Venkitesh Ramakrishnan

The Sangh Parivar’s famililar tactic of communal polarisation does not seem to be yielding the expected dividends in the run-up to the 2022 Assembly elections, forcing the ruling dispensation to harp on the ‘security breach’ involving the Prime Minister’s convoy in Punjab and resort to sympathy-mongering.

Yatin Narendrabhai Oza, an Ahmedabad-based senior advocate and a former associate of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has time and again come out with his considerable insight into the political, especially electoral, manoeuvring skills of Modi at the individual and organisational levels. One of Oza’s most perceptive observations was reportedly passed on to Congress president Sonia Gandhi in the last months of 2001, when Modi took over as interim Chief Minister of Gujarat from Keshubhai Patel. The replacement was necessitated by widespread anti-incumbency mood against the Keshubhai Patel-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government amid allegations of corruption and administrative inefficiency, especially in addressing the aftermath of earthquakes in the Bhuj region.

The Congress, which had won a number of byelections, was expected to defeat the BJP in the Assembly election of 2002. But Oza reportedly warned Sonia Gandhi “not to estimate Modi with the same scales that the Congress was using for Patel or any other BJP leader as they were dealing with a totally different kind of politician with a package that fires on multiple cylinders, stops at no hurdles and would go to any ruthless length to orchestrate anything to capture and retain political power”. Apparently, the Congress leadership did not take Oza’s warning seriously. Then, the anti-Muslim pogrom happened in the State, changing the political narrative from one driven by the anti-incumbency factor to one that entirely relied an out-and-out communal polarisation. The rest is history.

Talking to Frontline in the context of the forthcoming Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur, Oza once again referred to the “special Modi brand package” that comes into play in political manoeuvrings, particularly in electoral game plans. “Political strategists keep talking about Saam Daam Dand Bhed [the four-pronged ancient Indian strategy of trying to influence a targeted section starting with peaceful advice, followed by material inducements, moving on to punishments and finally creating discord], but not many have effective ways of implementing the dictum. The Sangh Parivar, as a whole, is indeed more effective than other political forces in advancing machinations based on this by vitiating an election scenario with varied political ploys of the Hindutva variety. But even within the Sangh Parivar, the Modi brand package has add-on schemes with an extra bite. These add-ons acquire different shades and nuances. Many of these are already on display in the run-up to the 2022 assembly elections. As usual, the multiple voices in the Sangh Parivar and in the government are playing their role in this. These roles include organising rabble-rousing Hindutva communal conclaves like Dharam Sansads baying for the blood of minority communities such as Muslims and Christians, supplementing these moves by imposing government restrictions on secular charity organisations, especially those run by minority community managements, building up a communal campaign on such restrictions and highlighting the communally partisan development plans of the BJP governments at the Centre and in the States. [Apart from all this, Modi has placed himself individually at the centre of one of the components of the package on the basis of the security breach involving his convoy at Punjab’s Ferozepur, which left him stranded on a flyover for 15-20 minutes on January 6. I would term this addition sympathy-mongering. So, if it was hate-mongering that drove the election campaign two decades ago in Gujarat, sympathy-mongering is emerging as an important component of the current campaigns in 2022.”

However, Oza is not too sure if the current package with its sympathy-mongering campaign would be as effective as the hate-mongering propaganda of 2002. He said: “The very manner in which this sympathy factor has been unravelled and pushed underscores a sense of desperation. Indeed, the larger public may never really know what really happened on the Ferozepur flyover, where the security breach apparently happened, especially with two divergent probes managed by the BJP-run Central government and the Congress-run State government in Punjab, but the political circumstances in which the breach narrative has come up is significant. Modi was visiting Punjab for one of his first election-related forays and all available information points to the fact that his proposed rally was turning out to be a big flop. Reports say that there was hardly 10 per cent of the projected numbers at the venue. Coming as it does in the wake of the embarrassing withdrawal of the controversial farm laws (after Modi’s announcement to the nation on November 19, 2021), clearly exposing the sense of apprehension in the ranks of the government and the Sangh Parivar about the electoral prospects in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, my own sense is that the sympathy-mongering will not take the BJP forward.”

Battle for Uttar Pradesh

This view has many takers among political observers based in the national capital and in election-bound Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. By any yardstick, the battle in Uttar Pradesh is the most important for the BJP and its associates in the Sangh Parivar. Under the chief ministership of Adityanath, the State was projected as the ultimate Hindutva laboratory, closely following the model that Modi himself had created in Gujarat since the early 2000s. Sangh Parivar insiders point out that while Gujarat is the initiator of the communal polarisation tactic, the advancement of the project in Uttar Pradesh is even more important because of several factors, including its geographical position in the Hindi heartland and demographic dimension as India’s most populous State. Caste and communal equations as reflected in the last Assembly elections of 2017 as well as the two Lok Sabha elections of 2014 and 2019 had pointed to a consolidation of the Hindutva social-political identity in the State. The leadership of the BJP and other outfits of the Sangh Parivar were quite excited and hopeful that 2022 would further strengthen this trend. However, the devastating impact of COVID-19 in the first and second waves of the pandemic in 2020-21 and the failure of the Adityanath government in tackling it properly, followed by the year-long farmers’ agitations against the controversial farm laws of the Central government made it clear to the Sangh Parivar leadership and the BJP that the force and reach of the Hindutva narrative was lessening.

Pandemic fallout

Political observer Sheetal P. Singh summed up the situation: “The social and economic hardships caused by the COVID pandemic on the one side and the adverse impact of the controversial farm laws impelled large sections of society in Uttar Pradesh to look at their lives more in terms of parameters related to livelihood concerns as opposed to the Hindutva narrative based on religious and communal identities. While this social trend was visible even during the first wave of the pandemic, it became more and more palpable during the second wave and during the intense stages of the farmers’ agitation since mid 2021.” Singh also pointed out that this context created a growing realisation within the BJP and Sangh Parivar outfits that there had to be new efforts to aggravate the community and caste equations in the country’s most populous State in order to regain a clear upper hand in the run-up to the elections.

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Sheeta Singh pointed out: “But, the atmosphere was not conducive to generating outright communal riots as was done effectively by Amit Shah in western Uttar Pradesh in 2013 during the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. One stream of the farmers’ movement in the State, especially in western Uttar Pradesh, one of the epicentres of the movement, repeatedly warned people against the sectarian and divisive moves of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar, reminding the nation repeatedly of the 2013-14 situation. Moreover, the minority Muslim community was very careful not to fall for the provocations engineered by Sangh Parivar constituents at the level of the local populace in different parts of the State. It was in this context that the moves to aggravate the communal situation came up in other States such as Uttarakhand, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, all having areas contiguous with Uttar Pradesh. A clear example of this new, nuanced game is the Dharam Sansads.”

Sangh Parivar insiders admit, however, that even after the Dharam Sansads and the accompanying propaganda by BJP leaders including Adityanath equating members of the Muslim minority with mafiosi and goons along with claims about suppressing them, the targeted level of communal polarisation has not been achieved. According to them, the ideal climate was one that existed in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha election and the 2017 Assembly elections. The current situation is nowhere close to it, but efforts are on, the insiders assert, to create such a climate. As part of this effort, the so-called breach of security in the Prime Minister’s convoy is also being made use of to advance campaigns focussing on Modi’s well-being and national security concerns, all with a high dose of Hindu symbolism.

Thus, the day after the security breach happened, Modi held a 30-minute meeting with President Ram Nath Kovind, even as Union Ministers, BJP Chief Ministers and other leaders of the party were holding prayers and reciting mantras to invoke celestial beings for the long life of the Prime Minister. The President, too, expressed concern over the incident, wanting to know what exactly happened and noting that it was not an ordinary security lapse or breach. Simultaneously, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan prayed for the long life of the Prime Minister and chanted the mahamrityunjaya mantra at Bhopal’s Gufa (cave) temple. The mantra was also chanted at the Mahakaleshwar and Omkareshwar temples and other important temples in the State for the Prime Minister’s safety. Biplab Kumar Deb, the Chief Minister of Tripura also chanted the Mahamrityunjaya mantra for the long life of the Prime Minister. “Visited Meher Kalibari temple today, offered prayers to Maa Kali and performed Shiva Linga Abhishek. May Maa Kali and Bholenath bless the son of Maa Bharati, our beloved Prime Minister Shri @narendramodi Ji with longevity,” he tweeted. Among those who chanted the mantra and tweeted about their prayers were Union Ministers Dharmendra Pradhan, Piyush Goyal and Jyotiraditya Scindia.

The debate on the security breach is continuing apace even as the Union Ministry of Home Affairs and the Punjab government formed separate committees to probe the security lapse. The Home Ministry committee is headed by Sudhir Kumar Saxena, Secretary (Security) in the Cabinet Secretariat, and has Intelligence Bureau (IB) Joint Director Balbir Singh and SPG IG S. Suresh as its members. Punjab Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi has repeatedly held that there was no threat to Modi’s security, but he has said the incident is being probed by the State government and the anyone found responsible for it will be punished. The two-member probe committee of the State government comprises retired Punjab and Haryana High Court judge Justice Mehtab Singh Gill and Home Secretary Anurag Verma.

Clearly, the political jousting on this issue is bound to continue between the BJP and the Congress through the election campaign in the run-up to Assembly elections.

courtesy Frontline