Recently, the Economic Times Magazine ran a cover story, titled “The Transformer.” The front page carried a picture of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, towering over the different projects and investments he has overseen in the state - airports, manufacturing units, expressways and even a film city. Needless to say, the story ruffled some feathers on social media, with critics denouncing the piece as “journalism as genocide.” While the outrage against the newspaper was visibly ignorant of the case the article made, what was more concerning was that even those who came out in defence of the article didn’t care to cite its merits.
Under Adityanath, Uttar Pradesh has seen rapid, decisive change, on the economic front. A state traditionally infamous for crime, caste divisions and poor development indicators, Uttar Pradesh jumped ten places in the Ease of Doing Business rankings in 2020. Now, second only to Andhra Pradesh, the state surpassed other states long-established as business-friendly destinations like Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Gujarat.
International brands like Samsung, Microsoft, PepsiCo and ITC are looking to expand their production in the state, which, saw over 700 start-ups being launched this year, in spite of the pandemic. The Deputy Chief Minister of the state recently announced that the government’s five-year target of investment of ₹20,000 crore and creation of 3 lakh jobs in the IT sector had been achieved in just three years. The government’s COVID management strategy was lauded by the World Health Organisation as an example for other states to emulate.
Not many speak of this. The media narrative of Yogi Adityanath’s Chief Ministership is painted with broad swathes of saffron. This, in itself, is not a new phenomenon. Many see Modi’s rise in Gujarat through the lens of Godhra alone, the election victories of 2014 and 2019 solely as wins of hardline Hindutva, and the success of the BJP in general, as a consequence only of the Ram Janmabhoomi Movement. What has changed now, is that the party’s own spokespeople hardly cite the facts. The BJP, that once made conscious efforts to distance itself from the purely saffron narrative, can now be seen actively playing into it.
Post Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination in 1948, the Sangh Parivar and its ideology were relegated to the sidelines, alienated from the mainstream. Most political parties were reluctant to be seen as close to the Hindutva ideology, a factor credited with the loss of allies in 1996 and 1999, leading to the fall of Vajpayee’s governments, and his inability to form a government in 2004. When he was in power, running coalition governments and retaining support, Vajpayee kept many of the Sangh’s demands at bay.
Under Narendra Modi, too, the BJP made a conscious effort to set its agenda as vikas first, reaching out to different sections of society. This, however, didn’t last. The BJP soon understood that it was not easy to counter a deeply entrenched narrative that had been several decades in the making. Playing into the image of a purely and aggressively Hindu party would be more convenient than having to build a new image of its own.
Today, the rhetoric of kabristan and shamshaan, Bhagyanagar and Hyderabad, has come to take greater and greater precedence over comprehensive pitches for development. The strategists of the party invest more in campaigners, events and statements that work their way seamlessly into sensational headlines. The result is a shallow, banal and purely electoral ideology that neither puts the spotlight on development, nor stays true to the ideals of Hindutva.
The focus of the BJP’s Hindutva has shifted from issues such as illegal immigration, re-examining popular narratives of Indian history, freeing Hindu temples from state control and rehabilitation of Kashmiri Hindus to surface-level agendas like laws on cow slaughter and love jihad. This makes their intention clear - create a furore rather than bring about any real change. In recent years, even the RSS has made more systematic, sustained efforts to reach out to minorities and other groups than the BJP has, so much so that Rahul Gandhi has begun to tacitly invoke Mohan Bhagwat as someone on his side of the fence.
The vitriolic campaigns run by the party for the Assembly polls in Delhi and municipal elections in Hyderabad seemed specially curated to make for a jarring, uncomfortable news reading experience. Polarisation in the run up to an election is now a matter of convenience for the BJP, and arguably, for the media, that juices out of it many nights of inane debate. Independent news portals seem better informed, and more ready to shed light on the government’s achievements in spheres of development, defence and international affairs than the BJP itself. As long as it reduces the national discourse to religion, caste and controversial one liners, the BJP finds itself answerable to no one on issues like the economy.
However, the party must recognise that polarisation is short lived, dangerous and double-edged. More importantly, polarisation doesn’t necessarily win, as is reflected in the consistent success of parties like the Biju Janta Dal in Odisha.
The NDA itself owes its recent Bihar victory not to divisive rhetoric, but more to policies that benefited its female voters and the direct benefit transfers to migrant workers. Its 2019 general election win too was bolstered by the Prime Minister’s tangible welfare schemes - gas cylinders, sanitation and electricity connections; things that could make voters feel better off, even in cases where, as some argue, they are not . In fact, the elections that it ran on more polarising issues, like Delhi and Jharkhand, the BJP lost.
Narendra Modi is no longer the victim of a scathingly harsh, resolutely biased media, as he was in 2002. Today, the BJP holds the position to counter, reinvent and project a new image, not only of itself, but also of its much-demonised roots in the RSS. In its new brand of politics however, it no longer wants to.
If the BJP spoke more about reformative legislations that it introduces or efficiently communicated with its constituents, perhaps we wouldn’t see protests of the kind we see today. Issues like unemployment, and agricultural and industrial progress resonate with the “New India,” as the BJP likes to put it. The voter wants to be informed, to engage actively with the politics and policies of the day. In highlighting unintelligent, venomous agendas, the BJP isn’t helping its own case in the long run.
Leaders who have a much wider acceptability across parties like Nitin Gadkari and Rajnath Singh have demonstrated the success of not simply balancing, but in fact synchronising the agenda of development with core ideas and values of Hindutva like discipline and caste equality. Shifting focus away from the current purview wouldn’t mean abandoning the party’s roots. If anything, it would help the party embrace them more comprehensively.
Isolated efforts like the Prime Minister’s recent speech at AMU may send out significant messaging but will fail to percolate to the base of the party, unless the BJP fundamentally rethinks the strategy it wants to follow, the agendas it wants to set, the planks on which it wants to run its campaigns. For now, the rhetoric may seem to be winning votes. However, in abandoning the hate for much more consequential issues, the BJP could unlock a much larger base, one that would more comfortably and more freely press the button in their favour.