There are two famous occasions when Pakistan was invoked in Indian elections in this century. First, in Gujarat in 2002 after the terrible riots that consumed parts of the state. In the election that followed, it was the younger and brasher Modi who would mention defeating "Miyan Musharraf" as he would vaguely gesture towards a Muslim locality. It was quite clear what the messaging was. That election was swept by the BJP.
Next, it was Modi's most trusted lieutenant BJP President Amit Shah who invoked Pakistan in the course of the campaign for the Bihar assembly election in October 2015. He said famously that if the BJP lost the election, crackers would be burst in Pakistan. The BJP did lose. But there are no reliable reports of crackers bursting in Pakistan. Shah's gambit was generally seen as a desperate attempt to inject a dose of communalism into a campaign so that Hindu social blocs could unite against a particular community.
Now Narendra Modi, in his avatar as self-assured Prime Minister whose popularity across the country is reported as being high according to various surveys, has remembered Pakistan at the end of 2017. While campaigning for the second phase that covers areas torn apart by the 2002 riots, he has said that elements in Pakistan may be working with the Congress to prevent a BJP victory in the state.
He went on to say that a retired DG of the Pakistan Army, Arshad Rafiq, wanted to see political advisor to Sonia Gandhi, Ahmed Patel, as Gujarat Chief Minister and that former Pakistan Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, former Vice President Hamid Ansari met at Mani Shankar Aiyar's house and the next day, a statement was made saying that Modi is "neech".
Any sensible commentator must pause and ask why has the PM moved from "vikas" to "conspiracy of Pakistan". Also, will it work? The editor of one of the leading local Gujarati channels says it is targeted at Ahmedabad and Vadodra, urban seats that were and remain at the core polarized. It's a last ditch attempt to remind voters that "Muslims" still present a danger and they should not forget their "Hindu" credentials. He is also of the view that this is the outcome of uncertainty after the first phase, where local media and (interestingly RSS) internal assessments are showing losses in several seats.
Given the PM's personal popularity in Gujarat, he has probably calculated that such statements may do him no harm and there is a small chance that they can activate and motivate a small percentage of the ideologically-committed voter of an older generation. Yet, one cannot but also conclude come that the PM has resorted to such rhetoric because things are not going as smoothly as he would have hoped.
Social commentator and author of The Shaping of Modern Gujarat, Achyut Yagnik, says it's a response to the caste challenge thrown up by the Patidars and the Dalits, that Gujarat as the laboratory of Hindutva has its own set of responses and all of this is designed to make voters think of themselves as Hindus first before they separate into caste entities. But he is of the view that "I don't think it evokes a response in people now when real issues are linked to livelihood".
DEAD AND LIVING MUSLIMS
Since there are few living Muslims of any significance left to demonize, the dead are being remembered with a vigour that is both comic and tragic. In the rhetoric and tweets of BJP spokesperson, cadre and leaders, Alauddin Khilji has come alive though he lived from 1296 to 1316. The Mughal empire (1526 to 1857) too is being invoked with the PM himself remembering Aurangzeb.
A more contemporary dead Muslim who the BJP cadre hope still brings out sentiment of fear and loathing in Ahmedabad (that has 21 seats, 16 of which are urban) is underworld don Abdul Latif, considered an associate of Dawood Ibrahim (also a Gujarati). He was shot dead in 1997 at a time when Shankersinh Vaghela was Chief Minister. Latif ran a criminal empire and struck terror in the hearts of many. He was killed in Naroda Patiya in Ahmedabad on November 29, 1997. Two decades later, life as it was at his time has changed. The PM and Shah have not directly mentioned Latif but BJP workers always do and old time residents of Ahmedabad say they remember the Latif era and no one wants it to return. That's the sort of emotion, Modi would be seeking to tap into. Indeed when one raises the larger question of why Muslims are both feared and loathed in parts of Gujarat, Abdul Latif as the stereotype is always mentioned (The Shah Rukh Khan film Raees is based on a glamorised version of Latif).
The PM would be hoping that the raw emotion about a character such as Latif can still be made to bring the faithful out to the polling booth, some of whom would apparently be voting to prevent a grand, Pakistan-inspired conspiratorial take-over of Gujarat.
(Saba Naqvi is a journalist and an author.)
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