Last week’s electoral losses in five states for India’s ruling party has led to speculation that its agenda of promoting hardline Hindu politics has backfired. The BBC’s Priyanka Pathak reports.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lost to the main opposition Congress party in the Hindi-speaking heartland states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, all of which they previously governed. Local parties swept up the other two states – Telangana and Mizoram – putting the BJP in a tough place ahead of general elections next year.
It appears that after winning no less than 13 state elections since coming to power in 2014, the BJP’s seemingly invincible electoral juggernaut is losing steam.
There is a great deal of introspection within and outside the party. And the main question is: has the BJP’s recent pursuit of a hardline Hindu agenda – known locally as Hindutva – backfired? Will a departure from an inclusive, development agenda to a polarising, communal one cost the BJP general election too?
These are legitimate questions because the party deployed the chief minister of the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, as its star campaigner in the five states that went to polls.
Mr Adityanath is widely considered a controversial figure because of his well-publicised anti-Muslim comments.
He addressed 74 election rallies while Mr Modi, who is usually his party’s star campaigner, addressed just 31.
Mr Adityanath also spent the past few months courting the Sangh Parivar – a “family” of Hindu nationalist organisations including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a hardline Hindu organisation with umbilical ties to the BJP.
The Sangh Parivar also includes the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), which has been at the forefront of a movement demanding the construction of a Hindu temple on the site of a 16th Century mosque that was torn down by Hindu mobs in 1992, provoking widespread riots that left thousands dead.
Hindus believe Ayodhya, situated in Mr Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh state, is the birthplace of their revered deity Lord Ram, and say an older temple existed at the site before the mosque was constructed.
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Mr Adityanath has announced the construction of a giant statue of Ram in the state, and changed the name of the historical city of Allahabad to the more “Hindu” sounding Prayagraj ahead of the forthcoming Ardh Kumbh Mela, one of the world’s largest religious gatherings.
But if Mr Adityanath was hoping to prove to the VHP leadership that he is a more willing pursuer of the Hindutva agenda and, therefore, a potential alternative to Mr Modi, the recent electoral defeats do not advance his case.
Many observers believe that the BJP’s defeats are because the party deviated from the development agenda that swept them to power in 2014. The pursuit of Hindutva has backfired, they say.
But some in the Sangh Parivar disagree, insisting that it is actually the opposite that is true. “Just the way people feel disenchanted with the economic policies of the government, the people have also lost faith in this government’s commitment to build the Ram temple. If the VHP and RSS have to come to the street to warn the government about it, what does it tell you? What does it tell the electorate?” one of them said.
Last week, tens of thousands of Hindus gathered in the capital, Delhi, to demand the expedited construction of the temple and criticised the government for failing to do so.
They chanted a striking slogan directly targeting Mr Modi’s stated development-first agenda: “Pehle Ram ko aasan do, phir humko sushasan do (First give Ram a throne, then give us good governance)”.
But it must be noted that while Mr Modi has never openly supported these hardline elements, his silence on issues such as an increasing number of attacks on Muslims over various issues like eating beef – cows are considered sacred in Hinduism and their slaughter is banned in many Indian states – is interpreted as a tacit approval for muscular Hindu politics.
But he now faces pressure to do more.
His government already leads a lacklustre economy. And this renewed pressure to recommit to Hindutva, despite its apparent failure as an electoral agenda, puts Mr Modi’s government in a difficult place.
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There is also the fact that the RSS played a vital role in the BJP’s 2014 election victory by mobilising and galvanising voters. They are also credited for Mr Modi’s rise from state chief minister to a national figure. Apart from spearheading a sophisticated online and digital campaign in his favour, cadres also held 600 district-level meetings across the country to make Mr Modi a familiar name among the rural population.
Clearly, they cannot be ignored or offended.
So even as the liberals suggest that Hindutva has backfired and demand that the government refocus on the economy, there are voices within the BJP which are demanding a more strident return to the party’s “core” agenda – including the construction of the Ram temple and renewed focus on efforts to protect cows – to reassure their base that the BJP has not abandoned them.
The less-than-satisfactory economic performance will also make the Hindutva agenda more important, they say.