Once the coronavirus crisis recedes and a semblance of ‘normality’ returns, expect the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah-led Bharatiya Janata Party to come out of the political lockdown full guns blazing with its aggressive Hindutva agenda — a convenient and time-tested way for it to hijack all publicity and distract from the government’s failings.
This has been a turbulent phase for the Modi-Shah dispensation, with a significant amount of poor PR — from an economy in free fall to the horrific images of lakhs of workers walking back home in the scorching heat and some being left to die in trains and railway platforms. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah are crafty enough to know these can haunt them in the near future, and that they quickly need to get off the back foot and operate in their comfort zone.
And for the BJP, what is a bigger cushion than its brazen, Hindutva face — a factor primarily responsible for its steep rise in national politics since the early 1990s.
So, expect a heavier-than-ever dose of ‘we are a nation of and for Hindus’ — from loud noises about building a ‘bhavya, gaganchumbi Ram Mandir‘ to an even more shrill note on the Citizenship Act, a nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC), the Uniform Civil Code and more, with a generous sprinkling of phrases like ‘ghuspaithiye (infiltrators)’, and ‘kapdon se hi pehchane jate hain‘ (‘they’ can be recognised by their clothes)’ thrown in.
A dismal PR phase
Narendra Modi and Amit Shah know they need to get out of this mess astutely and get out soon. No government, and especially one that has prided itself on a pro-welfare and pro-poor approach, can afford to look like it has let the most vulnerable sections suffer, in this case, the working class. Equally importantly, no government, and certainly not one that has constantly harped on vikas, can be comfortable presiding over an era of job losses, abysmal economic performance and falling GDP growth figures.
For all their ‘in-control’ image projection as politicians, Modi and Shah now seem to be fumbling in the face of this unprecedented crisis and its subsequent challenges — from economy to agriculture to health. This is even more glaring because ever since Narendra Modi came to power in 2019 with an even bigger mandate, he has seemed completely confident. His government has managed to pull off a slew of tough policy decisions — from scrapping Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir to bringing in legislation on triple talaq and citizenship rules. All politically contentious, socially delicate measures, which Modi-Shah brazenly bulldozed their way through.
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In fact, the frenzy the BJP tried to create through these polarising steps did help overshadow the discourse around a slowing economy and its poor performance even before the Covid crisis. But with the virus further hurting an already battered economy, and throwing up embarrassing situations like the poor looking hapless, state governments revolting and decisions like re-opening of railways and airlines causing massive confusion, the Modi-Shah duo knows their PR game is in danger of slowly unravelling.
The great escape
Modi knows he still remains an extremely popular leader and no national politician quite matches up to him. But he also knows bad publicity for his government can hardly be good for him, and a distraction is what will be needed as soon as the virus seems less threatening.
And Hindutva will come to the rescue, yet again. From the Ram Janmabhoomi movement of the early 1990s to the divisive Citizenship (Amendment) Act of 2019, the hardcore, majoritarian and religion-heavy version of politics has been at the BJP’s core.
It isn’t always necessarily a blatant form of Hindu-versus-Muslim narrative that the BJP spews. Sometimes, it is a more subtle form of the ‘other’—the Muslim ‘infiltrator’ or Muslim-dominated enemy Pakistan. Either way, a push for Hindutva and a demonisation of minorities is the crux.
Make no mistake, the BJP voter looks for this, votes for this and wants this to remain at the core. To divert attention from any uncomfortable issue, all the BJP needs to do is remind them of this core.
Narendra Modi and Amit Shah are likely to follow just that modus-operandi — raising the pitch on Ayodhya, a nationwide NRC to identify the ‘outsider’, replacing personal laws across religions with one umbrella set.
Distract from the virus that exposed even the vulnerabilities of mighty Modi, take away attention from the economy and hide all failures. Worried about job losses, slowing industries, bad business and a sea of workers whose plight exposed the underbelly of the Indian state’s ineptness? Here, take a Hindutva pill instead. France’s Marie-Antoinette once said, ‘let them eat cake’ instead of bread. In Modi-Shah’s India, the cake could well be the much-needed tool to stop people from talking about there being no bread.
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