2022 elections: It’s back to divisive politics - Hindustan Times
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2022 elections: It’s back to divisive politics

Jan 13, 2022 08:44 PM IST

For leaders who have no answer to the real challenges — jobs, corruption, education, or public health — there is always heightened religious identity politics to fall back upon

Uttar Pradesh (UP) chief minister (CM) Yogi Adityanath has never hidden his saffron robes in politics. Which is why it isn’t a surprise when he calls the elections in the country’s most populous state an “80:20” battle, a reference to the Hindu-Muslim population ratio in UP. Eighty per cent are those who are supporters of nationalism, good governance and development, and “20% are those who are against the Ram Janmabhoomi and sympathise with terrorists,” argues Adityanath. Rarely has a CM attempted to shape the political discourse in such “us” versus “them” terms, but then never before has a monk, who once spearheaded a Hindu militant group, become CM.

Both these caste-based parties, one led by a Yadav and the other by a Jatav, viewed Muslims as their “natural allies”. The competitive courting of Muslim voters, often through local clerics and district strongmen with criminal records, made it easier for the BJP to prey on the fear and insecurities of Hindus. (ANI) PREMIUM
Both these caste-based parties, one led by a Yadav and the other by a Jatav, viewed Muslims as their “natural allies”. The competitive courting of Muslim voters, often through local clerics and district strongmen with criminal records, made it easier for the BJP to prey on the fear and insecurities of Hindus. (ANI)

Uttar Pradesh (UP) chief minister (CM) Yogi Adityanath has never hidden his saffron robes in politics. Which is why it isn’t a surprise when he calls the elections in the country’s most populous state an “80:20” battle, a reference to the Hindu-Muslim population ratio in UP. Eighty per cent are those who are supporters of nationalism, good governance and development, and “20% are those who are against the Ram Janmabhoomi and sympathise with terrorists,” argues Adityanath. Rarely has a CM attempted to shape the political discourse in such “us” versus “them” terms, but then never before has a monk, who once spearheaded a Hindu militant group, become CM.

From “abba jaan” barbs to “Talibani” slurs, the CM has never missed an opportunity to invoke dog-whistle politics aimed at demonising Muslims as the prime “enemy”. From a crackdown on “illegal” slaughterhouses to confiscating the property of anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protesters to legislation aimed at policing interfaith marriages, the Yogi government has invested a fair amount of its political capital in a majoritarian agenda.

A recent UP government ad pushes this propaganda: In one frame, there is an image of a young man, sporting a classic keffiyeh (the black-and-white checked cloth first popularised by Palestinians) 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 the state.

This “80:20” majoritarian narrative is built upon a history of three decades of conflict wherein UP’s turbulent politics has been tied into combustible religious and caste vote banks. The rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 1990s as a party of unflinching Hindutva assertion saw a reaction in caste consolidation, led by the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

Both these caste-based parties, one led by a Yadav and the other by a Jatav, viewed Muslims as their “natural allies”. The competitive courting of Muslim voters, often through local 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 Mohammed Ali Jinnah in the same breath as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel, he only gives an opportunity to the BJP to accuse the SP leader of “glorifying” the founder of Pakistan to “appease” Muslim voters. So what if the average UP Muslim, socially discriminated against and economically struggling, has far graver life and livelihood concerns than seeking to “celebrate” Jinnah? When an Asaduddin Owaisi, with his strident oratory, positions himself as a “protector of Muslims”, his incendiary rhetoric only boosts the BJP’s 80:20 messaging.

Ironically, Adityanath’s 80:20 formulation comes when the BJP is battling to retain its crucial non-Yadav other backward classes (OBC) voters, who comprise nearly 35% of the electorate. Moreover, 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, Yadav is trying to stitch together a rainbow coalition of these parties, as a modern day Mandal 2.0 experiment, 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 dharm sansad (religious parliament) was held in Haridwar in Uttarakhand. Many of the sadhu-sants accused of hate speech are close to the ruling BJP. In Punjab, the aftermath of the Prime Minister’s security lapse in Ferozepur has seen hyperactive social media armies launch a sinister campaign that draws tenuous links between protesting Sikh farmers and Khalistani groups yet again. With the Akali Dal no longer its ally, the BJP seems to be attempting to woo its Punjabi urban Hindu voter by stoking fears of a revival of Khalistani-backed terror and targetting the Charanjit Singh Channi-Sidhu-led Congress for being soft on national security.

Why even in tiny Goa, past frictions between Hindus and Catholics are being revived. The recent attacks by Hindu militant groups on church halls in Karnataka and the vicious campaign against missionary groups are making it difficult for the BJP to retain the trust of Goa’s large Catholic population, which it enjoyed when the late Manohar Parikkar was CM. The result is a creeping return to the party’s Hindutva agenda: CM Pramod Sawant has called for rebuilding temples destroyed by the Portuguese 500 years ago.

For leaders who have no serious answer to the real issues of our times — jobs, corruption, education, or public health — there is always heightened religious identity politics, based on past animosities, to fall back upon. As a result, the 2022 elections may end up offering another chilling glimpse into the future, one where majoritarian politics increasingly calls the shots.

Post-script: Being fought in the shadow of Omicron, the 2022 election campaign is expected to have a significant digital footprint. Which poses a big challenge: Just how does the Election Commission intend to check hate factories that thrive in the anonymity of the digital world?

Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author

The views expressed are personal

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Rajdeep Sardesai is senior journalist, author and TV news presenter. His book 2014: The election that changed India is a national best seller that has been translated into half a dozen languages. He tweets as @sardesairajdeep

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