No election is too small to ignore. Not for the Modi-Shah version of the BJP. Each election is a chance to test, create or edge out allies. And to expand, expand, expand.
So, a local corporation election in Hyderabad has seen the party parading its biggest stars in India's IT hub. With voting on December 1 for the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC), the BJP campaigners have incredibly included Home Minister Amit Shah, party president JP Nadda, union ministers Smriti Irani and Prakash Javadekar, UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and Tejasvi Surya, chief of the BJP youth wing.
The surprise this is causing among Hyderabad's incumbent party, the Telangana Rashtra Samiti or TRS, is somewhat incredulous. The BJP has forcefully outed its "Look South" plan as a giant priority. To this end, actor-turned-politician Khushboo was recruited from the Congress just a few days ago. That move was orchestrated and executed by BL Santosh, quickly emerging as one of the BJP's most powerful backroom leaders. After being deputed by the RSS to the BJP, he holds the position of General Secretary in charge of the organisation. While this is a muscular appointment clearly indicating his status, his ambition reportedly centres on a much larger and publicly acknowledged role in Karnataka, his home state. However, he has to contend there with the rival aspirations of BS Yediyurappa, the Chief Minister with a large support base who Shah has to tolerate.
Shah's recent trip to Chennai to check some tension with ally AIADMK saw the partnership being effusively announced by both sides. Helped, no doubt, by Shah green-lighting nearly 70,000 crores of new projects. Tamil Nadu votes next year and Hyderabad is handy as a test drive for not just that election but for the hugely important contest in Bengal in a few months, which will see the BJP's biggest attempt yet to displace Mamata Banerjee as Chief Minister.
That is why the Hyderabad municipal election has seen the BJP invoking these selling points: Jinnah, Biriyani, Pakistan, surgical strikes. The attempts at communalising the election will yield to the BJP's valuable inferences on how to finesse this strategy for Bengal, where Muslims form 30 percent of the population, determine 100 of the nearly-300 seats, and are traditionally supporters of Mamata Banerjee.
In Hyderabad, the campaign speeches that seek to consolidate the Hindu vote are aimed at Asaduddin Owaisi, the chief of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen or AIMIM, who just proved his significance by winning five seats in Bihar.
To his critics, Owasi, 51, is considered a secret "vote katua" (vote cutter) ally of Shah, who jumps in the fray, as he did in Bihar, and queers the pitch for the opposition. The moment Owasi, a four-time MP, went public with his plans to fight in Bengal, a panicked Banerjee dubbed him the "BJP's B team" who will divide the secular vote in Bengal, proving he is on Shah's secret service.
The BJP's excoriation of him, according to conspiracy theorists, is to give him "credibility" in the eyes of Muslim voters so that they choose him and not other non-BJP parties - what is called a "noora khusti" (fixed fight) among politicians or a WWF bout. Shah excels in these "secret understandings". Evidence: Chirag Paswan of the LJP in Bihar who seriously injured BJP ally Nitish Kumar and ensured that he is reduced to a sort of sloppy seconds in the partnership with the BJP.
Owaisi denies all allegations of a BJP connect. So why is the party deploying all its big guns for a civic election, is what an incredulous TRS - which rules Telangana - and AIMIM are asking.
Owasi and Chirag may hold Cliff Notes on Shah's handling of allies; if Owaisi knows, he isn't telling, Paswan has been a little more transparent, perhaps unwittingly so.
The RSS is of the view that the BJP is now the prime pole of Indian politics and has maxed its gains in north India. To expand the voter base, it must look to the south, east and north east.
Meanwhile, the TRS, which often sides with the BJP in parliament on legislation that the Modi government wants cleared, is getting a taste of what it means to work in tandem with the BJP. That is, unless you have a secret understanding with Shah.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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