Modi’s Conundrum

The world’s largest democracy confronts a difficult choice in 2019. As India’s 875 million voters prepare for what is expected to be the most expensive election in history, its largest state — Uttar Pradesh — is ripe for sectarian battle. Uttar Pradesh elects 80 of the 543 members in the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of parliament, making it critical to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s reelection strategy. Five years after the party won a sweeping victory in the state amid a period of episodic violence, communal tensions are set to soar once again.

Wears the Heartland on its Sleeve

Historically, the country’s religious fault lines have been more prominent in Uttar Pradesh than anywhere else. In December 1992, a mob of Hindu kar sevaks, or religious workers, demolished the centuries-old Babri Mosque in Ayodhya. They claimed it occupied the birthplace of Lord Ram and the site of an ancient temple, triggering major riots in the process.

In March 2014, Narendra Modi, the current prime minister, announced that he would contest the forthcoming elections from the ancient city of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh to win his party a critical cache of seats in the Hindi-speaking heartland. The symbolism was hard to miss when he celebrated his resounding electoral success at the evening aarti on the banks of the holy Ganga river. In May 2019, he will return to Uttar Pradesh to seek a five-year extension for his party’s time in office.

It is more than just its size — Uttar Pradesh is also politically significant because of its role in the origins of Modi’s party. The BJP’s brand of Hindu nationalism has its roots in the Ram janmabhoomi — “birthplace” — movement, which in the early 1990s catapulted the party to national significance and secured it a majority in the state assembly. In the following two decades, BJP officials shifted tactics, relying on more muted appeals to firebrand Hindus and suspending their focus on the janmabhoomi agenda, which led to a loss of power in the U.P. assembly. During this period, two regional, caste-based parties — the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party — dominated local politics, holding off both the BJP and the Indian National Congress, the country’s oldest political party.

But Modi’s almost cultish popularity in 2014 renewed calls for a return to Hindu nationalism in Uttar Pradesh. In an interview with the HPR, Satish Misra, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, explained that the BJP’s 2014 platform did not necessarily prioritize economic reform over communal polarization, a common misconception: “[The BJP] knew they had to offer something to everyone. For many it was the promise of better jobs, better lives, and bullet trains, but for their core constituency it was Hindutva.” After much speculation, the party even sneaked support for construction of the Ram temple into its election manifesto, and also endorsed a uniform civil code that would remove special protections for religious minorities. It was hardly surprising, therefore, when the BJP appointed Yogi Adityanath — a controversial Hindu monk known for his incendiary, Islamophobic comments — to head the state upon its return to power in 2017.

Saffron Brigade versus Middle India

In many ways, Chief Minister Yogi has satisfied the more sinister yearnings of Modi’s supporters in Uttar Pradesh, much to the chagrin of its liberal, secular, and minority residents. The centrality of the state in the Mughal Empire, which governed much of the subcontinent from the 16th century through the 19th, left it with a rich legacy of Islamic culture and architecture. Institutions like the Aligarh Muslim University and the famed Taj Mahal, the preponderance of Urdu in U.P. courts and public life, and the colonial vernacular of Indo-Saracenic architecture collectively mark the vibrant diversity of cultures which have been imprinted on this canvas. Yogi’s government, however, harbors a special disdain for this legacy. It recently renamed the Mughalsarai Railway Station in Varanasi after an ideological patron and the town of Allahabad to Prayagraj, a Hindu derivative of its name in the pre-Mughal era. It has presided over campaigns against beef-eating and so-called “Love Jihad,” the alleged practice of Muslim men marrying Hindu women for the sole purpose of converting them, contributing to a 28 percent surge in incidents of communal violence.

However, the BJP knows all too well that its 2014 success cannot be replicated merely through further religious pandering in the heartland. Symbolically important as these issues may be, India’s growing class of middle-income, urban, and educated voters are unlikely to be convinced. Middle India has often played a constraining political role, punishing politicians who stray too far from the center. In 2015, the Aam Aadmi Party swept to power in Delhi only a year after the BJP had won all seven parliamentary seats in the city-state. More recently, even the heartland states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh, each of which the BJP carried easily in 2013, ousted the incumbents and elected INC governments. In an interview with the HPR, Shehla Rashid Shora, a prominent student activist and vice president of the student union at Jawaharlal Nehru University, pointed out that Yogi had campaigned more in these states than the prime minister, underscoring the tendency for Middle India to eschew the boisterous political brand of the saffron brigade. “The Modi machinery may start trying to contain [Yogi’s] influence. Even the pro-government media outlet Republic TV recently criticized the U.P. law and order situation, highlighting the unusually high number of fake encounters,” she added, referring to the endemic, and purportedly growing, practice of staged extra-judicial killings of criminals by law enforcement.

In another interview with the HPR, Shivam Singh, a young former member of the BJP who has worked with India’s foremost election strategist, Prashant Kishore, stressed the limitations of the BJP’s Hindutva platform. Unlike Misra, Singh asserted that religious appeals played a smaller role in the BJP’s 2014 electoral success than its focus on first-time, young voters who simply wanted change. He explained that “the core Hindu support had always been there,” but that “talk of corruption and policy-paralysis under the INC pushed the BJP to a majority.” Because “they haven’t delivered on either Hindutva or the economy,” Singh concluded, India is now “back to conventional politics.”

The Return to Caste

Indeed, despite controlled inflation and increased foreign investment, job growth under the Modi government has remained slow, while the twin shocks of demonetization and shoddy implementation of the new Goods and Services Tax have temporarily hurt the business climate. But the BJP’s traditional supporters should have welcomed its politics of ‘saffronization.’ “It hasn’t worked,” Singh noted, arguing that “caste is more closely tied with people’s economics than religion, and the BJP has hurt the livelihoods of many Dalits and Muslims by closing down illegal slaughterhouses around the state.”

Disenchantment among those from the historically lower castes has fueled a wave of alliances among regional, caste-based parties. The Samajwadi and Bahujan Samaj Parties, previously sworn rivals who command widespread support from Other Backward Classes and Scheduled Castes respectively, have joined forces in Uttar Pradesh. While Modi’s party won 71 out of 80 seats with just 42 percent of the vote in 2014, unity among opposition parties could severely hurt its performance in 2019, a trend that has already played out in two former BJP strongholds during the recent by-elections. Asked whether representatives of these two previously antipathetic parties could cooperate well state-wide, Misra reckoned that their “arithmetic will trump chemistry.”

This highlights a major dilemma facing the BJP over the coming weeks, one opposition parties are hoping it will fail to resolve: How can it appeal to a broad base of supporters, many of whom are averse to communal polarization, while driving turnout among traditional Hindus in states like Uttar Pradesh? Even though doubling down on Hindutva has yielded limited success, turning away from it entirely may not be an option. Misra emphasized that many of the party’s cadres and leadership are still drawn from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a right-wing organization whose “political wing is the BJP.” The government’s recent support for a bill to extend reservations in public admissions by 10 percent for the economically backward is seen as a last-ditch attempt at pacifying the RSS, a predominantly upper-caste organization in the heartland. India’s affirmative action program had until now only accounted for caste; this change is thus likely to face both legal pushback and a backlash from those among the historically lower castes.

What’s Next?

Signs point toward a period of renewed disquiet ahead in Uttar Pradesh. Shora thinks the temple is just one of several issues the government might include in its platform to polarize the electorate along religious lines. Singh concurred, for even though Yogi was a prominent face in the recently botched campaigns, the BJP has yet to employ the “fear narrative” to drive solidarity among Hindus across castes. Given its lack of support from other quarters due to a controversial citizenship bill in the northeast and a historical lack of influence in much of the south, attempts to flare communal tensions may be the party’s last resort at holding on to the heartland. If they come to pass, expect Modi to leave the mudslinging to his affiliates, as he did in 2014 when Amit Shah, who nows serves as the party’s president, urged voters to “avenge” recent riots in the U.P. town of Muzaffarnagar.

Despite recent stumbles, it would be a mistake to write the political obituary of the prime minister just yet. Behind his carefully cultivated persona of sociability is an undoubtedly astute operative. And regardless of whether he continues forging his legacy for another five years, there are crucial ways in which he has already permanently ‘Modi-fied’ India’s political landscape. Recent temple visits by the INC president, Rahul Gandhi, in poll-bound states and the reluctance of veteran liberal Shashi Tharoor to denounce gender segregation at a Kerala temple demonstrate the frenzy into which Modi has spun his opponents. Insecure as India’s conservative majority may be, it maintains a grasp on power which makes it impossible to ignore.

Image Credit: Harvard Political Review/Matthew Rossi

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