Opinion | PM Modi And 'Mangalsutra' Row: A Faustian Bargain For BJP?

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi's speech invoking religious symbolism at an election rally in Rajasthan's Banswara was an audacious one. It was also surprising, given how the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had been so confident of securing a third term that it had dropped its usual rabble-rousers this election, like Nalin Kateel in Dakshina Kannada, Pragya Singh Thakur in Bhopal, and even Ramesh Bidhuri in South Delhi. The BJP perhaps felt that leaders who were needed to mobilise Hindu sentiments ahead of the previous Lok Sabha elections were not required any more. With the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya finally becoming a reality, aggressive Hindu posturing was not necessary, the party may have believed. But, right when people thought that the BJP was taking on a new, mellow avatar, it sprung a surprise. Through a single speech, PM Modi has managed to build an electoral narrative centred around Hindus allegedly being under threat if the Congress comes to power

Attacking The Manifesto

The narrative was not built off a one-time mention. PM Modi followed up his Banswara speech with a similar one the next day in Western Uttar Pradesh's Aligarh, where he railed against the Congress, saying that the party planned to "seize the wealth of Hindu women to redistribute among minorities". The latter rushed to demand action against the PM, but nothing deterred him. For the third consecutive day, at a rally in Tonk-Sawai Madhopur, he again warned voters about the perils of voting for the Congress.

Modi's plan of attack clearly hinged on the Congress's manifesto and poll promises, which included a yearly sum of Rs 1 lakh to women. Parts of the manifesto, read along with former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's disputed remarks in 2006, were interpreted by PM Modi to infer that if the Congress came to power, it would redistribute wealth among those "with more children" (by which he evidently meant Muslims). He also cited the "urban naxal mindset" of Rahul Gandhi's advisors and alleged that the Congress would not spare even the "mangalsutra" of his "mothers and sisters". He based his claims on the Congress manifesto's promise of a nationwide socio-economic survey and a caste census. "Based on the data, we will strengthen the agenda for affirmative action," reads the document. However, though there were reports that in a speech in Hyderabad, Rahul had said the Congress would redistribute wealth amongst minorities, the party has now rejected making any such claims. The manifesto has no mention of any such "re-distribution" either.

Congress On Backfoot?

Ultimately though, the result of PM Modi's speeches is that the Congress is now on the defensive over its manifesto. The grand old party, which maintains that it respects the Prime Minister's Office (PMO), has sought action from the ECI, contending that the 'mangalsutra' imagery can inflame communal sentiments. "The Shehzada [prince] of the Congress says that if their government comes to power, they will investigate who earns how much, who has how many properties... Our mothers and sisters have gold. It is 'streedhan', it is considered sacred, the law also protects it. Now these people's eyes are on the 'mangalsutra' of women. Their intention is to steal the gold of mothers and sisters... This is Maovadi thinking, this is the thinking of communists," PM Modi had said in his speech. 

More than the Opposition's demands for action against the PM, however, what's interesting is that many BJP leaders themselves are not comfortable with the idea of Modi talking about the alleged threat to Hindus. "Ideally, such misgivings about the Congress manifesto should not have been articulated by PM Modi himself. It is best left to rabble-rousers.  It should have been left to our second-line or third-line leaders," a Karnataka BJP MP said. But then, given how the party has dispensed with most of such hardline leaders, who could possibly be flagging these issues for the BJP? That's probably why PM Modi chose to himself make such comments.

A Tough First Phase

A section within the BJP also feels that PM Modi's utterances could be linked to the experience of the first phase of polling on April 19, which, many say, may not have worked in the BJP's favour. It is also likely that this time, many party cadres are not willing to do much heavy-lifting, feeling let down by the choice of candidates and the fact that tickets have been given to many who just crossed over from the Congress or the AAP, or other opposition parties. Naveen Jindal being fielded from Kurukshetra and Ashok Chavan being accommodated in the Rajya Sabha are a few examples. These leaders came with baggage, and "we will have to wait and see the impact of Chavan's induction in Marathwada", a BJP leader says. 

An RSS leader, meanwhile, says that PM Modi's objective could be to push people to vote. "The crossovers may not affect voters, they may all still have faith in Modiji and vote for him. But then again, this campaign of '400 paar' [Mission 400] may prove to be counterproductive as voters may not be motivated enough to come to the polling booth if they feel PM Modi is sure to be elected, with or without them. It is quite likely that Modi may have raked up the Hindu cause to motivate people to vote... In fact when Modi raised the bias against Hindus in the Congress manifesto, BJP chief J.P. Nadda simultaneously spoke about the 'love jihad' issue in Congress-ruled Karnataka. He visited the family of Neha Hiremath, the daughter of a Congress corporator, who was a victim. With elections underway, the party picks up issues close to people," he said.

In an election year though, mobilising Hindu votes with such speeches could prove to be a Faustian bargain for PM Modi, one that may cost him the goodwill earned among the country's Muslims over the last decade through his good governance policies.

(Lakshmi Iyer is a journalist who has been covering politics for four decades in Delhi & Mumbai. She is on X @liyer)

Disclaimer: These are the personal views of the author