On 19 February 2017, as Uttar Pradesh entered the third phase of polling in the ongoing assembly elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a rally in Fatehpur. “If there is graveyard in a village, then there must be a cremation ground as well,” he said, as the audience roared in approval, “If there is electricity during Ramzan, then there must be electricity during Diwali too; if there is electricity during Holi, then it must also be made available on Eid.”
The thrust of the speech was not lost on anyone. This is not the first time that Modi has used his rhetoric to single out the Muslims of this country. In 2002, his campaign for the assembly elections in Gujarat, which followed the communal violence in the state, focused on Mian Musharraf—a reference to Pervez Musharraf, the former president of Pakistan—conflating Muslims, terror and Pakistan. Ever since, Modi has alluded to meat exports, Bangladeshi infiltration and vote-bank politics in most of his election speeches, including the ones he made during the Lok Sabha elections of 2014.
It was possible, if not credible, to consider that the analogies Modi used during the speech in Fatehpur were a result of old habits that are hard to shed, especially since the senior leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party had so far avoided such themes during the campaign. But three days later, during a rally on 22 February, the BJP President Amit Shah spoke of “KASAB” (Ka for Congress, Sa for the Samajwadi Party, and B for the Bahujan Samaj Party, in the game of facile acronyms that BJP leaders seem so fond of). This time, it was impossible to miss the invocation of Mohammad Ajmal Kasab—one of the gunmen responsible for the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai—which drew on the same themes of Muslims, terror, Pakistan and vote bank politics. Modi followed this up at a subsequent rally in Gonda, where he echoed a Bihar Police claim, backed neither by the National Investigation Agency nor the Indian Railways, that the Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was involved in the derailment of the Indore-Patna Express in Kanpur on 20 November 2016. According to Modi, the incident was “a conspiracy hatched across the border.”
Parties do not usually change their campaign strategy midway through an election, unless they are compelled to do so. The discernible shift in the BJP’s approach suggests that the news from the first three phases of the election has not been to its liking. The first phase of the election saw the Jats desert the BJP, and over the next two phases, it became clear that this election—unlike the one in 2014—was largely following a pattern that is often associated with politics in UP, which is centred around caste and identity politics.
National parties such as the BJP and the Congress have always run into trouble in such elections, and have sought to combat caste fragmentation with generic appeals that they believe will transcend these divisions. In 1971, as the post-independence consensus around the Congress began collapsing, the former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi resorted to the development rhetoric of her times—garibi hatao, eliminate poverty. The BJP tried replicating this tactic with demonetisation, which has been sold among the poor as a tool to punish the rich. While this appeal found some takers, it did not gain considerable traction—the misery of those better off does nothing to alleviate one’s own situation. The shift in the BJP’s campaign strategy suggests that its tactic failed to sideline questions of caste to the degree that the party had hoped it would.