At Delhi rallies, Adityanath’s corrosive rhetoric resonates with misinformed voters

Despite waiting for hours, the crowds became instantly charged when Ajay Singh Bisht took the stage, and chants of “Jai Shri Ram” reverberated across the rally grounds in Delhi. Raj K Raj / Hindustan Times / Getty Images
07 February, 2020

“The tide is turning,” Rajinder Singh, a 51-year-old shopkeeper in east Delhi’s Patparganj locality, told me, on 3 February. “Since Yogi is coming over here, there’s a good chance people’s priorities are going to shift towards Shaheen Bagh, they might just forget about everything else.” We spoke at his shop as we waited for the Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Ajay Singh Bisht—more commonly known as Yogi Adityanath—to arrive for his rally ahead of the Delhi elections, on 8 February. Singh took out a copy of the Dainik Bhaskar and showed me an article about the Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal reciting the Hanuman Chalisa—a sixteenth century hymn. At the rally two hours later, Bisht referred to it as well. “Those who were shouting about Shaheen Bagh are now singing about the Hanuman Chalisa,” he said. “That is the power of Shri Ram.” The crowd erupted with chants of “Jai Shri Ram!”

Over four days, starting 1 February, Bisht addressed at least 12 rallies across Delhi. At each rally, he targeted the protesters at Shaheen Bagh, a long stretch of road in the national capital that has been the site of a sit-in protest led by the Muslim women of the area. Bisht referred to them as “terrorists” and the “tukde-tukde gang.” The firebrand Bharatiya Janata Party leader was expected to mobilise the electorate at a time when Delhi witnesses thousands of residents come onto the streets day and night to protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. And Bisht delivered. Despite having to wait for hours, the crowds would become instantly charged whenever Bisht took the stage, and chants of “Jai Shri Ram” would reverberate across the rally grounds. 

I attended two rallies to understand how the BJP’s support base in Delhi understood the ongoing protests against the CAA, and why Bisht struck a chord with them. What emerged from these conversations was an apparent ignorance of the CAA and the reasons for the opposition against it, and a blind acceptance of the media they consumed. “We all know the truth,” Saurav Dhaka, a 24-year-old attendee at the rally in Tughlakabad, told me. “Why do you think we would be lied to on such a large scale? Everyone knows that there is a disease in Shaheen Bagh, and that disease needs to be stopped. Don’t you think so?”

The Patparganj rally took place at a dilapidated school ground in Patparganj’s Mandawali neighbourhood that had been decorated with saffron flags, banners and posters in preparation. The surrounding buildings were each at least two storeys high, with police officers deployed on each building. “We have never seen anything like this in our area,” Shyam Kumar Upadhyay, a 33-year-old resident of Mandawali, told me. “No one usually gives this place much importance. But people are definitely very excited to see Yogi over here; everyone has come out since the morning.”

His brother, Vijay Kumar Upadhyay, added, “See, right now, we don’t really care about what is happening in Shaheen Bagh. We only want to know about what they’re going to do for us here. I think after the elections, everyone will clear out from Shaheen Bagh.” The brothers believed that the protesters at Shaheen Bagh were all being paid. They claimed that these things were “common knowledge.” When I pressed them further, they said that they had seen these things on the WhatsApp messages they received, and that it was also shown on Zee News, which they watched regularly.  “All of this is happening for the elections, they will be moved out after that,” Vijay said. “The law isn’t going to be removed anytime soon.” While the brothers said they were going to vote on the basis of the progress in their locality, not many around Delhi shared the same sentiment.

Two days earlier, Bisht held the rally in Tughlakabad’s Harkesh Nagar locality, about five kilometres from Shaheen Bagh. The atmosphere was significantly more charged than Mandawali. “See, they are disrupting the progress of everyone,” Sushant Khurana, a 22-year-old attendee told me. “Whoever is in Shaheen Bagh needs to be shot. How can they say these things against the country? Who are these people? Where are they from?” When I tried to explain to him that the blockade was in opposition to the CAA and the proposed pan-India National Register of Citizens, he dismissed me. “No, they need to be removed. I know that everyone there is a Pakistani agent and I don’t think people understand that after Ram Mandir [Ayodhya Verdict] and 370, they are taking out their frustration.” Khurana was referring to the central government’s decision to abrogate the special status of Jammu and Kashmir under the Constitution, and the Supreme Court verdict clearing the path for the construction of a temple at the disputed Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi site in Ayodhya. Though he made the claim before the rally started, Bisht also declared in his rallies that the protesters at Shaheen Bagh were venting about these two issues.

In fact, Khurana refused to accept the fact that the CAA and the NRC were the focal points of contention for the protesters at Shaheen Bagh. Several attendees I spoke to did not seem to understand the implications of the CAA-NRC. While it would be easy for anyone to dismiss this as bigotry or hatred, it became obvious after several interviews that the attendees I spoke to simply had no source for alternative information. It appeared increasingly like they were merely believing the media they consumed. For instance, Khurana said that he and his friends often discussed the videos they received over WhatsApp, and that it was their primary source of information. He said these videos included depictions of purported protesters receiving money and others identifying the protesters as intruders from Pakistan.

At the time, Bisht’s rally was yet to begin, and the crowd was very low on energy. In an attempt to liven them up, the BJP karyakartas—party workers—recited poems against Kejriwal and the Shaheen Bagh protest:

CAA-NRC par itna zeher failaya
Deshdrohi Kanhaiya ko bachaya
Shaheen Bhag se bhaga na paaya
Itna brasht Kejriwal
Modiji ne desh ko bachaya
Article 370 hataya
Ayodhya mein Ram Mandir banaya
Tukde karne walon ko accha diya jawab.

(He spread so much poison about the CAA-NRC
He saved the traitor Kanhaiya
He could not drive away those at Shaheen Bagh
So corrupt Kejriwal
Modiji saved the country
He removed Article 370
He built the Ram temple at Ayodhya
He gave a response to those who wished to destroy the country.)

“It’s quite simple, these people don’t want to serve the country,” Khurana said with complete conviction. “They only want to disrupt everything. My friends have been there and they heard slogans about wanting to tear down India.” When I asked Khurana if he could prove any of this to me, his friend, Dhaka, chimed in and claimed that a friend of his had also been to Shaheen Bagh and heard seditious slogans. I mentioned that the Constitution allowed people to protest, but I was promptly dismissed. “The Constitution does not allow you to burn the country, sir,” Dhaka told me. “That much I know.”

Despite Kejriwal maintaining a calculated distance from the Shaheen Bagh protests, or his attempts to appeal to BJP’s Hindu voter base with his recital of the Hanuman Chalisa, it was clear that the Delhi chief minister was not popular at these rallies. In fact, though the Aam Aadmi Party had largely refrained expressing its support for those at Shaheen Bagh, many attendees at the rally believed that Kejriwal and the AAP had sided with the protest. Meanwhile, the rallies by the prime minister Narendra Modi, the home minister Amit Shah and Bisht appeared to resonate strongly with the people. “Right now, after all that Modi has done for us, I think a lot of people will vote for him,” Singh, the shopkeeper, told me before the Patparganj rally. “With Article 370 and with the Ram Mandir, he has given us what he has promised.”

Singh added that Bisht and Shah’s rallies would play a big role in changing the minds of the people. “You can see that they are stars,” he said. “Whenever Kejriwal or someone else speaks, they don’t pay too much attention, but when it comes to matters like this, Amit and Yogi can mobilise people.” Singh’s hypothesis was not too far off the mark. For two hours before Bisht’s speech, the crowd did not respond strongly to the overt religiosity of the karyakartas and the BJP’s candidate from the Patparganj constituency. The crowd was sullen and somber, a distant image from the screaming mobs one is accustomed to seeing on television. But Bisht’s arrival jolted the school ground, as waves of people jumped from their seats and moved to the front. The karyakatas and members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad—the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh—who were present appeared encouraged by the sudden energy, their voices soon booming across the ground.

Jo Hindu hind ki baat karega, woh hi desh pe raj karega!”—Only those who speak of the Hindu land can rule over this country—Aashima Singh, a BJP karyakarta, exclaimed. “Baaki out, mullah out!”—Everyone else out, Muslims out. Her slogans were met with wide approval across the ground. “Look, if someone has to be paid to protest, then how is that fair?” Lakshay Rekhi, a 25-year-old attendee, said. “Protest should happen for legitimate reason right? The whole city is suffering because of these people and it seems like only the BJP is talking about it.” Rekhi continued, “The whole place was up in flames, and it seems like Hindus across the country are being targeted. We used to think we were safe in Delhi, but if people are throwing stones in such a city like this, then what are we supposed to do? We are going to vote for someone who is going to protect us.”  He was referring to the BJP’s allegations that stone pelting by Muslim locals and students had led to the police violence in the Jamia Millia Islamia university campus on 15 December 2019.

Bisht’s spoke in expectedly communal rhetoric, which had visibly mobilised many Delhiites. At both rallies I attended, Bisht arrived at least two hours later than his scheduled time. In both instances, he blamed his delay on the Shaheen Bagh blockade. “I apologise for being late”, he said “But you know what is happening, all of Delhi has been under a severe jam since the last two months.” Yet, given that the attendees had made it on time, it is unclear how the Shaheen Bagh protest would have affected only Bisht.

His speeches were centred around Shaheen Bagh, bringing the blockade to the forefront of the elections. The lack of an effective counter-narrative appeared to have convinced the locals of the truth in what he said, tilting them towards the BJP ahead of the elections. Most of the attendees I spoke to believed the blockade was a nuisance. “I don’t think I’ve seen any other election like this,” Shyamala Jha, a 38-year-old resident of Harkesh Nagar, who ran a garments shop with her husband, told me. “I can’t remember the last time this area saw a rally. Right now, everyone is talking about Shaheen Bagh. I definitely think people are going to be voting on the basis of that.”