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Will cows and temples still deliver a mandate for Modi?


In December last year, Hindus rioted in Bulandshahar in western Uttar Pradesh state, after discovering the dismembered bodies of a cow and a calf. Four Muslim men were arrested but were later found innocent. There were allegations – not unfounded – that the riots were orchestrated by Hindu fundamentalists to create disharmony ahead of the general elections in April or May 2019. The clarion call for the general elections – when the beleaguered Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by prime minister Narendra Modi will be seeking a second term in office – has sounded.

In the run-up to the 2014 elections – when Modi secured a landslide win – the narrative majored on development, anti-corruption and the creation of jobs. Four years on, it has come to rest on temples, cows and Islamophobic fear-mongering.

In that context, the rioting in Uttar Pradesh (UP) last December is an important time-stamp. UP is India’s most populous state with over 200 million inhabitants and one of the largest populations of Muslims in the country. Communal incidents in UP reportedly increased 47 per cent from 133 in 2014 to 195 in 2017. UP is also home to the town of Ayodhya, where rightwing groups – including top BJP politicians – had incited the razing of a mosque in 1992. The promise to build a temple dedicated to the Hindu deity Rama on the site of the demolished Babri mosque has accompanied the rise of the BJP in the country.

We have been an uneasy democracy since the tearing down of the mosque in 1992; communal tension is a slow-burning fire beneath our feet. Modi’s rise – from Hindu nationalism’s poster boy following the Gujarat riots in 2002, in which over 1,000 Muslims were killed, to the prime minister of the country – is testimony to that. As he nears the end of his first term in power, the façade of development and good governance has all but slipped. It’s once again amply clear that the BJP continues to excel in polarization, not policies.

However, right after the cow riots in UP, the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh – traditional strongholds of the BJP – went to the polls to choose new state assemblies. These three states are often called ‘the cow belt’, where levels of cow worship are higher than the rest of India. Madhya Pradesh has a cow protection board and has been demanding a cow protection ministry. (Rajasthan had set up a cow ministry in 2015.) That is how deep their devotion runs. And yet the BJP lost in all three states.

Religion may be an opiate for the people, but it doesn’t feed hungry stomachs. According to the UN, 364 million Indians continue to suffer from serious deprivations in terms of health, nutrition, schooling and sanitation.

The routing of the BJP in these three states is also a lesson for the opposition – especially the Congress Party, which has been walking the path of soft Hindutva in a bid to tackle the BJP, from party chief Rahul Gandhi visiting temples – invoking his Hindu roots – to the new chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Kamal Nath, taking an oath in a ceremony heavy with Hindu overtones, all to woo Right-leaning voters.

One can only hope that, after the December election outcomes, they have gone back to the drawing board to realign their priorities for 2019. In Madhya Pradesh, at least, where every eight hours a debt-ridden farmer committed suicide in 2016 – within two hours of taking charge, Kamal Nath had waived off unpaid dues worth $5 billion affecting 3.4 million farmers.

In 2019, cows and temples are unlikely to deliver the mandate but farmers quite likely could.

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