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The BJP reckons it has won this election

How do we explain Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s seemingly contradictory statements about India’s Muslim minority?

Talking to News 18 India in Varanasi on Tuesday, Modi took umbrage at suggestions that he had injected a communal element into the election campaign.

 

“The day I do Hindu-Muslim,” PM Modi said, “I won’t be worthy to remain in public life.”

 

   Er yes, but didn’t this statement of intent run directly counter to the speeches he had made in the first half of the campaign? The ones where he had suggested that the Congress would take away mangalsutras and buffaloes and give them to “infiltrators” and “people who have many children”?

 

   Not at all, said the Prime Minister stolidly. In fact, he seemed shocked by the suggestion that these were well-known code-phrases for Muslims.

 

   “Who told you that whenever one talks of people with more children, the inference is that they are Muslims? Why are you doing injustice to Muslims?” the Prime Minister demanded of his (Muslim) interviewer.

 

   Yeah. Right.

 

   What politicians mean and what they say are often two completely different things. And what they later claim they actually meant can be even more bewildering.

 

   So, let’s, for the purposes of argument, take the Prime Minister’s remarks at face value. Why is he now so eager to distance himself from the anti-Muslim rhetoric of old and claim it was all a misunderstanding?

 

   Nobody I know (including people who claim to be close to him) is able to read the Prime Minister’s mind. In political terms, Narendra Modi is a loner. He decides what he wants to do and whom he wants to appoint to high office. Almost every bit of journalistic speculation about his appointments is wrong: no one has ever correctly predicted the contours of cabinet reshuffles. And nobody can predict what he is going to say and when: the communal edge to the campaign rhetoric and the sudden disavowal of that same rhetoric took even BJP-friendly commentators by surprise.

 

   Any explanation about the change in the Prime Minister’s tone is bound to be pure guesswork. And so, here’s my guess. I believe that the BJP went into the 2024 Lok Sabha election confident and even a little complacent. When it did not get the responses it expected in the first round and when turnout dropped, a certain amount of panic crept in.

 

   Were the BJP workers too smug? Did they need to be energised? Was it not going to be enough for the Prime Minister to run on his record? Did he need to inject fear and loathing into the campaign? Should his speeches be full of the kind of Hindu-Muslim references that get the BJP faithful excited?

 

"As turnouts have recovered and as the BJP’s own internal surveys seem to have shown that the election is proceeding according to plan, the party’s confidence has grown."

   Anyone who followed the second round of electioneering will know how the BJP answered those questions. It is impossible not to be struck by how the old certainty and confidence seemed somehow to be lacking. Many of the Prime Minister’s statements diverted from the carefully crafted statesman-like persona that marked his speeches before the campaign began. And when he even threw in a reference to the Ambanis and the Adanis filling tempos with cash and sending them to the Congress, it was clear that PM Modi had gone off-script.

 

   But over the last few days, we are seeing a more relaxed Narendra Modi on the campaign trail. There is more equanimity to his style. The communal stuff has gone (as have the references to Adanis and Ambanis), and he is eager to remind us that he is a statesman who is fair to all Indians (“Modi sabka hai,” he told an interviewer).

 

   The fact that even the extravagant claim that they would win 400 seats, which had been hidden at the back of the cupboard after the first round of polling, has now been pulled out again and is being given another airing suggests that the BJP is recovering its old confidence.

 

   There could be many reasons for this. The respected psephologist Yashwant Deshmukh looked closely at the turnout figures and came to the conclusion that the BJP may have worried too much. Yes, in seats where the battles seemed one-sided, people did not show the same enthusiasm for voting. But everywhere there was a tight contest, turnouts either held firm or went up. Further, when turnouts did fall, this was as true of the southern states where the BJP was hardly present, suggesting that whatever it was that had kept people away from the polling booths, it was not BJP-specific.

 

   As turnouts have recovered and as the BJP’s own internal surveys seem to have shown that the election is proceeding according to plan, the party’s confidence has grown. Amit Shah even told a rally in West Bengal that the BJP had already achieved “absolute majority” and won 270 seats out of the 380 where polling had been held in the four phases, suggesting that the time for nervousness had passed.

 

   This has been the Prime Minister’s cue to return to statesman-like posturing. Even if it is too late to reassure frightened Muslim voters, the lofty current rhetoric about never playing Hindu-Muslim politics serves two other important purposes.

 

   It has often been said that it would be difficult for the BJP to govern India equitably if its Prime Minister kept attacking or undermining nearly 15 per cent of his population.

 

   Modi seemed to have also realised this. Now that he thinks he is winning, he wants to make it clear that he will not rule as a communal, sectarian Prime Minister. Hence all the high-minded stuff about ‘Modi sabka hai.’

 

    There is another agenda. It is clear now that the Prime Minister seeks to be admired and respected as a global statesman. This is why any unflattering article in the Western press is described by his supporters as part of a conspiracy against India by white people who cannot bear to see brown people succeed.

 

   When the Prime Minister himself resorts to dog-whistling at rallies, it becomes more difficult to tell the Western media and India’s allies in the West, and especially in the Middle East, that the government is free from any sectarian agendas. Hence the back-pedalling now and the claims that the Prime Minister was misunderstood.

 

   Three things now seem clear. The first is that the BJP is no longer as rattled as it seemed to be earlier in the campaign. It reckons it has won this election.

 

   Two: having broken with the custom that he only makes high-minded speeches while the small-time leaders do all the anti-Muslim stuff, the Prime Minister would now like to go back to the usual way of electioneering and to airbrush that unfortunate phase out of his campaign record.

 

   And three: with these about-turns, it is becoming less and less easy to decide what the BJP actually stands for. This is made worse by the fact that a significant number of the BJP MPs who will sit in the new Lok Sabha may not have any commitment to the BJP ideology. Nearly a quarter of all BJP candidates in this election are turncoats who left their parties to join the BJP only after Modi won power. Of these 106 new entrants, as many as 90 joined the BJP in the last five years.

 

   For a party that used to pride itself on ideological purity, this is a surprising development. And the fact that the Prime Minister can suddenly create an issue during a campaign and then, a few weeks later, entirely disown it, suggests that the BJP is not quite the ideologically consistent party it once used to be.

 

 

Posted On: 16 May 2024 12:00 PM
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