks, as an attempt to divide the country’s genuinely secular institution. But he quoted its findings on the status of Muslims in Gujarat in education and in government service, to show that Muslims were prospering in “mera Gujarat’’.

But Modi’s real skill lay in projecting “vote bank politics’’ as an enemy of the nation. He cited the attempt by the Samajwadi Party government in UP to withdraw cases against alleged terrorists; home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde’s directives to take special care that innocent Muslims were not arrested on false charges and the July 2013 Gaya bomb blasts, as examples of vote bank politics. He not only described these as threats to the security of the nation, he asked the crowd again and again to tell him whether this was good policy or not.The crowd roared its answer. Without naming Muslims, Modi had worked the crowd against them.

In Baghpat, Modi expressed sadness that because of “vote bank politics”, “our bahubetis’’ could not go out safely, and their parents too, had to tolerate this with bowed heads. This was a direct reference to the Muzaffarnagar riots, and chants of ‘Jai Sri Ram’ were heard from the audience.

In Assam and Bengal, Modi continuously manipulated voters against Muslims by making Bangladeshi “infiltrators’’ the main campaign issue. As many English newspapers commented, the issue of Bangladeshis in India is a complex and sensitive one, over which many lives have been lost. No one who wants peace would make it an election issue. But Modi did, and as vehemently as he could. Invoking the imagery of the nation as ‘mother’ (Bharti ma and Bharat mata), he asked whether those who had been pushed out of Bangladesh because they were not Muslim, those whose womenfolk had been raped, had no right to take refuge with their mother. Should they not be welcomed? As for those deliberately brought in to further “vote bank politics’’, were they not snatching away jobs, livelihoods and the rights of those born here? Shouldn’t they be driven away bag and baggage? As he did with all his rhetorical questions, Modi asked his voters to reply repeatedly. In a masterstroke, he quoted Buddhadeb Bhattacharya’s statement on the proliferation of madrasas on the Bangladesh border, and presented these as threat to national “unity and integrity’’. Linking the threat to Kaziranga National Park, where Bangladeshi infiltration has been accompanied by rhino poaching, Modi called the rhino a symbol of Assamese pride, and asked whether secularism was an obstacle in the way of saving rhinos.

Modi also linked “vote bank politics’’ to opportunistic pursuit of power. Reminding Mamata Banerjee that as Opposition leader, she had blamed the Left for encouraging Bangladeshi infiltrators for votes, Modi accused her of doing the same now that she wasin power.

There was no ambiguity in Modi’s speeches about the religious identity of those he wanted out of the country and those he wanted to welcome. In an early speech(February 22, Silchar) he said “Hindus’’ in trouble anywhere in the world would naturally come running to Bharat Mata. Later he changed that to “Indians’’ in trouble. But in his last speech in Bengal in Bankura (May 4), he made it clear again that from Bangladesh, only those who celebrated Durgashtami were welcome. The Bankura speech came two days after Bodos killed 32 Muslims in Assam on May 2. Not once did Modi distinguish between Muslim Bangladesh is who had come to India in the wake of the 1971 war and were protected under the Indira-Mujib Accord, and more recent immigrants.

The theme of Bangladeshi infiltrators and “vote bank politics’’ was raised in Barmer too, where Hindus fleeing from Sindh have been settling down but have not received citizenship.

The English press criticised Modi’s reckless use of the Bangladeshi immigrants issue, pointing out that he was playing a dangerous game, trying to cash in on already existing communal tensions. But it didn’t feel it necessary to draw the conclusion that Modi’s constant attacks on “vote bank politics’’ was an indirect way of saying that the “secular’’ parties had sacrificed national interests to appease Muslims. And that by doing so, he was both creating and fuelling existing resentments against Muslims. Reporters on the field from UP and Bihar spoke of these resentments as one major reason for Hindu support for Modi, and wrote on the RSS’ and Amit Shah’s attempts to build on these resentments, but they didn’t accuse Modi of doing so.

Theme 3: Divide and rule

Modi constantly accused the Congress of following the British policy of ‘divide and rule’, but lost no opportunity to do so himself.

Echoing the regional politics played earlier by his ally, the Shiv Sena and now by Raj Thackeray in Maharashtra, Modi accused Mamata of considering Oriya, Bihari and Marwari communities who have made Bengal their home for generations, as outsiders. But, he declared, “Didi, your face lights up when you meet Bangladeshi infiltrators, only because they can be used as your vote banks.’’(April 27, Serampore). Instead of objecting to this inflammatory reference, the Trinamool Congress asked the EC to take note only of Modi’s questions regarding the price of Mamata Banerjee’s paintings in this speech!

In Andhra Pradesh, hereferred to Rajiv Gandhi’s insult to Telugu pride; in Kasargod, where communal incidents have been on the rise, Modi referred to “terrorism’’ as a major problem in Kerala.