BJP touts pro-Hindu agenda in Uttar Pradesh polls

Congress party vice-president Rahul Gandhi (centre left) and Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav (centre right) in Lucknow on Sunday.
Congress party vice-president Rahul Gandhi (centre left) and Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav (centre right) in Lucknow on Sunday.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Modi's party promises to build temple and to protect the cow

India's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is promising to shut down slaughterhouses and launch inquiries into the alleged reports of migration of Hindu families from Muslim-dominated areas in Uttar Pradesh state, as it tries to woo Hindu voters in a tough election battle.

In its manifesto, the BJP - with its core supporters rooted in Hindu nationalism - promised to build a temple for god Ram in Ayodhya at a disputed site under constitutional norms, and to protect the cow, an animal Hindus hold sacred.

These promises have raised complaints from critics that the political party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi was falling back on the political ideology of Hindutva, or Hinduness.

Uttar Pradesh, or UP, is India's most populous state with 204 million people - 20 per cent of them Muslim - and it is going to the polls in multiple phases from February to March.

The state is politically important as it has 80 Members of Parliament, the highest from one state, with the BJP looking to boost its numbers in the Upper House where state wins determine House composition.

BJP, the ruling federal party, has a majority in the Lower House but is a minority in the Upper House.

Responding to the critics over the plan to close slaughterhouses, BJP president Amit Shah said in a television interview: "Don't see it from that point... You will see that due to slaughterhouses, cows that give milk are finished."

He told the Network 18 media group: "We want to prevent cattle smuggling and slaughter."

When questioned about the plan to get the local authorities to probe claims that Hindu families were leaving parts of Western Uttar Pradesh, a communally sensitive issue, Mr Shah said the families had been targeted by criminals. "Law and order is an issue today. Exodus in West UP is an issue," he said.

The BJP is facing a tough electoral battle against the alliance of the Congress and Samajwadi or Socialist parties, and also against the Bahujan Samaj Party led by popular Ms Mayawati, a champion of the lower-caste Dalits.

Over the weekend, Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav attracted a lot of attention when he held a joint rally with Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi.

The two, who are in their 40s, are seen as the young face of Indian politics where most politicians are over 60.

"It is a historical alliance; it is a partnership between me and Akhilesh," said Mr Gandhi at a joint press conference where both noted that they were fighting against a "divisive ideology", while promising development.

Analysts said that the tie-up between Mr Yadav - who has been pushing the developmental agenda - and Mr Gandhi, though one of political convenience, was troublesome for the BJP.

"The BJP realises that if it has to effectively challenge the Samajwadi Party, it has to fall back on the original agenda of Hindutva. The BJP had been hoping the Samajwadi would split vertically - that would divide Yadav and Muslim votes," said Dr Sandeep Shastri, a political scientist and pro vice-chancellor of the Jain University. The Yadav is traditionally a cow-herding caste.

"It (the BJP) is hoping that (the) charisma of the Prime Minister and talk of development will take care of elements that are keen on development while appealing to others on a Hindutva plank."

The Samajwadi and Congress parties both count Muslims among their supporters with the tie-up expected to somewhat consolidate the minority votes. Still, Ms Mayawati also finds support among the Muslim community.

"It has clearly become a triangular fight in UP. The trend of Muslim voters in UP is that they vote against the BJP and for the candidate who can best defeat the BJP," said Professor S.K. Dwivedi, an Uttar Pradesh-based political analyst.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 31, 2017, with the headline 'BJP touts pro-Hindu agenda in Uttar Pradesh polls'. Print Edition | Subscribe