As the countdown has begun for the Lok Sabha elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is returning to its roots. It is resurrecting divisive rhetoric and relying on messages that appeal to its core constituency, hoping to revive surreal fears, and campaigning as if it’s an opposition party.

Gone are the 2014 speeches about “sab ka saath, sab ka vikaas", which promised development for all Indians. Back then, the BJP told voters to forget its past and embrace its forward-looking campaign. It roused many voters (including those who had never voted for a sectarian party) by saying that “Achhe Din", or good times, were around the corner. The BJP leaders’ stump speeches today are about the insecure present and a bloody past that must somehow be set right.

Campaign compulsions bring out the worst in many politicians. Setting a new low, Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed on Monday that Congress leader Rahul Gandhi was standing from Wayanad in Kerala because “Congress is now scared of Hindus", suggesting that Gandhi deliberately picked a constituency where Hindus do not form the majority of voters. An intricate examination of Wayanad’s census figures is irrelevant. The real question should be: So what if it is not a Hindu-majority constituency? Would it be fair to ask if Modi sought the comfort of a predominantly Hindu constituency, Varanasi, in 2014?

This is the BJP rhetoric now: Terrorism comes only from Pakistan, opposing the prime minister is an anti-national act, the BJP’s critics are Urban Naxals (whatever that means), there is no such thing as Hindu terror, and minorities should be grateful, not assertive. The National Register of Citizens is waved around as a warning. The national flag has been turned into a wholly-owned icon of the ruling party.

With jobless growth, voters are expected to tone down their expectations. Meanwhile, they are urged to volunteer as chowkidars, or guards. With cringeworthy enthusiasm, thousands of BJP politicians and supporters have complied, showing a remarkable obedience. Bigotry has acquired swagger. An accused of the Dadri lynching is in the front row and raises slogans at a BJP rally. Manju Verma, accused in the Muzaffarpur shelter home case, shares a stage with Union Minister Giriraj Singh at another rally. Elite education offers no immunity. Recall Jayant Sinha garlanding the Ramgarh lynching convicts.

The Congress has laid out an interesting manifesto that aims to undo some past wrongs, such as restraining Aadhaar overreach, reducing the use of preventive detention, amending defamation laws, placing safeguards to prevent abuse of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, and doing away with India’s sedition law. These are only promises, and the Congress is responsible for having kept many colonial-era laws, even abusing them, during its 55-year rule.

However, in five years, the BJP has shown how easy it is for a government to undermine civil liberties even further. The Congress has also announced a quasi-universal basic income scheme, which deserves independent scrutiny and analysis. It has also focused on rural distress, lack of jobs, a dodgy defence deal, and the flight of tycoons who owe banks money; all valid campaign issues.

However, the Congress undermines its claims to be taken seriously when it equivocates in the Sabarimala case, weakening the defence of equality and the rule of law. It maintains laws banning cow slaughter in states where it has been elected, and its leaders bow before every religious shrine they can find. When the BJP questions Rahul Gandhi’s Brahminhood, the Congress responds with information on his gotra, or sub-group, as if it matters. BJP supporters, who are probably Photoshop’s most valued clients, circulate an image of Priyanka Gandhi wearing a cross. Instead of asking “so what?", the Congress explains that she is actually wearing a mangalsutra, indicating that she is married, as if it is wrong to wear a cross. An unrepentant Amit Malviya, who heads the BJP’s internet arm, seems to keep posting a fictitious quote, year after year, attributed to Jawaharlal Nehru. The Hindu Mahasabha’s N. B. Khare once described Nehru as “English by education, Muslim by culture, and Hindu by accident of birth", but the BJP machinery keeps repeating it as if Nehru said it. Its spokesperson Sambit Patra said so on television. As the BJP continues to portray Nehru as a non-Hindu, the Congress releases photographs of Nehru taking a dip in the Ganga, his sacred thread of Brahminhood visible. But why should Nehru’s religion, or that of his great-grandchildren, concern any voter?

The BJP is setting the terms of the debate and the Congress is playing along. This game can only help the BJP, as it skilfully keeps shifting the debate towards an extreme where it feels at home, and the Congress tries desperately to appear “centrist" in comparison, ignoring how far it has shifted from the centre where the Constitution placed the Republic. This makes India resemble Pakistan.

The rhetoric will get shriller and harsher, and the invectives will become vicious. More lies will get told. Are we a monarchy or a republic, a woman once asked Benjamin Franklin. “A republic, if you can keep it," he said.

That’s what the vote in 2019 is about.

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