“Abey musalmano ki party ko vote dega kya?” (Will you give a vote to the party of Muslims?)
The other AAP volunteer went about his work as I watched a saffron-clad BJP worker saying this, with his hands wrapped around a voter outside the polling booth. The voter had just taken his voter slip from the AAP counter, which made it likely that he was an AAP voter.
It was 8th February 2020, state election day in Delhi. A do or die for AAP. And election day is believed to usually swing about 10-20% votes on either side, especially those of the undecided voters. Being a campaign manager for one of the constituency candidates, I was toiling between polling booths, giving a real-time update to the leadership and war room team on logistics and voter turnout. Momentarily stunned by the toxicity in the line, I soon realized that it perfectly summed up BJP’s election campaign and all that the party stands for.
BJP volunteers have a particularly aggressive tone attached to them. This aggression around their ideology, their leader(s), policymaking, and in everyday debates and discussions can be seen in their spokespersons, ministers, supporters (including media channels), social media posts, and more prominently their election campaigns. In fact, if you look at the right-wing stories across the world, you will find similar patterns.
In October, we were trying to build up a narrative around what Kejriwal had done in the last 5 years by holding open meetings in each colony. I distinctly remember how one of the BJP volunteers almost snatched the mike from me and commented her thoughts on free water and electricity for poor like this- “arrey agar kutton ke samne roti rakh dogei toh voh kutta kabhi roti ke liye mehnat nahi karega (if you give bread to a dog, it will never work for bread)” The other day in a focused group discussion, one of the women almost stood up and shouted- “arrey pakistaniyo ko mazza keval Modi chakhayega, tumhara Kejriwal toh nautanki hai. ( Modi will teach Pakistani’s a lesson, Kejriwal is all talk)”
Meanwhile, the parliament passed the Citizenship Act Amendment bill, a long-standing cultural agenda of BJP. The bill amended the way citizenship was granted to refugees belonging to minorities in neighbouring Muslim countries (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh). The main argument given in its favour was that Hindus had no other country to go to if they suffered discrimination in these countries. Clearly, there was an assumption that India is primarily a Hindu state.
Shaheen Bagh saw people unite like never before against BJP’s communal politics.
The country soon erupted in protests. It was perhaps a culmination of suppressed dissent against blatant communal politics being played by BJP. There were demonstrations all over the country. Everyone had an opinion on the issue. Once again BJP had managed to divert all of the country’s attention to one issue (for context, this was also the time when India’s dismal GDP figures had started gaining traction).
Delhi, often considered symbolic of the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb became the epicentre of Anti-CAA agitations with Shaheen Bagh, a Muslim area connecting Noida and Delhi as the focal point. Or as BJP called it, the face of Anti-India protests. However, amongst all the different agitations happening across the country, Shaheen Bagh was different. It was Gandhian in the truest sense- Muslim women of different age-groups had decided to sit there indefinitely till the bill was taken back. A part of the road connecting Noida and Delhi had been blocked and a huge map of India was installed.
Importantly, the protest had participation from across religions. Hindus were reciting Gita while the Sikhs organized langers. The protest also witnessed a large number of agitating students primarily from Jamia Millia which happened to be at a distance of a few kilometres. Shaheen Bagh was getting not just national but global recognition. A 24-hour active protest primarily led by women and that too Muslim, considered one of the most oppressed communities was unprecedented in contemporary India. One of the old women in the protest, Bilkis Bano was featured in Times’ and BBC’s 100 most influential people in the world for 2020. The usually violent BJP had met with a quiet but massively impactful resilience.
This quickly irked the saffron leadership. And when this happens, BJP uses its two ultimate weapons- Media and its IT Cell.
The pro-BJP media began peddling an Islamophobic narrative around Shaheen Bagh.
Allegations of PFI funding, elderly women, sitting after being offered money soon started spreading. Delhi police stormed in Jamia campus and smashed students. The supportive media channels followed a typical strategy- show doctored videos, spread rumours like PFI funding in Shaheen Bagh using “sutro ke havale se khabar (news from unnamed sources)” highlight only the controversial parts of the protest (like Sharjeel Imam’s speech) followed by hours of debates between extremists of the likes of Owaisi and Sambit Patra (Ashutosh, a former journalist beautifully said in one of the shows- BJP does this thing of making it a fight of BJP vs AIMIM or BJP vs. Congress even when there is no such thing because it helps them polarise voters and in turn convert them into votes), and keep using terms like “Jinnah-while Azaadi,” “Urban Naxals,” “Tukde-tukde Gang” in the prime-time debates.
The WhatsApp university IT Cell was up and running. Taking advantage of its extensive web of pro-BJP groups (usually in the name of Hinduism or Nationalism), the IT cell was able to establish how the protests were a mere showcase of anti-India sentiments brewing up in Muslims. Thousands of WhatsApp groups, most of them in the name of Hindutva were spewing venom, a lot of them asking for violent actions against Muslims. Tonnes of doctored videos hate messages, communal images flooded the family groups.
Something similar was going on in the Delhi WhatsApp groups, a few days into the elections. Pro-BJP comments, long nationalist texts, debates in favour of BJP and against Kejriwal/AAP- things you expect on social media platforms before elections, had stopped altogether. They had taken a communal turn. Everything else was replaced by extreme Anti-Muslim propaganda. And these were not regular hate messages. They were way more aggressive, violent, and call-for-action-focused. All this happened almost simultaneously across the groups.
It’s important to understand the scale of the WhatsApp network which BJP enjoys that enables 24 hours of propaganda for 365 days a year, and allows it to reach, influence, and manipulate the common people. In Delhi alone, we estimated (I was leading AAP’s WhatsApp team back then) that BJP was directly reaching out to at least 3million people daily. This was about 30% of the total WhatsApp users in the NCR region. BJP boasted of being able to reach out to a targeted voter in two hours.
An internal study by congress found that compared to BJP, they had a 56-hour lag in a message reaching the voter from the war room. For a party famous for peddling fake news to suit its agenda, imagine the damage it can do to India’s social fabric with this resource at its disposal.
And they were successful in their strategy- common Indians (like my middle-class parents) were convinced that terrorist elements were being harboured in the garb of protest. Even though the majority was largely indifferent to the issue or even slightly sympathetic with the Muslims (a lot of people in fact felt that the bill was unnecessary), a few of them doubted that Shaheen Bagh people were being funded by Pakistan. Like all other instances, it was the National Media and BJP IT Cell which had delivered.
The BJP is adept at using Whatsapp forwards to spread its message.
This time, it was Delhi facing the brunt.
The national capital was getting polarized for almost the first time since independence. Everyone was talking just about CAA-NRC, Shaheen Bagh, and Muslims. People like us who were constantly on the ground could feel the tension in the air. And before we could re-calibrate, Amit Shah stepped in the Delhi campaign on January 23rd.
It all started with Kapil Mishra tweeting: “8 February ko Delhi ki sadako par Hindustan aur Pakistan ka mukabla hoga (8th February will see a battle on the streets between India and Pakistan).” The intention seemed clear- use Shaheen Bagh to consolidate the cadre base, hit the fence-sitters, and possibly try to win the elections. A national issue had been made a key poll agenda. Amit Shah made brazen communal statements in the next four days as he swept the capital with multiple mega roadshows.
8 फरवरी को दिल्ली की सड़कों पर हिंदुस्तान और पाकिस्तान का मुकाबला होगा
— Kapil Mishra (@KapilMishra_IND) January 23, 2020
Addressing an election rally in Rajinder Nagar, he said that the elections were no longer for electing assembly members and a chief minister but were a contest between two ideologies. “On one hand, there are people who stand with Shaheen Bagh and on the other hand, there are people who enter Pakistan and avenge the death of our soldiers,” he said. The highlight of all was: “saathiyon, EVM Button itna jor se dabana ki button yaha dabe aur current Shaheen Bagh valo ko lage (press the EVM so hard that the current hits those at Shaheen Bagh).”
There is one thing that I understood about BJP’s electoral strategy- pick up one agenda and go all out with it. All the party’s machinery is put behind it. Usually, the agenda is around religion or nationalism. BJP exploits the country’s fault lines most efficiently and smartly. Elections for BJP is all about winnability- whatever it takes to win. They will support the beef ban in one state while advocating for it in some other state. They will target Nehru and Congress for China and Kashmir but use them while talking about CAA-NRC or Farm bills.
For Delhi elections, Shaheen Bagh (expression of Anti-Muslim hatred) had been chosen as the issue. Some 200 MPs who happened to be in Delhi for Parliament’s winter session were assigned a constituency each. They were asked to conduct small meetings of 50-200 each and just focus on शाहीन बाग पर कौन किधर, which meant asking people whether they were with Shaheen Bagh protestors or against them. BJP ground volunteers were asked to go knock at each door and explain how CAA/NRC was a good idea using pamphlets. RSS Shakhas talked about nothing but CAA-NRC. Everyone was asked to take aside.
The poisonous statements of the MPs continued. Anurag Thakur, a union minister, gave the war cry of “desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maaron saalon ko (shoot the country’s traitors)”. Primarily aimed at Muslims, this slogan became the signature of every BJP event in Delhi elections. Yogi Adityanath blamed his reason for coming late to a rally on the road blocked by Shaheen Bagh protestors. He accused AAP of feeding free Biryani to the protestors.
Parvesh Verma explained how the Shaheen Bagh protestors, if not controlled will come and rape women. And if Delhiites do not vote for BJP, no Modi or Amit Shah would come to save them later. BJP orchestrated Pro-CAA rallies in the capital. Two gunmen, inspired by the polarization fired gunshots in the air on the Shaheen Bagh protest site. Under the garb of nationalism, BJP polarized the country on religious fault lines.
AAP was feeling the heat. In a mere week, the internal survey slid our seat share to 54 from an initial estimate of 65-68. BJP’s vote share was increasing at the rate of 1.5pp daily. Sisodia’s statement of support for Shaheen Bagh supporters had gone viral, or better said, made to go viral. No one was talking about schools or hospitals anymore. The previous rhetoric of governance and development had withered away. AAP was now at the backfoot. BJP had successfully managed to bring itself back in the game.
AAP ended up winning 62/70 in the elections (more about it in article 1/3). But BJP had increased its vote share to an impressive 38%. The party was at 20-23% vote share when Shah entered, and his only focus was on ensuring that the party can consolidate its cadre vote, which he managed to do successfully.
But if you think that the story ends here and that BJP is all about winning elections, you can’t get more wrong.
There is one thing that BJP has like no other party. Its ideology. For the cadre vote of BJP, which has been a minimum of 30-35% since Vajpayee’s time, power is important but not the only motto. People join BJP not just for power but because they truly believe in its ideology. Hindu state is their vision for India, and they identify themselves as devout saviours of Hindutva. Whatever your ideology be, the actions of BJP around Ayodhya, Cow Meat, Article 370, CAA-NRC, recently passed Love-Jihad laws (and shortly UCC) should not surprise you. For they have been in the party’s in bucket list ever since. These are not just electoral agendas for BJP- they are BJP’s idea of India- an idea which they passionately believe in.
Think of it- why is Bengal so important for Shah and the party? Is it because of the number of Loksabha seats, or because of a potential future opponent- Mamata Bannerjee? I believe it is because Bengal is a symbol of left-wing politics in the country which the BJP so wants to destroy. They gave it a try in Kerala during the Sabrimala issue, but there the doors were completely shut.
But let’s get back to Delhi- what happened after the elections?
The hate campaign didn’t end. It only intensified, perhaps because of the humiliating defeat in state elections. Kapil Mishra, who lost his own seat, openly warned Delhi police of how they would take the matter into their own hands if Shaheen Bagh and Jaffrabad protestors were not removed. There had been rising discontent against the CAA protestors. A befitting reply to the protests (Muslims) seemed inevitable, in the eyes of BJP supporters.
And soon, it happened.
15 days after the elections, riots broke out in North-East Delhi.
Have a look at this map- on the left are the constituency-wise election results, and on the right is a map highlighting areas where the riots broke out. The pattern is self-evident- riots broke out majorly in constituencies won by BJP- the party had won on the seats which had been massively polarized.
I can’t forget those calls from my WhatsApp team living in Seelampur- how they spent each of those three days thinking it could be their last. Thousands of people rioted on the roads of the national capital with half of the country believing that Shaheen Bagh protestors were Anti-Nationals. All this happened during Trump’s India visit, ensuring that everyone in the international media covered it. Delhi saw one of its worst Hindu-Muslim riots, perhaps since our independence. AAP won the elections but somehow lost Delhi.
A lot of folks have asked me that all this is known to them and that they resonate with my feelings, but then what? What is the way out?
Unfortunately, with Congress almost dead, the future looks a bit gloomy. But there are ways out. AAP has shown how maintaining its rhetoric and not playing in BJP’s forte of nationalism and Hinduism can yield results. This was, of course, coupled with a strong statesman like Kejriwal. In the present scenario with no national leader, I feel that the approach by political parties should be more bottoms-up with local parties and especially Congress first consolidating their power in states. There are still a lot of good state leaders out there in all the parties. State elections, barring a few states, continue to be contested on local issues and local leaders. If BJP can be ousted in states and brought under the minority in Rajya Sabha, things will change for the better.
There are a few things to learn from BJP, however- it’s a stunningly professional and stand-out way of contesting elections that can turn any result upside down in 15 days, meritocratic organization, a deep network on social media enabling a direct connect with voters, and clear stand on issues. The only other party which has a match to BJP’s scale- Congress fares poorly on each of these points.
The poor strata is still a swinging vote base in my view. BJP continues to be a pro-industry, upper-class Hindu party. Congress can easily get this vote bank back. But in its present form, it is far from being capable of doing that (which I will discuss more in my next article).
Till then, the country will continue to be ruled by right-wing jingoists who will stop at nothing less than a Hindu Rashtra. The trailer of what they are capable of doing was what I saw in the Delhi elections.
Because that is the monster BJP is.