Hardline Hindutva or livelihood issues? Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party is in the throes of an internal debate about which of the two issues should occupy a bigger share of the template for its campaign narrative for the national elections just a few months away. The party is racing against time to resolve the dilemma especially after its defeat against the Congress party in the recent assembly polls in the heartland states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan.
The electoral outcome has sent a clear message that the use of the Hindutva card has its limitations in overcoming anti-incumbency and governance issues—like the farm sector crisis and dearth of jobs—the Modi government faces in its bid to retain power in 2019. Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan have an overwhelming majority of Hindu population but the efforts by the BJP and its spiritual mentor RSS to raise the Hindutva pitch in the form of Ram temple construction by a special law or the communally polarising issue of “illegal” immigrants from Bangladesh do not seem to have paid off.
As expected, the campaigns for the polls in the three heartland states as also in Mizoram in the north-east and Telangana in the south have given a good insight into the issues that the parties raised, and in assessing how the strategy for the parliamentary elections should be firmed up or if it needs tweaking.
The BJP, for its part, had blended the development card with a fair dose of Hindutva in its campaign. The party's President Amit Shah had at several rallies made a strong pitch against “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh, the National Register of Citizen issue in Assam and Indian citizenship for Hindus, Parsis, Sikhs and Jains coming from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. At a poll rally in Alwar, Rajasthan, on November 25, Modi, who had been silent in public on the Ram temple issue after assuming power in 2014, accused the Congress of delaying a decision by the Supreme Court on the issue of construction of the Ram temple at the disputed site in Ayodhya. In the run-up to the polling in the heartland, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad had held dharma sabhas in different places including in Delhi. The BJP also made Uttar Pradesh's saffron robe-clad Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath one of its key campaigners in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, where he repeatedly made shrill Hindutva pitches. All these may have sparked controversy but what was more important was that all these had the cumulative effect of keeping the BJP's Hindutva theme upfront.
There are two streams of view within the BJP. The one espousing the cause of a hardline Hindutva feels the party should not drift away from its core ideological moorings which need to be brought back at the centre of its focus in order to ensure consolidation of majority-community votes. The other section believes that it is naïve to suggest that Hindutva is the umbilical cord of the BJP, and the development agenda and social welfare schemes should not be overshadowed by it. The question that the party must answer is: how much does ideology have to do with governance and livelihood issues? For the answer, the BJP needs to look back not to some distant past but at its own remarkable performance in the 2017 assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh when Modi had kept his campaign narrative largely on development. Modi's development dream of the 2014 parliamentary elections may have still lingered among the voters of Uttar Pradesh.
No doubt, the BJP was catapulted to the centre stage of Indian electoral politics on the back of the Ram temple movement in the 1990s. But it is time for the party to introspect if the law of diminishing returns has caught up with that issue. No doubt, the RSS and its affiliates are pressurising Modi to either bring an ordinance or pass a special law for the construction of Ram temple but a large section of the BJP prefers to leave the issue to be decided by the Supreme Court where a case is pending on the land dispute in Ayodhya.
Political observers throw up two options for the BJP—either to step up the Hindutva pitch or weave a fresh development agenda (vikas as Modi so frequently proclaims) with heavy doses of populist measures including welfare schemes across different sectors in an attempt to dispel the widespread perception of gaps in the Modi government's promises and delivery on issues concerning farmers, youth and Dalits in the last four years. In the final analysis, it does not really boil down to choosing between one issue or the other. In politics, more so in electoral politics, it is never a case of either-or but of choosing the right blend.
The BJP also needs to find an answer to the question if it should go beyond Hindutva and attract floating segments of the electorate who are more concerned with the challenges of governance and who are likely to be a decisive swing factor. The coming parliamentary poll promises to be a much tougher contest than anticipated before the Congress' victory in recent elections in the heartland states, and the BJP must get its priorities right at the earliest because not much time is left for the big battle.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent at The Daily Star.