Bharatiya Janata Party president J.P. Nadda sprang a surprise on his party parliamentarians in a virtual meeting Friday. He told them to focus on development and refrain from making remarks on “religious or cultural issues”, which may take communal overtones.
BJP members must be wondering who the message was for. Obviously, Nadda would be mindful of Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s speeches about 18th-century Mysuru ruler Tipu Sultan. Just a week before Nadda’s meeting, Shah had asked the people in Mangaluru whether they should vote for the Congress or the Janata Dal (Secular) “who believe in Tipu”. He wants Karnataka voters to choose between Tipu believers and Prime Minister Narendra Modi who is giving them a temple in Ayodhya.
On 14 February, Karnataka BJP chief and MP Nalin Kateel had said while addressing residents of the Koppal district that only the devotees of Ram and Hanuman could stay and “Tipu’s children” should be driven away.
So, why this sudden change of heart? Development has always been supplementary to Hindutva in the BJP’s campaign strategy. Why gag party MPs now? It can’t be because the ruling party wants a secular discourse in a year when G20 leaders come visiting. If the BJP bothered so much about international opinion, it wouldn’t be vilifying the BBC, no matter what income tax sleuths found or didn’t find in their ‘surveys’ of the broadcaster’s offices in India.
The reason also can’t be that there are assembly elections in two Christian-dominated states — Meghalaya and Nagaland — next week and the BJP wants to pause polarising rhetoric until then. That would be politically naive. No matter which regional party wins in those states, the BJP is likely to be part of the government. This confidence was evident from Amit Shah’s attack on Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma for his family “eating the money of the poor of Meghalaya through corruption”.
It didn’t matter that the BJP has been a part of the same Sangma-led government and even has a minister in it.
Is it that the BJP is seeking an image makeover after PM Modi’s advice to reach out to Pasmandas and Bohras? Unlikely, for the party has never officially taken cognisance of what the PM said — not even when he called himself “a part of the family” of Dawoodi Bohras after inaugurating their Arabic Academy in Mumbai on 10 February. Anyway, Hindutva is not just an ideology but a way of life for BJP leaders. To suggest that it wants an image makeover may amount to sacrilege.
So, was Nadda’s speech meant to convey a message to MP Manoj Tiwari who visited Bageshwar Dham in Madhya Pradesh to publicly endorse controversial godman Dhirendra Krishna Shastri?
Unlikely again. MP Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan himself is going overboard to prove himself a Hindutva hardliner.
Also read: Why BJP didn’t want PM Modi’s words about Pasmandas, Bohras, and Church to come…
The case of Karnataka
A section of BJP leaders believe that polarising strategies have very limited appeal in poll-bound Karnataka — that is, within the coastal region only — and so the party should abandon it to focus on PM Modi and his works. But the counter-argument one hears in Karnataka is that the BJP’s Modi-centric campaign in the 2018 assembly election also had a limited impact in the southern state. Besides, “double-engine growth”, a phrase PM Modi uses while campaigning in the assembly elections, lost its appeal in Karnataka after the Basavaraj Bommai-led government’s disappointing record.
That leaves the BJP with B.S. Yediyurappa’s time-tested caste-centric electoral strategy. But the former chief minister, the BJP’s potent Lingayat trump card, has been smarting under the humiliation of being ousted. Bommai, his successor, has sought to match him by playing the reservation gambit — promising to upgrade the quota for Vokkaligas and Lingayats in the state. However, it has been a non-starter electorally. Besides, the BJP has worked very hard over several months trying to bring about communal polarisation in the state — from the hijab to halaal and Tipu Sultan controversies. The BJP doesn’t have much to gain by abandoning such politics barely three months before the election. That’s not the BJP’s style of politics, anyway.
Nadda trying to achieve what Modi couldn’t
Nadda’s latest advice to MPs could be seen in the context of what PM Modi told MPs and MLAs about five years back. “If everyone comments on everything, then conversation around issues changes. It harms the country, the party, and our own image,” he said in a video conference in April 2018 as reported by The Hindu.
This statement had come about four years after Modi’s first strict warning to parliamentarians not to “address the nation” out of turn.
BJP MPs have obviously not been paying heed to Modi’s warnings.
Just as they didn’t follow his strict and repeated instructions to attend Parliament — in 2017, Modi told MPs that attending Parliament was their “duty”. He warned them several times subsequently, the last one being in December 2021 when he said that MPs should change themselves or “there will be changes”.
The changes didn’t happen, though. On 8 February, during a debate on the Union Budget in the Lok Sabha, the session had to be adjourned for want of quorum as ruling party MPs were also absent.
How is it that BJP MPs are defying PM Modi? So much so that the latter seems to have given up — he chose to ignore the 8 February episode. And now, Nadda is trying to achieve what the PM couldn’t — in terms of disciplining parliamentarians.
“You people (media) don’t understand the BJP. Do you think any MP would dare defy the PM if the latter was really serious? Or for that matter, defy even Nadda?” a BJP leader asked me. Well, valid questions. I should better turn to my old favourite Bob Dylan: “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. The answer is blowin’ in the wind.”
DK Singh is Political Editor at ThePrint. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)