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A Welfare Fete

The BJP poll strategy is changing course. Hindutva is only a garnishing on development issues now.

A Welfare Fete
Jitender Gupta
A Welfare Fete
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553
When the self-styled 'Hindu hriday samrat' does not dwell much on Hindutva, one tends to think that something is curiously amiss. Right through the campaign for the assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi was one of BJP's star campaigners. But at meetings and rallies he spoke mostly about development issues—roads, electricity, water etc—and only briefly addressed the so-called Hindu agenda.

That, in fact, is the unstated message that emerges from this round of assembly polls. After the Gujarat elections less than a year ago, most political commentators had presumed that the BJP's script for future polls would read: Ram mandir, national security, isi, terrorism, jehad and minority-bashing.

Yet, in months, the Hindutva emphasis has been diluted. The VHP's failure to make temperatures soar outside Gujarat with its trishul distribution or sporadic sallies on Ayodhya perhaps led to a rethink. At the BJP headquarters, strategy slowly changed course from Hinduised national pride to issues ranged around 'development'. Says BJP general secretary Pramod Mahajan: "It is journalists and the Opposition who are obsessed with Hindutva. For us, development and good governance are the chief planks."

Are these polls, then, a dress rehearsal to evolve a more general, less exclusivist, campaign vocabulary for the 2004 elections? To some extent, yes. While the thrust there will be a resurgent economy fronted by the benevolent visage of Vajpayee, national security issues will also be played up. But in pockets where Hindutva could yield results, the party will not shy away from using it. Yet, the party stresses that Hindutva will not be the staple. Says a senior BJP leader: "General elections means striking new alliances and not offending regional sentiments. So yes, hard Hindutva is off the cards, though national security will always be big with the BJP."

Therefore, when Modi spoke a different language during his Madhya Pradesh campaign, he was, in fact, following the lead set by Uma Bharati, the BJP's chief ministerial aspirant. Known till now for her saffron robes and high-decibel speeches, the sanyasin has, of late, been trying to underscore the fact that she has outgrown Hindutva. Her entire campaign has been about the Digvijay Singh government's failure on the development front. Similarly, Vasundhararaje in Rajasthan, too, has stuck to bread-and-butter issues and abjured Hindutva rhetoric completely. It was only Dilip Singh Judeo who raised the "Hindu" flag in Chhattisgarh by harping on the "conspiracy to convert tribals to Christianity". A pitch that quickly lost its sting once the central minister was done in by the bribery exposé.

Sticking to its pre-poll plan, the BJP did not diverge from basic infrastructure-related issues right through the assembly poll campaign. Clearly, the party believed this would have a better resonance with voters in the elections than any Hindutva jargon. It was there just beneath the surface but no leader touted it beyond a degree. Interestingly, in many of Rajasthan's tribal pockets bordering Gujarat, the spadework for the BJP's campaign was done by RSS and VHP activists.

Consequently, Modi was received in these parts with cries of "Dekho, dekho kaun aaya, Gujarat ka sher aaya, Hinduon ka hriday samrat aaya, saare desh ka neta aaya. Chhote Sardar zindabad (Look, who has come, the tiger of Gujarat, the keeper of Hindu pride. Long live Chhote Sardar)."

But if those raising these deafening slogans in the tribal belt expected a discourse on Hindutva from their icon, they had to rest content with modest fare. Modi's speech was muted. However, there is no denying the work the subsidiaries of the Sangh parivar have been doing in these pockets.VHP and RSS cadre have penetrated deep into this tribal belt and installed pictures of Lord Hanuman in virtually every household.

They have also been organising dharam sabhas, which they claim "raise the self-esteem of tribals". Since the tribals have by and large been taken for granted by the ruling Congress and are usually plied with liquor on polling day, they liked the importance the Sangh parivar cadre was according to them. Many also puffed up with pride when told they were the ancestors of Lord Ram.

And Modi did that little bit for the cause but kept within the lakshmanrekha delineated by the BJP campaign managers. In Jhabua, he referred to the arrest of hundreds of tribals participating in the Hindu sangam organised by the Sangh parivar last year. He described it as Digvijay's attempt to muzzle the emerging Hindu voice. In Dhar, home to the controversial Bhojshala, he said the BJP would bring back the Saraswati idol from England, something the Congress had failed to do. Though Modi impressed them with his oratory, he did not linger on Hindutva beyond these stray references.

The audience that braved the sun while waiting for Modi at an election meeting was instead told about the wonders of Gujarat. Modi said that thousands of tribals from Madhya Pradesh entered Gujarat each year in search of jobs because it was more developed. "Earlier, travelling from Gujarat, one would look for the signboard to know that MP has come. Now, the first violent jerk from the huge potholes on the road will tell you that you are out of Gujarat and in MP." He also said that if Digvijay had completed the rehabilitation of the Sardar Sarovar dam oustees in his state, the project would have proceeded smoo-thly without much opposition and would thus have solved MP's electricity problems.

He also poked fun at Digvijay's statement that he would not allow MP to become another Gujarat: "Arey Digvijay, aap MP ko Gujarat nahi bana sakte (You can't turn MP into a Gujarat)." He thundered that it took strength, perseverance and hard work to create a Gujarat. The crowd loved it.

Suresh Arya, who was drafted in by the BJP as its organising secretary at the Sangh parivar's behest to execute their social engineering plan in this tribal region, says: "Yes, the crowd may have expected to hear about Hindutva from Modi, but then we are talking about awareness for development through Hindutva." He admitted the parivar and its front organisations like the Sewa Bharati and Hindu Jagaran Manch had already laid the groundwork for a "Hindu awareness". For the last four years, Arya and an army of volunteers campaigned door-to-door in hundreds of thousands of households in 1,350 villages of Jhabua district alone. "We are not communalising them, we are doing social reform. For, we administer them a pledge in the name of Hanuman to quit liquor and tobacco," he maintains. The big turning point in Malwa, say cadres of the Hindu right, came on January 17, 2002, when over one lakh adivasis took part in the Hindu sangam. The sangam is being touted as a landmark in the history of the tribal region, which has been a Congress stronghold for the past four decades.

Was this strategy sound? When the ballots are counted, it will be clear to what extent the campaign has worked. If there are remarkable gains, then it would be confirmed that the development mantra has worked the same miracle for the BJP this time around as Hindutva once did.
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