Thursday, March 3, 2016

Mukul Kesavan: Uttar Pradesh, 2017 - Warming up for war

NB: The single point programme of the RSS/BJP is to consolidate power by instigating communal hatred. We are faced with typically fascist dynamism - nothing will be allowed to rest, there will be no return to ordinary life, not a day will pass without some attempt, big or small, to spread hatred. And all this is being done by the ruling party. Controlled mobs - like the mob of lawyers who assaulted Kanhaiya while he was under police custody - now enjoy state protection. The world should know. DS 

The advantage of being an ideologically majoritarian party is strategic clarity. Parties that depend on social coalitions have to juggle their political parcels to make sure that they don't drop any. The Bharatiya Janata Party, on the other hand, knows that its success depends on Hindu consolidation; consequently its leaders, managers and foot soldiers are unwaveringly focused on what desi papers like to call communal polarization.

Polarization is a euphemism. In the BJP's lexicon it means unifying Hindus by stoking hostility against Muslims. This can be done either directly through divisive rhetoric like the recent speech made in Agra by Ram Shankar Katheria, a minister in the Union cabinet or indirectly by suggesting that the BJP's political rivals are deracinated anti-nationals who pander to Muslims.

Under the leadership of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, the BJP has evolved into a sophisticated political machine that is always in campaign mode and it's instructive to review recent controversies not as discrete events but as elements in a concerted majoritarian campaign aimed at a series of provincial elections starting with Assam in June 2016 and culminating in the crucial Uttar Pradesh assembly election in May 2017.

The UP elections are pivotal for two reasons. First, this is the state that dominates the Ganga's plains and, after the rout in Bihar, a win here is essential if the BJP is to have bragging rights to India's Hindi heartland. Second, as the biggest state in India, UP sends up the largest number of members of parliament to the Rajya Sabha, where the BJP urgently needs reinforcements to achieve a majority.

The extraordinary determination shown by the BJP and its affiliates in going after Rohith Vemula and Kanhaiya Kumar makes sense if it is understood in this context. The immediate object was to discredit student organizations other than the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad as traitorous. This treachery is manifest in their willingness to agitate unpopular causes like the executions of Yakub Memon and Afzal Guru. For the sangh parivar this is low-hanging fruit and the clockwork coordination in both instances between the ABVP on campus, BJP MPs as go-betweens and Central ministers as executive battering rams, tells us something about the keenness of the sangh parivar to bring in this political harvest.

This campaign to discredit political opposition on campus or in larger political arenas as a bunch of anti-national appeasers was so single-minded that the BJP seemed unconcerned about the fact that the principal targets of its political assault were, nominally, Hindu subalterns. Rohith Vemula was an Ambedkarite radical raised by his Dalit mother while Kanhaiya Kumar is the son of an anganwadi worker from a village in Begusarai.

The BJP's campaign in the University of Hyderabad backfired on account of Vemula's suicide. The sangh's frustration at being thwarted by Rohith's death was palpable. A Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh affiliated professor complained that Dalit organizations in south India had been hijacked by the Left and responsible members of the BJP argued, grotesquely, that since his father was an other backward classes member, Rohith wasn't a Dalit at all. Still, the political fallout of his death forced the BJP to back off. The university withdrew sanctions against Rohith's comrades and the sangh parivar turned its attention to Jawaharlal Nehru University.

The ferocious zeal with which the government has used every resource at its disposal to smear students, their university and any political organization that extended solidarity, is related to the sangh parivar's determination to complete Hyderabad's unfinished business. And this is to demonstrate that the BJP guards the Nation while its opponents work to destroy it. Everyone and everything - Hafiz Saeed, the police commissioner, Bassi, rogue lawyers, doctored videos, photoshopped photographs, Durga, Mahisasur and Smriti Irani's religious beliefs - was pressed into service to establish that India was a sole proprietorship owned by the sangh parivar.

All of this is grist to the great political mill supervised by Amit Shah. With elections in prospect, the party's managers see hypernationalism as an asset, not a handicap. But a strategy of Hindu consolidation requires that the party underline the majoritarian character of this nationalism. An event in Agra last week made the BJP's Hindu affiliations explicit. 

According to the The Hindu, at a "condolence" meeting to mark the murder of a Vishwa Hindu Parishad member, Arun Mahaur, the BJP member of the legislative assembly from Agra, Jagan Prasad Garg, the BJP MP from Fatehpur Sikri, Chaudhary Babulal and the minister of state in the human resource development ministry, Ram Shankar Katheria, urged Hindus to unite to avenge his murder. There were references to guns and knives and a call to arms. There was apocalyptic talk of an all out war in 2017 ("aaar paar ki ladai") coupled with dire warnings to minorities.

The predictable furore caused by these remarks was met by either brazen justification or bland denial. This is the stock-in-trade of the BJP; Hindu consolidation is what it does. The memory of the Muzaffarnagar riots and the way in which they turned western UP in favour of the BJP in the 2014 general elections is a reminder, should the BJP need one, that polarization is a formidable political weapon.

One intriguing political takeaway from the BJP's recent political behaviour is its willingness to meet Dalit politics head on. If the government's hounding of Rohith Vemula and the Ambedkar Study Circle in Hyderabad was one small example of this, the confrontation between Smriti Irani and Mayavati in the Rajya Sabha was the same strategy played out in a grander arena. Even as Mayavati asked for a Dalit member to be appointed to the tribunal probing Rohith Vemula's death, Irani challenged Mayavati's right to certify who could deliver justice to Dalits.

The sharpness of the exchange seemed to rule out a modus vivendi between the BJP and the Bahujan Samaj Party in the 2017 election. In the wake of the Bihar election, pundits had been quick to point out that there could be no equivalent 'grand alliance' in UP to shut out the BJP, given that the BSP and the ruling Samajwadi Party were mortal enemies. There had been speculation that there was an outside chance of the BSP allying with the BJP if she was promised the chief ministership; Mayavati had, after all, ruled UP in coalition with the BJP before.

But after that stormy parliamentary debate, all the speculation was about Smriti Irani leading the BJP into battle in UP. Closer to the ground in Agra, the sangh parivar 
highlighted Arun Mahaur's Dalit identity. According to The Indian Express, the VHP warned Akhilesh Yadav that if strict action wasn't taken against his killers, the whole Dalit community would agitate his death.

Both at the top and bottom of the saffron brotherhood, the battle for Uttar Pradesh has clearly been joined. On the one side is the party of assimilation and exclusion, the BJP. On the other side is a party which has pluralism built into its name - the Bahujan Samaj Party - whose political trademark is aggregation and inclusion. If the BJP doubles down on majoritarianism and triumphs, the BJP will fancy its chances in 2019. If the BSP wins, Mr Modi's government will seem a lame duck for the rest of its term. The stakes could scarcely be higher. Between now and May 2017, political life in India will be a tense, unending election campaign.

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