Using hate against minorities, particularly Muslims, for political gain is not a new tactic in India. Lal Kishan Advani, Umar Bharti and Vinay Kitayar have all earned their political positions due to their ability to polarize voters along communal lines. At the same time, Dalit leader Kanshi Ram and backward caste leaders like Laloo Prasad Yadav, and Mulayam Singh, unleashed hate against upper castes to polarize Indian voters along caste lines.
So stinging were Kanshi Ram’s speeches that he would raise from the podium slogans such as, “Tilak, Tarozoo Aur Talwar.Maro Unko Jootay Char.” Tilak refers to Brahmins, Tarazoo to Baniya or the business class, and Talwar means Thakurs or Rajputs, known as the ruling class.
What has changed in India now is that those seeking political space by unleashing hate are occupying top political positions in the country, too. No less than Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself seeks to polarize his constituency along communal lines.
Modi’s election speeches on building temples, demolishing mosques, protecting cows and raking up Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb and the Maratha leader Shivaji are an attempt to consolidate Hindu politics.
Promoting hate has been a time-tested formula for right-wing politicians like Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and others to take the center stage. But while in power, these leaders have abandoned communal politics to seek allies from across the board. Ahead of the 2014 general elections, when some people were expressing fears at the prospect of Modi becoming prime minister, many others were referring to Advani and others, who had shunned communal tags while occupying political positions. It was expected that from the exigencies of power Modi, and for the international image, Modi would moderate his views and reach out to minorities. But as it seems, Modi is in no hurry to try inclusive politics.
Banking on communal polarization
Ahead of the elections in 2014, Modi had shown a semblance of inclusive politics by projecting a development model. But after coming to power, and more so when he was reelected in 2019, he completely banked on communal polarization. While the Pulwama attack in Kashmir and anti-Pakistan rhetoric helped win the 2019 election for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), anti-Muslim rhetoric and Islamophobia appear on the menu for the 2024 elections. A rehearsal process of this agenda is currently on display in the upcoming provincial elections in Uttar Pradesh (UP), India’s most populated state. The state is going to the polls in February-March.
Hate mongering and Islamophobia used to have fewer buyers in India, even though the subcontinent was partitioned along communal lines. Though Hindu Mahasabha had unleased communal politics, the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi at the hands of right-wing Nathuram Godse was a setback for these divisive politics. Taking lessons from the failure of Hindu Mahasabha, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), however, continued to work quietly and eventually infiltrated the ranks of apparently secular national political parties.
“[The] RSS then shifted its focus on Christianity and targeted the Christian priests, who they believed were trying to convert the tribals. Organizations like the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram were set up to assimilate the tribals as Hindus,” journalist and author Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay told The Friday Times. Mukhopadhyay’s recently released book, “The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right,” has unveiled many facets of right-wing politics in India. The narrative that 80 per cent of Hindus of India are in danger at the hands of 20 per cent Muslims is selling like hotcakes. So much so that BJP’s youth wing member and first time Member of Parliament from Bangaluru Tejasvi Surya, while speaking at a public event last week, appealed to every temple and mutt to convert every Muslim and Christian to Hinduism.
Kapil Mishra, BJP leader from Delhi, was responsible for steering the 2020 riots. During protests of the Anti-Citizenship Amendment Act, Mishra instigated Hindu mobs against Muslims by making statements like, “Modi Ji, kaat do in mullon ko (Modi, cut these Muslims into pieces)”. BJP’s cabinet minister Anurag Thakur called Muslims traitors at a public rally and made provocative statements like, “Desh ke gaddaro jo, goli maro salo ko (Shoot the traitors).”
No opposition to challenge the polarization
But even more worrying is the fact that there is no opposition to take the right-wing saffron force head-on. The Left, which used to ideologically fight the rightwing, has withered to the extent that in its bastion of West Bengal and Kerala, many of its cadres have joined the BJP.
Leaders like Kanshi Ram and Charan Singh, who dared to fight the Hindu upper-caste politics forcefully, are no longer around. Their parties, too, have moved towards appeasing the Hindu right, to the extent that Kanshi Ram’s successor Mayawati is openly patronizing the Hindu right-wing these days.
“The RSS- BJP has realized that Hindutva failed because of India’s cultural diversity. The lower caste Hindus had distanced themselves from the upper caste and so they came out with a narrative that 80 per cent Hindus are at the receiving end by the 20 per cent Muslims,” said veteran journalist Umakant Lakhera, who has covered North Indian politics for more than four decades.
Lakhera, who is also president of the Press Club of India, stated that it was because of this narrative that a major chunk of Dalit and other lower-caste Hindu voters moved from the caste-based regional political parties to the BJP. The statistics show that the BJP had secured just 19 per cent of votes of backward caste Hindus in 1996. In 2019, this figure reached 44 per cent.
Author and political scientist Urmilesh, in his essay titled, “A New Beginning for Shudras Still a Possibility,” attributed this shift to the failure of Dalit leaders. He said while these leaders brought prosperity to their castes/communities, they failed to consolidate them and establish proper political and democratic structures for their respective parties.
Lakhera is, however, confident that after seven years of Modi rule, the backward classes have now started feeling betrayed by the BJP and predicts they will want to go back to their cocoons.
“There is a change in the direction of wind now [that] is being felt in Uttar Pradesh, where the backwards have failed to get adequate representation anywhere. In the upcoming assembly election, the community is looking at the non-BJP alternatives,” Lakhera said.
The change, if it happens, will shift the course of Indian politics once again from communal to caste lines. But many other observers say that to counter such erosion, BJP and PM Modi may bring something more scathing and lethal out from their hat to consolidate their hold on Hindu voters.