In this extract from How The BJP Wins, Prashant Jha paints a picture of what happened in Allahbad, Uttar Pradesh on the morning of 23 February 2017, the election day.
On 23 February 2017, at 9 a.m., a hotel manager in Allahabad proudly showed the ink on his finger. ‘I have voted and cycle will win.’ Cycle is the symbol of the Samajwadi Party.
He then narrated a story from the polling booth. A man in the queue could not see properly, and asked for help. ‘He wanted to press kamal [the BJP symbol]. I said I can’t help you but then the police told me show it to him.’ He paused, and said with a mischievous smile, ‘Instead of kamal, I showed him cycle and he pressed it. One more vote for us.’
The others around him, at the hotel reception, smiled politely.
When he moved away, his colleague said, ‘You saw what he did. Isn’t it wrong? He is a Muslim. Yeh sab log aise hi hain, this entire community is the same. Pradesh ko barbaad kar diya hai, they have ruined the state.’ This second hotel employee was a Brahman, and said he would vote later in the day for the BJP. ‘The BJP will win. But these people are also in large numbers, they vote in bulk, they turn up even without brushing their teeth, and so it will be a challenge. Par inko harana hai, but we have to defeat them.’
The SP–Congress alliance would have been pleased to see the energy and enthusiasm of the Muslim voter. But the reaction would also have been music to the ears of the BJP, for it revealed the election was increasingly being seen through the lens of religious identity.
The BJP cannot, with its current ideological framework, win elections in north and east India, from the borders of Delhi, past UP and Bihar, through West Bengal, all the way to Assam, without a strong element of communal polarization. The reason is simple. In all these states, Muslims constitute 20 per cent or more of the population. And the party starts with a minus 20 disadvantage – Muslims neither vote for the party, nor is the party interested in their votes.
To consolidate the rest of the electoral playing field, it needs to be internally inclusive of Hindu castes, which it is trying to be, but, crucially, it needs to construct the Muslim as the ‘other’, as the community which would exercise disproportionate power if the others won, as the community which needed to be ‘taught a lesson’. It needs to tap into existing prejudices, it needs to stoke resentment, it needs to manufacture fear and anger among Hindus and it needs to play up the perception – often rooted in reality – that others are focused on winning the ‘Muslim vote’.
To achieve this, the BJP and its ideological affiliates have relied on the most sophisticated, yet most crude, propaganda – sophisticated because of the innovation and use of technology, crude because of the nature of the messaging and the recourse to straight falsehood. They have been actively complicit in anti-Muslim riots and violence – and benefited from the anger and anxieties such moments produce. They have triggered low-intensity, but persistent, tensions and sharpened existing ones to enhance the trust deficit between friends, neighbours, villages and workers on religious lines.
This serves both the instrumental goal of getting different castes to vote together and the larger ideological goal of ‘uniting Hindu society’. And when the party succeeds in converting an election into an ‘H–M’ (Hindu–Muslim) chunav, in a Hindu-majority landscape, its victory becomes certain.