Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently grabbed unprecedented media headlines after his extraordinary condemnation of a group of right-wing militants masquerading as cow vigilantes. On 6 August, while addressing a ‘town hall’ style interaction with an invited audience in Delhi, Modi rebuked the so-called ‘gau-rakshak’ groups branding them as “anti-social” elements, who, according to him, were running “shops” in the name of cow protection.
Why Modi loves Dalits
In the same vein, he told the audience that this made him incredibly “angry”. The PM said, “It makes me angry that people are running shops in the name of cow protection. Most of them are anti-social elements hiding behind the mask of cow protection. I will ask state governments to prepare a dossier on such people as 80 percent of them will be found to be involved in anti-social activities which no society will approve of.”
A day later, the prime minister travelled to Telangana, where he made more comments on the tyranny of cow protection groups, most of whom have traditionally been supporters of Modi’s brand of politics. However, there were two noticeable changes in Modi’s tone and his choice of words. First, he became unusually specific by identifying Dalits as victims of brutalities committed by gau-rakshaks, while asking violent right wing vigilantes to stop their violence in the guise of protecting cows.
He said, “I would like to tell these people that if you have any problem, if you have to attack, attack me. Stop attacking my Dalit brethren. If you have to shoot, shoot me, but not my Dalit brothers. This game should stop.” Modi also went on to brand cow protectors who attacked Dalits as ‘fake’ gau-rakshaks. He then went on to perform a spectacular U-turn by saying that those who resorted to violence in the name of cows formed a tiny a proportion of cow vigilantes.
Many wondered what had caused a drastic reduction in Modi’s own estimates from 80 percent a day earlier to a small minority when he spoke on the same subject in Hyderabad. Modi making public his perceived concern for a specific community other than those who traditionally helped him push his rightwing and divisive agenda, left both his detractors and supporters surprised. While his supporters such as members of Hindu Sena and Vishwa Hindu Parishad accused the prime minister of having insulted the Hindu community, who “would not tolerate such statements,” the VHP’s Gujarat Unit warned that Modi will be made to pay for his words in votes, particularly during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
The Gujarat wing of VHP was quoted by Indian Express, as saying; “Thousands of butchers killing one lakh cows every year are not termed ‘goondas’ and gau rakshaks like Gita Rambhiya (killed in Ahmedabad years ago) are termed ‘goondas’… This shows your change of heart.” On the other hand, Congress felt that Modi’s comments smacked of his desperation to extract much-needed electoral gains in the following year’s assembly elections. Congress’ criticism assumed significance in light of the prime minister’s silence when Mohammad Akhlaq was killed by his own supporters in Uttar Pradesh’s Dadri in September last year. Most of the arrested are the relatives of local BJP leader Sanjay Rana.
Modi defied public outcry and remained steadfast with his resolve to not comment on the horrific act by BJP supporters. However, faced with international condemnation and two interventions by President Pranab Mukherjee, when Modi finally spoke, he remained true to himself and chose not to mention Akhlaq or his lynching by a Hindutva mob on the rumour that the victim had consumed and stored beef in his house. Modi also did not comment when his cabinet colleague, Mahesh Sharma, made an astonishing comment defending the murderers of Akhlaq.
Union Culture Minister Sharma, in his wisdom, felt that injuries sustained by Akhlaq’s son Danish proved that the intention of the mob that attacked his home and murdered his father was not to lynch him. Less than a month later, another equally audacious comment came from Haryana chief minister, Manohar Lal Khattar, who told Indian Muslims to choose between eating beef and living in India. Describing the Dadri lynching as an act of ‘misunderstanding’, Khattar said, “Muslims can continue to live in this country, but they will have to give up eating beef” adding that “the cow is an article of faith here.” Akhlaq hasn’t been the only Muslim victim of terror unleashed by the Hindutva brigade since Modi’s historic victory in Lok Sabha elections in May 2014. Several Muslims including a man and a boy in Jharkhand in March this year have fallen victim to the violence of gau-rakshaks.
But not once did Modi feel the need to chide his supporters or express his ‘pain’ and anguish. This has rightly prompted many to question his muchpublicised claims to represent the interests of 125 crore Indians. Many believe that Modi has continued to harbour his hatred for Muslims since the days of 2002 Gujarat carnage, which left more than 1200 people dead, mostly Muslims.
That explains why he has refused to express any remorse for the Gujarat riots or showed his abhorrence of wearing an Islamic skullcap. The only time he commented on the Gujarat riots, he likened the riot victims to puppies. The prime minister is convinced that Muslim votes had never been a factor in his continuance in power for more than a decade in Gujarat followed by securing a historic mandate in the 2014 general elections.
In his wisdom, Modi appears to feel that his silence on the acts of terror by Hindutva zealots will only help his electoral cause, often based on polarising votes. In fact, more the polarisation, better the outcomes. We saw how Modi’s lieutenants including the BJP president, Amit Shah, resorted to invoking Hindutva when they realised the fake development narrative wasn’t likely to help them wrest power from Nitish Kumar in Bihar. While Shah brazenly turned the Bihar election into an India-Pakistan war, his media managers chose to raise the issue of cow through newspaper ads. It took the intervention of the Election Commission for the party to pull the plug on their design to polarise votes along religious lines. The party lost the state spectacularly, thereby causing a rebellion of sorts within the saffron party against the leadership of Modi and Shah. BJP veterans including the party patriarch LK Advani, Murali Manohar Joshi and Yashwant Sinha demanded that responsibly be fixed for the party’s humiliating performance in Bihar.
While, a victory in the Assam elections may have given a brief respite to Modi and Shah, both know that their inability to replicate the Lok Sabha performance in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat will cause them considerable grief and weaken their hold within the party. Modi’s comments condemning violence against Dalits must be seen in the context of next year’s crucial elections in Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Punjab. These three states have considerably large Dalit votes and their anger against the BJP may spell disaster for Modi’s future in India’s electoral politics.
In July, the BJP also expelled one of its vice president, Dayashankar Singh, after he compared the BSP leader Mayawati to a prostitute. The speed with which the BJP moved to remove him from the party was unusual given that several party leaders had made far more disgusting comments with impunity in the past.
The party ignored repeated calls to at least censure them primarily because all those comments were targeted against minorities and not Dalits. Targetting a Dalit leader by equating her with a prostitute was indeed bad news for the BJP as this allowed Mayawati to potentially gain more ground in Uttar Pradesh ahead of next year’s crucial elections. The BJP under the Modi wave had swept 71 of 80 Lok Sabha seats, causing near annihilation of almost all opposition parties in Uttar Pradesh in 2014.
Rising Dalit anger
With Modi’s claims on development during the last two years of governance, the BJP’s inability to replicate the similar success in the assembly election would be disastrous. Likewise, the rising Dalit anger coupled with an existing dissatisfaction among the powerful Patel community is causing serious discomfort among BJP election strategists. Modi is particularly worried over the prospects of losing Gujarat for the first time in 15 years, largely because the state had acted as a ‘laboratory’ for Hindutva politics before the BJP could spread its wings elsewhere in the country. Such was Modi’s invincibility here that no campaign against him could persuade Gujarati voters to dislodge him from power. In fact, Modi continued to gain ground in the face of a more aggressive campaign by his political opponents against him.
In 2014, Modi had won all 26 seats in Gujarat. Defeat in assembly elections here will be viewed as a mandate against both the politics of polarisation and Modi’s performance as prime minister. But PM Modi is perhaps missing a point here. Time and again, the Indian voters have proven that their lack of education is no reflection of their ability to choose a leader. Modi’s glaringly obvious politics of opportunism has already pushed many of his die-hard supporters away.
The party’s nearrout in Delhi, crushing defeat in Bihar, below par performance in West Bengal, inability to open an account in Tamil Nadu, victory in just one seat in Kerala and Congress’ victory in Puducherry, are signs of things to come for Modi in the coming elections. Even his sudden burst of love for Dalits may not be enough to save what now appears to be a sinking ship for the BJP.