In the past three weeks, political parties operating in north India have, through a combination of circumstances and deliberate design, successfully inserted a known imponderable—polarization—into the electoral equation.
Traditionally, it has worked magic in wooing votes. Will it work similarly this time? There is really no easy answer; the only thing that can be safely claimed at the outset is that the effect won’t be universal and will vary with territory.
Also Read Anil Padmanabhan’s earlier columns
It all began with the alleged hate speech in March by the Young Turk of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Varun Gandhi against the Muslim community during a rally in his constituency, Pilibhit in Uttar Pradesh. Significantly, the speech acquired notoriety only two weeks after a sustained whisper campaign alerted secular sentinels. Clearly, Gandhi’s speech was aimed more at mobilizing BJP cadres within and around Pilibhit, which itself is strategically located adjacent to the borders of Uttarakhand—presently ruled by the BJP—and Nepal.
However, circumstances changed dramatically when the speech caught the attention of the national media. In the ensuing escalation, initially the BJP sought to keep a discreet distance; however, perceiving that the issue was finding traction with sections of the populace, the party decided to come out in open support of Gandhi.
The BJP was now seeking to spin this as a “glocal”—think global, act local—issue and closer to its ideological leanings. A party that until then had been floundering for a distinctive cause to espouse seemed to have found one, particularly relevant to Uttar Pradesh, which elects 80 members of the Lok Sabha. Pilibhit, as Mint reported on 3 April, has turned into ground zero for polarization.
It was in Uttar Pradesh that the BJP, led by L.K. Advani, the party’s prime ministerial candidate, rode public sentiment surrounding the efforts to build a temple at the site of the demolished Babri mosque in the 1990s. For at least a decade, the BJP reaped the gains of its sharp ideological positioning. The issue subsequently lost traction, especially after the BJP played down its rhetoric as it sought to extend itself to other parts of the country.
No doubt its allies in the National Democratic Alliance were successful in pressurizing the BJP into going easy on such potentially divisive issues. This, along with internal dissent, hurt the BJP most in Uttar Pradesh, where it turned underdog as Mayawati, head of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), encroached on its traditional vote bank of upper caste Hindus.
Several things have happened since Mayawati swept to power in Uttar Pradesh in 2007. Primarily, incumbency has started hurting the BSP and the contradictions in the so-called rainbow coalition of Hindu upper castes, Muslims and Dalits have begun to show. The parting of ways between the Congress and the Samajwadi Party (SP) ensured that what was a three-cornered contest would now become quadrangular.
When polity fractures thus, hanging on to vote banks is critical; and, in this, polarization is a perfect foil to coalesce votes. The BJP has once again offered its right-wing rhetoric, through the voice of Gandhi, to woo back upper caste Hindus; Mayawati, on the other hand, by holding Gandhi liable under the National Security Act (NSA)—what some legal luminaries say is excessive—has offered a cynical counter to woo the Muslim vote. The longer Gandhi is in jail, the bigger his aura as a martyr for the Hindu cause. That will only provide greater impetus to polarization.
This process got another leg-up when a Sikh journalist, Jarnail Singh, launched his oversized shoe at home minister P. Chidambaram at a press conference on 7 April. Singh was dissatisfied with the minister’s response to a question on the government’s inaction against two Congress party politicians, Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar, for their alleged role in the anti-Sikh riots that followed the 1984 assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi.
Singh’s shoe missed Chidambaram, but it galvanized the Sikh community into seeking retribution 25 years after the carnage. Fearing a backlash, the Congress dumped both Tytler and Kumar as electoral candidates, but the damage seems to have been done and the Akali Dal could benefit from the polarization at the expense of the Congress
In Uttar Pradesh, the story is not that simple. Logically, the Muslims, who tend to vote as a block, should rally around the BSP, seen as a front-runner in the elections. However, indications are that its status has diminished considerably in recent weeks and some see the use of NSA against Gandhi as an act of desperation. Since the Congress does not have much of a base in the state, it is likely that the SP will be the beneficiary. However, the BJP may have succeeded in reviving its fortunes in Uttar Pradesh and is likely to do better.
Given the dynamics in the rest of the country and the public stance of the BJP, the polarization strategy is not being extended as yet to other states, such as Bihar.
The issue now is whether this polarization will translate into electoral gains for the parties at the forefront. Wait till 16 May, when the verdict comes in.
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org