Very rarely has a ruling party’s poll campaign hedged so closely, and constantly, to violating the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s has for the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Its leaders have resorted to communally polarising voters on an almost daily basis, whether through the tropes of hyper-nationalism, National Register of Citizens or Hindu grievances. It has also shown chutzpah in exploiting loopholes in broadcasting laws to sponsor NaMo TV, which provides content on Prime Minister Narendra Modi around the clock.
The BJP risks violating the Election Commission’s MCC because polarisation and NaMo TV are the twin aspects of its poll strategy: The effectiveness of one depends on the availability of the other. Polarisation seeks to fan anxiety, anger and fear among the people; it inculcates grievances in them and warps their emotions. NaMo TV is akin to evangelical TV channels offering a panacea to a distraught people: Vote for BJP and Modi to feel secure about the future.
Polarisation acquired a new dimension with the militant attack on a security convoy of the Central Reserve Police Force in Pulwama, Kashmir, on 14 February, in which 40 paramilitary personnel were killed. It prompted Modi to order the aerial bombing of the terror camp of Jaish-e-Mohammed, the militant group responsible for Pulwama. Pakistan, too, retaliated, by shooting down India’s MiG and taking Indian Air Force Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman into custody.
Hyper-nationalism hissed and simmered. Pakistan was introduced as an element in the election campaign. The BJP couldn’t have asked for a better script: Here was the country whose founders had vivisected India; their progeny were still conspiring against India, the prime example of which is their support for the militant secessionist movement in Kashmir. India, therefore, needs to counter Pakistan’s diabolic intent of partitioning India again. The BJP’s framing of the Pakistan-Kashmir issue is designed to make Indians anxious, angry and fearful.
In Hindutva’s political language, Pakistan has always stood as a surrogate for Muslims.
Even though it was subliminal, Indian Muslims were hyphenated with Pakistan-Kashmir. The politics of polarisation is, ostensibly, a win-win strategy: Muslims are not the BJP’s traditional voters; demonising them to stoke the fears of the majority Hindu community could help consolidate a large vote bank, particularly in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which send 120 MPs to the Lok Sabha, nine less than the five south Indian states.
That is why BJP leaders have resorted to the language of polarisation on a daily basis. We had Modi asking first-time voters to dedicate their votes to the “brave soldiers” who carried out the Balakot strike and to the “braves martyred” in Pulwama. He went to the Barak Valley, Assam, and spoke of the mistreatment of Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan. He, not too surprisingly, forgot to mention Christians, who too have been in the cross-hairs of Islamist fundamentalists: Mentioning them would have complicated the Hindu-Muslim binary.
The use of Pakistan as a surrogate for the Indian Muslim is evident from Modi’s remark, “Pakistan was formed in the name of Islam. This led to the persecution of Hindus and Sikhs in that country and made them take shelter in India.” The conclusion: Pakistan persecutes religious minorities because it is Islamist. Could the followers of Islam in India, therefore, behave any differently?
It can be very well argued that the prime minister was merely referring to Muslims who are said to have slipped past the porous India-Bangladesh border to settle in Assam. But such a construction became impossible to defend after BJP president Amit Shah’s remarked at a poll rally, subsequently tweeted by the BJP Twitter handles: “We will ensure implementation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the entire country. We will remove every single infiltrator from the country, except Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs.”
Since infiltration is a problem in states bordering Bangladesh, the proposal to prepare the NRC for the entire country becomes a mnemonic for reminding the people that Muslims and Christians are outsiders. Hindutva has traditionally believed that only a person whose fatherland and holy land is India can be called Indian. From this perspective, unemployment and falling farm income, for instance, as sources of frustration among Hindus are subsumed by the anxieties and fears generated by othering Muslims and linking them to the Pakistan-Kashmir problem.
This is where the importance of NaMo TV arises in the BJP’s poll strategy. Who would ever want to watch a non-news, non-entertainment TV platform replaying old Modi’s speeches and furnishing a list of programmes that his government has implemented over the past five years?
Just like people in mourning or in a state of depression turn to religious TV channels, so will anxious and angry people turn to NaMo TV.
It is here they find hope, a solution to the sense of outrage and grievances they have been taught to harbour. Modi on the eponymous channel is the political equivalent of the spiritual guru and the psychoanalyst. His speeches are the political synonyms of kirtans; his measures the guru’s prescription for discovering the lost equanimity.
Then comes the leap: In order to not wallow in misery, anxiety and fear, Modi has to be voted for and given another five years to rule. NaMo TV provides proof of Modi’s intent and ability to pull them out from the morass of frustration, explained a Delhi-based psychoanalyst, who did not wish to be named.
Another psychoanalyst, Rajat Mitra, who heads the Swanchetan Society for Mental Health in Delhi, placed NaMo TV and the politics of polarisation as the BJP’s attempt at identity formation. There is a perceived sense of injustice among a lot of Indians who feel acutely frustrated. For them, the Balakot strike has a significant psychological meaning: It marked a crossing of the self-imposed limit by India, to make Pakistan account for the terrorism it exports. In Mitra’s narrative, the political and the personal are fused.
There was popular satisfaction at India crossing the self-imposed limit. Yet, it was accompanied by a sense that India did not punish Pakistan enough. It is these contradictory feelings that NaMo TV seeks to negotiate and bridge.
“NaMo TV is an attempt at identity formation, which is constituted of three Ps: potency, permission and protection,” said Mitra. Potency is the sense of power in a person; permission represents the desire to be what he and she think they should be; and protection represents the feeling of security they enjoy. From Mitra’s perspective, Modi’s Balakot strike seeks to create a new identity for the frustrated individual, who, like the nation, feels he or she have permission to be what they think they should be and also makes them feel protected.
“NaMo TV seeks to build this kind of identity formation among Modi supporters,” said Mitra. From this perspective, the channel provides identification with Modi, who through both his politics of polarisation and NaMo TV is essentially telling his supporters they can now be what they wanted or should have been. They will feel protected, at both the individual and collective level, as long as Modi leads them.
Whether they also in the process become haters of religious minorities, liberals, leftists, communists, social forces representing social justice, and the Opposition, particularly the Congress, is not of concern to the BJP, which has before itself the principal task of winning the 2019 Lok Sabha election. This task has been rendered difficult because the BJP and Modi face anti-incumbency, the narrative of rural distress and rising unemployment has gained popular traction, and state-based alliances hold out the prospect of uniting anti-BJP voters.
Take Uttar Pradesh, where the alliance between the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Lok Dal, on paper at least, represents 21 percent Dalits, 19 percent Muslims, 10.75 percent Yadavs and a section of Jats. With a high percentage of Hindus aligning against the BJP, the party needs to substantially increase the toxicity of its polarisation to wean them away from the alliance, which represents to them yet another route to being what they want to be and enhancing their potency and sense of protection.
That is why the politics of polarisation has acquired a greater salience for the BJP in 2019 than it had in 2014.
Acutely aware that the slogan of development may not allure, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath has taken to crisscrossing the state spouting venom. The latest person to join him is Union minister Maneka Gandhi, who has been recorded saying, “I am going to win for sure. But if my victory is without Muslim support, my feelings will be soured.”
In 2014, Modi spoke of the “pink revolution” in reference to cattle-slaughter, but he did it sparingly. This time around, his rhetoric to sharpen social cleavages are more persistent, frequent, and in your face. Expect more such tactics during the remaining rounds of elections. NaMo TV will encourage Indians to embrace a new identity anchored in anger, resentment and hate. Whether the BJP wins or not, India’s democracy and institutions like the Election Commission will be undermined and social relations frayed even further.
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