North BJP’s sole bastion for an opposition breach
The south, east and a major part of the west do not make for a buoyant forecast for the BJP.
After the Karnataka poll outcome, the political focus has largely been on the BJP’s slumping presence in the south because the state was its gateway to an entire region that remains largely untouched by the RSS’s core ideology and worldview. In the prelude to the 2024 parliamentary election, the BJP is up against numerous challenges in the east, exemplified by its dogged struggles to sustain the momentum generated in 2019 in West Bengal, its failure to breach BJD-held Odisha and the upheavals in the north-east where it is ensconced. The tremors in Manipur, triggered by the relentless ethnic violence and purges, spilt over into the other states, notably Mizoram. In the west of India, another impregnable terrain for the BJP since 2014, Maharashtra, electorally the largest and weightiest province, could see a resurgent Maha Vikas Aghadi. The Uddhav Thackeray faction of the Shiv Sena still hoped to ride over the “sympathy” generated for Balasaheb Thackeray’s legatee after the vertical split it suffered.
The south, east and a major part of the west do not make for a buoyant forecast for the BJP. However, is the north factored in while drawing up a pre-poll scenario? The indomitable north that towers over the rest of the country at the crest? Without counting Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh, the north—that runs like a jagged swathe of land across the map from Rajasthan to the south-west to Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, Chandigarh and Delhi in the north and dips southward to Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh before moving to the east to Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand and Bihar and shares a broad linguistic identity as Hindi-speaking states (bar Punjab)—contributes 240 elected members (approximately 44 per cent) to the 543-strong Lok Sabha. As against this number, the west (Maharashtra, Gujarat, Goa, Dadra and Nagar Haveli, and Daman and Diu) brings 78 MPs, the east (West Bengal, Assam, Odisha, Tripura, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram and Sikkim) 67 and the south (Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Telangana, Puducherry, Andaman and Nicobar and Lakshadweep), 131.
The BJP consolidated its grip over the north in 2014. In 2019, it won 181 of the 240 seats, with Punjab being the weak link in a chain of success. In the last five years, the BJP suffered a reversal in the Himachal elections, is up against an invigorated Congress in MP and has been hit by a face-off between the Centre and the Haryana woman wrestlers caused by charges of a sex offence against an Uttar Pradesh MP that alienated its Jat voters in Haryana, UP and Rajasthan. Notwithstanding these problems—the BJP still thinks these are only pinpricks—the north remains its best insurance against prospective setbacks in the rest of the country.
The Opposition, be it the Congress or the regional parties, is groping for a strategy to counter the BJP’s near-hegemony over the north. They strive to level the playing field with a diamond-cut-diamond approach, answering the BJP’s dominant Hindutva appeal with their advocacy of majoritarian politics. This approach is best illustrated by the tactics adopted by the Congress in MP, which votes this December.
The Congress ushered in its campaign in a blaze of saffron and religiosity, headed by its CM candidate, Kamal Nath. Hindutva was always a part of Nath’s toolkit. When he was minding the Gujarat elections, he courted “sadhus” and “babas” to rebut the BJP’s allegation of “minority appeasement” against the Congress, but that didn’t eventually help. Soon after he was unseated as the CM, he constituted a “Dharmik and Utsav Prakosth”. He appointed a white-robed “katha vachak” (narrator of Hindu scriptures and “shloka”), Richa Goswami, as the head. When Nath promised a monthly aid of Rs 1500 to women and subsidised gas cylinders as part of the Congress’s agenda to “respect and honour” women, Goswami launched the event by reciting the “sunder kaand” from Ramayana.
On June 9, Nath merged the Bajrang Sena, a right-wing outfit dedicated to cow protection, with the Congress at a function in the party headquarters to the chant of “Jai Shri Ram” and portrayed himself as a Hanuman votary. On June 12, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra inaugurated the Congress’s electioneering by offering prayers on the banks of the Narmada at Jabalpur. So far, Nath and his associates have not uttered a word on the concerted offensive against Muslims in MP, manifest in incidents of lynching and the use of bulldozers to raze their homes and commercial properties in the manner of Yogi Adityanath by the Shivraj Singh Chouhan administration.
In neighbouring Chhattisgarh, Congress CM Bhupesh Baghel lifted the same pages from the Hindutva playbook but modulated their use less overtly not to alienate the Adivasis. On June 1, Baghel organised a “National Ramayana festival” while the commercial use of cow dung and urine was part of his government’s ongoing agenda. In UP, the seedbed of majoritarian politics, the main Opposition party, Samajwadi Party, hosted its workers’ training camps at Hindu pilgrim sites, the last being at Naimisharanya in the Avadh region, where its leaders, Ramgopal Yadav and Shivpal Singh Yadav, invoked the Hindu scriptures in their speeches to reinforce the message. The Samajwadi leader Akhilesh Yadav generously embedded Hindutva symbols and icons in his past electioneering, but that doesn’t seem to have enlarged his Hindu constituency, especially among the upper castes.
Of the states going to polls this year, Rajasthan alone has underpinned its campaign on CM Ashok Gehlot’s pursuit of welfare policies and measures in his tenure without entangling the Congress in Hindutva. It’s debatable what the string of freebies he announced will cost the exchequer, but evidently drawing a leaf from the victories in Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka, Gehlot appears convinced that his emphasis on health, education, social security, subsidised electricity and the restoration of the Old Pension Scheme could guarantee the Congress a second inning.
The fallout of the Opposition’s accent on Hindutva has not been positive. Whether it pays the parties electoral dividends or not is imponderable. But it pushed the BJP to go after a more aggressive form of Hindutva politics. The strategy was recently manifest in the attacks on Muslims in Uttarakhand that spared none, not even an office-bearer of a district BJP minority cell, and the frequent Hindu-Muslim clashes in Maharashtra to keep the pot boiling, as it were.
Columnist and political commentator