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There was a gap in BJP’s UP campaign. Putin filled it

BJP’s 2017 UP poll campaign was broadly centred on three issues, two of which were intact in 2022. The third one was missing — until now.

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As Russian lawmakers authorised President Vladimir Putin last Tuesday to use military outside the country and Russian forces bore down on eastern Ukraine, the decision was resonating in India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, too. Addressing an election rally in UP’s Bahraich Tuesday afternoon, about 5,000 km south-east of Kiev, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke of the ongoing uthal puthal or turmoil in the world.

Kal kya hoga, parson kya hoga, gintiyan chalti ho, toh aise mei Bharat ko taakatwar hona chahiye ki nahin hona chahiye (when counting is on about what will happen tomorrow and the day after, should India be powerful or not)?” he asked, drawing cheers of approval from the crowd. Modi then asked them whether they like “a dheela-dhaala master” or “a dheela-dhaala daroga” — a soft, careless teacher or police inspector.

“Bharat becoming powerful is imperative not just for Bharat but for the entire humanity. Every single vote of yours will make Bharat powerful…. Don’t you want a mazboot (strong) teacher and daroga? Therefore, brothers and sisters, responsibility of such a big country, such a big state, should also be on strong shoulders, shouldn’t it? When there is time, tough leaders are needed.”

His colleagues in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took some time to catch the signal from Bahraich. They probably got bamboozled. Given China’s frequent misadventures across Line of Actual Control (LAC), it made sense to condemn Russian invasion of Ukraine. There could also be merits in party colleague Subramanian Swamy’s argument that India should “bond with” Ukraine and NATO because of Russia’s “compact with China and Pakistan.” But the Modi government wouldn’t risk India’s time-tested friendship with Russia, a dependable military hardware supplier. It was doing a diplomatic tightrope walk whose niceties didn’t gel naturally with the usual Bharat-Mata-ki-Jai politics.

Also read: Five reasons why ministers are leaving Yogi Adityanath govt right before UP elections

Modi’s message was for BJP

By Friday though, the message from Bahraich was sinking in BJP leaders: In a post-truth era, facts are no obstacle to shaping public opinions. Cinestar-turned-politician Hema Malini was first off the blocks, declaring in an election meeting in Bareilly that PM Modi commands so much global respect that he is “taking part in Russia-Ukraine war to stop it”. “Iske liye sab log vinati kar rahe hain hamare Modi ji se (everybody is imploring our Modi ji to stop the war),” said Hema Malini.

It was only a day later that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called up Modi and the latter expressed India’s willingness to contribute to peace efforts. The night before Hema Malini’s Bareilly meeting, Modi had called up the Russian President but only the BJP MP would know if Putin ‘implored’ him to ‘stop’ the war.  And if Putin ‘implored’, Modi didn’t probably hear it, going by the official version of the telephonic discussion.  

On Saturday, BJP vice-president Baijayant Panda was reminding people of “Uri and Balakot” terror strikes, which the Modi government avenged by launching surgical strikes on terror camp in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir in September 2016 and by launching air strike on terror training camps in Pakistan’s Balakot in February 2019.

The surgical strikes had given a huge boost to the BJP’s campaign in the 2017 assembly election in UP. And, on Saturday and Sunday, videos of BJP leaders Poonam Mahajan and Piyush Goyal welcoming Indian evacuees from Ukraine at the Mumbai airport and civil aviation minister Jyotiraditya Scindia at the Delhi airport were all over the social media. “Three cheers for India!” tweeted Goyal.

Three cheers for the BJP, too! The missing link in the 2022 poll campaign had been found, almost well in time.

Also read: How one visit from Priyanka Gandhi could bring Lucknow’s Valmiki Basti back to Congress fold

Russia to the rescue

In 2017, the BJP’s campaign broadly centred on three issues — Brand Modi and his welfarism; communal polarisation fired up by kabristan-versus-shamshaan or graveyard versus cremation ground debate; and, muscular nationalism drawing credence and strength from surgical strikes on Pakistan. There were other important factors, too — say, continuation of the BJP’s social engineering formula developed by Amit Shah in the 2014 Lok Sabha election and anti-incumbency against then-Akhilesh Yadav government.

Come to 2022. Brand Modi and his welfarism remains intact in UP, with CM Yogi Adityanath seeking to bask in its glory. So is the polarising debate, marked by Ayodhya Ram temple construction and Kashi Vishwanath Corridor on the one end and sharpened by ‘bulldozing’ of mafioso such as Atique Ahmed and Mukhtar Ansari on the other. Adityanath, Union Home Minister Amit Shah and other BJP leaders keep referring to Atique and Ansari in their election speeches. None of them, however, speak about or seek credit for the police encounter of another don, Vikas Dubey, a Brahmin.

The third plank, muscular nationalism, was missing from the electoral discourse though. It was also being missed by BJP leaders acutely, with anti-incumbency against the Adityanath government surfacing in the form of people’s complaints about lack of employment opportunities, stray cattle menace, and inflation among a host of others. Akhilesh’s attempted alternative alliance of castes and sub-castes wasn’t making things easier.

It’s at this juncture that Russia’s Putin has chipped in, albeit unwittingly. The Russia-Ukraine war has evoked a lot of interest in India, with several TV channels, including Hindi ones, covering it from ground zero. UPiites, too, are keenly watching the developments in Europe. Who cares in UP whether Putin is right or wrong? Who cares about the Russia-China-Pakistan ‘compact’ and its implications for India? Who cares about the Modi government’s diplomatic dilemma?

These finer details have little relevance in post-truth politics. The only relevant point, as BJP IT cell workers would tell you, is that India also has hostile neighbours. Therefore, the people must vote for strong shoulders — of Modi in New Delhi and of Yogi in Lucknow.

That explains Baijayant Panda’s reference to Uri and Balakot. What’s Uri or Balakot’s context in the Russia-Ukraine debate? Well, you may not understand but the BJP knows voters will get the point. Just as you would never know — nor will Modi or Putin — when the Russian and Ukrainian presidents ‘implored’ the Indian PM to ‘stop’ their war!

DK Singh is Political Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @dksingh73. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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