Yogi Adityanath has never hidden his saffron robes in politics. Which is why it wasn’t a surprise when the Uttar Pradesh chief minister called the elections in India’s most populous state as an ‘80:20’ battle, an obvious reference to the Hindu Muslim population ratio in the state. ’80 per cent are those who are supporters of nationalism, good governance and development, the 20 per cent are those who are against the Ram Janmabhoomi and sympathise with terrorists,” argued Adityanath. Rarely has a chief minister attempted to shape the political discourse in such brazenly communal ‘us’ versus ‘them’ terms but then never before has a monk who till not too long ago spearheaded a Hindu militant group become chief minister. In a sense, Adityanath is only setting the template for the 2022 elections, one where religious polarization and identity politics is a key factor not just in UP but across the battleground states.
The chief minister set the tone for dog whistle politics when in September last year he claimed that ‘only those who used to say abba jaan were digesting ration earlier’, a clear barb aimed at Muslims and an implicit reference to the so-called appeasement politics of his predecessor Akhilesh Yadav. When the Taliban marched into Kabul last August, he warned of stern action against home-grown ‘Talibanis’ who were cheering the armed militia. In fact, in the last five years, the Yogi government has repeatedly invoked national security and anti-terror laws to stereotype Muslims as ‘criminal minded’. From a crackdown on ‘illegal’ slaughterhouses to confiscating property of anti-CAA protestors to legislation aimed at policing inter-faith marriages, the Yogi government has invested a fair amount of its political capital in attempting to create a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ laboratory where Muslim citizens are ‘shown their place’.
A recent UP government ad ominously pushes an open Islamophobic propaganda: in one frame, there is an image of a young man with a vicious look throwing a blazing petrol bomb; the other is of the same man with folded hands, seeking pardon. It is meant to convey a post 2017 transformation in UP since Yogi came to power where ‘80 per cent’ law abiding ‘nationalists’ no longer have to fear from the ’20 per cent’ ‘rioters’ who have been taught a lesson in Yogi Raj.
This ’80:20’ majoritarian narrative is built upon a history of conflict-ridden three decades wherein Uttar Pradesh’s turbulent politics has been tied into combustible religious and caste vote banks. The rise of the BJP in the 1990s as party of unflinching Hindutva aggression saw a reaction in the form of caste consolidation led by the Samajwadi party and Bahujan Samaj party. Both these caste-based parties, one led by a Yadav, the other by a Jatav, saw the Muslims as their ‘natural allies’. The competitive courting of Muslim voters, often through local Islamic clerics and district strongmen with criminal records, made it easier for the BJP to prey on the fear and insecurities of Hindus.
When an Akhilesh Yadav, for example, chooses to invoke Muhammad Ali Jinnah in the same breath as Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru and Patel, he only gives an opportunity to the BJP to accuse the Samajwadi party leader of ‘glorifying’ the founder of Pakistan only to woo Muslim votes. So what if the average UP Muslim, socially discriminated and economically struggling, has far graver life and livelihood concerns than seeking to ‘celebrate’ Jinnah? The terrifying demonization of the UP Muslim as an ‘anti-national’ citizen in complete. Which might also explain why an Asaduddin Owaisi with his strident oratory is positioning himself as a ‘protector of Muslims”: his incendiary rhetoric in turn only boosts the BJP’s 80:20 messaging.
Ironically, Adityanath’s 80:20 formulation comes at a time when the BJP is battling to retain its crucial non-Yadav OBC voters who comprise nearly 35 per cent of the electorate. The idea of a ‘political Hindu’ monolith is being challenged by the growing assertion of smaller OBC parties who feel stifled by the BJP’s upper caste driven social engineering. Interestingly, Akhilesh Yadav is trying to stitch together a rainbow coalition of these parties but whether this grouping can offer a sustained challenge to the BJP’s Hindutva plus welfarism model of governance is uncertain.
But while UP’s divisive politics gets even more hyper-polarised, the worry is that the communal contagion is spreading to other poll bound states. It is no coincidence that the controversial dharma sansad was held in Hardwar in Uttarakhand: many of the sadhu-sants accused of hate speech are close to the ruling BJP establishment there. In Punjab, the aftermath of the prime minister’s security lapse in Ferozepur, has seen the BJP’s hyper-active social media armies launch a sinister campaign that draws tenuous links between protesting Sikh farmers and Khalistani groups yet again. With the Akalis no longer its allies, the BJP is consciously attempting to woo its Punjabi urban Hindu voter by stoking fears of a revival of Khalistani backed terror and targeting the Channi-Sidhu led Congress for being soft on national security. The result could be a dangerous re-opening of fault-lines that had been supposedly mended in the last two decades in a vulnerable border state.
Why even in tiny Goa, a state that has for decades been a symbol of relative communal peace, past frictions between Hindu and Catholic communities are getting revived. BJP’s original Goa mascot, the late Manohar Parikkar, had made a sustained effort in the 2012 elections to reach out to the Church, a move that saw seven out of eight BJP Catholic candidates emerge triumphant and the BJP win a majority on its own in Goa for the first time. Now, against the backdrop of the recent attacks by Hindu militant groups on church halls in neighbouring Karnataka and the sustained campaign against missionaries in the guise of harsh anti-conversion laws, the BJP is finding it very difficult to earn the trust of Goa’s large Catholic population. The result is a creeping return to the party’s Hindutva agenda to safeguard its core Hindu vote: chief minister Pramod Sawant has called for rebuilding temples destroyed by the Portuguese 500 years ago.
Indeed, for leaders who have no serious answer to the real issues of our times – be it jobs, education, corruption or public health – there is always heightened religious identity based on past animosities to fall back upon. The 2022 elections may end up then offering another chilling glimpse into the future, one that pushes the country closer to a state where religion based majoritarian politics increasingly calls the shots.
Post-script: Being fought in the shadow of Omicron, the 2022 election campaign is expected to have a major digital footprint. Which poses a big challenge: just how does the Election Commission intend to check the hate factories that thrive in the digital world. For starters, the commission could answer a simple question: is Yogi Adityanath’s 80:20 remark not a clear violation of the Model code of conduct that prohibits ‘any activity’ that creates hatred or tension between communities? Its time for the EC to rediscover a spine.