With China emerging as the main enemy in recent months, the Bharatiya Janata Party will have to find a new ‘other’ to whip up sentiments ahead of the Bihar assembly election beginning 28 October. China doesn’t do the job because it hardly evokes the same anger or hatred that Pakistan does among a majority of Indians to suit the BJP.
Pakistan-bashing has always been the favourite pre-election rhetoric of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah’s BJP, mainly because it echoes across states — from Gujarat to Assam. Pakistan is an easy target, a toxic, blood-thirsty and, most importantly, Muslim neighbour. It immediately triggers an emotion of being the ‘other’ that needs to be taught a lesson, and that of course, can only be tackled by Prime Minister Modi’s ‘56-inch chest’. For BJP’s core voter, it suffices that Pakistan is an Islamic state, and the projection of it being the perpetual aggressor adds just the right seasoning.
But in the Bihar assembly election, given the overwhelming China factor and Islamabad in the background, Modi-shah will need to find a new target.
The BJP did try to create a new enemy with the Sushant Singh Rajput case and Rhea Chakraborty in the dock, but after the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) ruled out any foul play in the actor’s death, a lid has been put on this for the time being.
Even though the scales are tilted in the ruling BJP-JD(U)’s favour in the state, with the Opposition a splintered and weakened mess, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah would find a campaign too dull and mellow without identifying a clear ‘vicious’ enemy that can be persistently attacked to generate hatred among its electorate.
The persistent ‘Pakistan’ factor
What does a state election in Assam or Gujarat or Uttar Pradesh have to do with Pakistan? Why should Pakistan become central to an assembly election when there are far more pressing local issues?
These questions become irrelevant the moment the BJP enters the scene. For the BJP, Pakistan is often the prime issue. Pakistan is a seductive mix of being a Muslim state, an ‘unprovoked aggressor’ and an evergreen enemy. It also fits right into the BJP’s hardcore Hindutva politics, based on the demonisation of the Muslim community. ‘Go to Pakistan’ has become a favourite curse in this BJP regime, as if there is no worse punishment for those it doesn’t like or consider ‘Indian’.
The pattern is obvious. In the 2017 Gujarat assembly election, none less than the Prime Minister alleged that Pakistan was trying to influence the results, and talked of some “secret meeting” that took place at Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar’s residence and was attended by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Ahead of the Uttar Pradesh election earlier that year, Modi blamed the neighbouring country for a train derailment in Kanpur.
In the Delhi assembly election last year, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath brought in the P-word again, this time to insinuate that Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal had Pakistan’s backing.
The 2019 Lok Sabha election, of course, was preceded by high-octane Pakistan-bashing, with the Pulwama terror attack and India’s retaliation in Balakot providing the perfect ground. Rally after rally, address after address saw Pakistan emerge as the key theme.
In Assam, far from Pakistan and where immigration from Bangladesh is a far more relevant and passionate issue, BJP’s Himanta Biswa Sarma thundered during the campaign — “We need Modi as prime minister of India for another term as he does not care about Pakistan and within a short span of time, gave a befitting reply to the neighbouring country.”
In Kerala, while campaigning in Wayanad from where then-Congress president Rahul Gandhi was campaigning, Amit Shah had said he couldn’t make out whether it was India or Pakistan — a jibe at the response to Rahul’s nomination filing rally.
Modi-Shah’s BJP does not care that Pakistan is an irrelevant issue in a state election, it does not care if its members sound downright crude, and it does not care about being irresponsible when it uses a serious diplomatic issue for cheap election thrills. All it cares about is dropping the P-word as long as it could — and draw the thunderous applause and extra votes from its voters it has seemingly become quite used to.
The need for a new enemy
This year, however, has been all about China, with Pakistan relatively silent. The military stand-off in Ladakh that saw a clash at the Galwan Valley and Beijing’s constant belligerence at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) has made China the clear enemy for now. Moreover, the border tension does not look like it will recede anytime soon.
China, however, is not half as easy to sell as the big election-season enemy. After all, it lacks the other big quotient in the BJP’s worldview — Muslim.
Can China have the same impact on the BJP’s Hindu voter? Can it stir the same animal, revenge-seeking, ‘we hate you with all the strength we have’ emotion? Of course not.
Add to this the fact that Beijing is no Islamabad. It is already breathing down our necks in Ladakh, and is hardly going to take kindly to brazen bashing by Modi and Shah during elections. Remember Amit Shah’s Aksai Chin remark in Parliament last year, claiming that the Modi government will gain control over it? What has happened since then is for everyone to see. Amit Shah may have shown bravado and got a clap or two from his domestic constituency, but Beijing most certainly wasn’t amused.
For the Bihar election, it now seems the BJP relied much more on the Sushant Singh Rajput case than the benefits it could potentially draw from it and sustain the momentum generated by the initial furore to carry it all the way through the polling dates. The AIIMS report and Rhea Chakraborty’s bail have all but poured water on its plans.
Another campaign frenzy that has fallen by the wayside for the BJP is the Bangladeshi immigrant issue. With the new citizenship law in place and the plan for a nationwide NRC exercise now on hold, the ‘illegal’ immigrant issue doesn’t seem like it could pay rich dividends either.
A fresh enemy, therefore, is what the BJP would be looking for in the Bihar election, as well as the important polls in the next few years — West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh among others — if the Pakistan-China equation remains as it is.
Dealing with Pakistan’s aggression when China is already posing a frightening threat would be nothing short of a nightmare for the Modi government. And yet, Pakistan receding into the shadows poses a strange problem for the Modi-Shah duo, whose brains must be ticking super-fast to find a suitable replacement.
Views are personal.