The Bharatiya Janata Party has never kept secret its agenda of becoming a pan-Indian party. It was evidently clear early in 2014 that it would not be satisfied with sweeping the national elections, but that it needed to control the state governments too, either by themselves or through allies or co-opting relationships with regional parties.
Thus far, the party has employed creative and mischievous tactics to achieve this end, often sending state agencies such as the Central Bureau of Investigation on witch hunts on political adversaries, encouraging defections allegedly through MP buyouts, or through coercing alliances.
Delhi is different though. It’s Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal, whose emergence on the national stage was through an anti-corruption movement, has an untainted public image. Setting off the CBI after him may be a temporary distraction but is unlikely to work. Co-opting with his party or encouraging defections is also not feasible unless the BJP gets close to half the seats in the assembly.
Left with no options, the BJP has unfortunately pinned all its hopes on religious polarization. In a state with a minority population of under 20 percent, they know if played well, this strategy will reap long-term political benefits.
Why this desperation though? A little background on its recent electoral performances gives a clear reason. BJP could not form a government in Maharashtra despite getting the highest seats and the Kashmir abrogation and failed to secure enough seats in Jharkhand despite the Ram Mandir verdict. Quite naturally, they would not want a repetition of these results in Delhi despite the citizenship law.
The last time the BJP formed a government in Delhi was in 1993. Interestingly, its vote share has oscillated between around 30 and 35 percent in every Assembly election since then. Like I argued in another article, this group forms BJP’s core base and will likely vote for them unconditionally. Unless the Congress can put up a strong competition, which seems unlikely at this point, the Aam Aadmi Party is well placed to get a substantial portion of the rest of the vote share, as had happened in 2015.
This is what the BJP is trying to avoid. By structuring this campaign on communal division and marginalization of the Muslim community, the party wants to consolidate the Hindutva constituency and get a sizable chunk beyond their core voter base.
This is why the Delhi election has had the misfortune of being the vilest, communal and provocative in recent history. The virulent nature of the discourse is not limited to the fringe elements within the BJP but extends to people in supposedly responsible positions.
First it was Anurag Thakur, the State Finance Minister, who ideally should have been more worried about the state of the economy. Instead, in an election rally, he provoked and insinuated the crowd to chant the incendiary slogan that has come to define BJP campaign: “traitors should be shot”.
Not one to be outdone, BJP MP Parvesh Verma who, without naming Shaheen Bagh, said the protestors would come into homes and “rape mothers and sisters” and that only Narendra Modi can stop this from happening. This was very ironic of him, given that at least two of their candidates this election are charged with “outraging a woman’s modesty”. If anything, the shootings in Delhi subsequent to these are only a natural consequence of the hate speeches repeatedly spouted by the BJP.
These two statements should not be viewed in isolation. They, along with a series of divisive and demonizing social media posts from official handles of the BJP and its ministers are part of the concerted effort to polarize this election along religious lines. They do not leave any doubt in anyone’s mind about the segment of the population they are targeting. It is quite clear that they came prepared for a bare-knuckled take-no-prisoners street fight.
Despite the provocations though, Arvind Kejriwal has shown shrewd political acumen. He has been unusually reserved in his criticism of Modi and quite unexpectedly supported the Kashmir abrogation decision.
He did not make a lot of noise during the height of the citizenship law protests in his own state and has very tactfully maintained a distance between the protestors and his party. He has also been very measured in his criticism of the law, describing it as “unnecessary” instead of using stronger terms such as divisive and hateful and said it would affect “both Hindus and Muslims”. And until very recently, he had remained silent about the Shaheen Bagh protests too.
It is quite clear that he and his party are desperately trying to fight the election on the development agenda. On the election campaign trail and television shows, AAP has not been provoked by the virulent campaign by BJP. They have learned quite well from Congress’s mistake: that the only party that stands to benefit from this polarization is the BJP.
Arvind Kejriwal knows that by being vocal, he is only going to lose votes. Think about it this way: the people who expect him to speak in their support are certainly not going to vote for BJP, but by assertively lending his support to the protests, he knows he will lose voters who are still undecided between the BJP or AAP. Instead, in an effort to counter the BJP narrative, he has repeatedly projected himself as a devout Hindu, most recently by singing the Hanuman Chalisa at a public event.
No other party has been as cynical in its approach and lust for power than the BJP. And no party stands to benefit as much from the elevation of toxicity of discourse as the BJP. If their strategy works in the Delhi election, it is the future of political civility in India that stands to lose the most.