India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath in Jalaun, UP Image Credit: ANI

In the early 1990s, as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was waging the Ram Janambhoomi movement, Swapan Dasgupta wrote a newspaper op-ed laying out the party’s anxieties. Among them was the idea that the BJP might be seen as too concerned with religious affairs, and not enough with matters of governance, development and economy.

It was not until 1996 that the BJP was able to have its own prime minister.

This tension between the spiritual and the temporal, between identity politics and economic policies, between ideology and development, and between the needs of core voters and those of swing voters, is a daily one.

Circa 2023, the BJP needs to assess whether its ratio of Hindutva and “Vikas” (development) is the right one as we head towards the 2024 general elections.

The 2014 Narendra Modi campaign was largely about “Vikas”, because he already had the Hindutva vote. In Modi’s first term, 2014-19, there was some Hindutva from the BJP, but from the central government itself the pitch was largely about economy and development — demonetisation, GST, toilets, housing, Jan Dhan, free cylinders, Make in India, Swachh Bharat and so on and so forth.

Read more

Vikas takes a back seat

While much of the second Modi term was spent in battling the Covid pandemic, it will be remembered for the big ticket Hindutva agendas: Article 370 abrogation, Ram temple, Citizenship Amendment Act and so on.

In the process, the Vikas pitch of Modi-1 has taken a back seat. It is important here to stress that we are only talking about perception. There has actually been more bold economic reform in Modi-2 than Modi-1, such as the privatisation of Air India, the relaxing of labour laws in BJP-ruled states, lowering the corporate tax rates and so on.

However, welfare has taken a back seat, especially if we count the number of new schemes launched. This has meant that Hindutva shines through. The spotlight is on Hindutva.

We saw the perils of this imbalance in Karnataka. The BJP government there overdid Hindutva to the extent that its ability to showcase development and welfarism was hampered. If you make people discuss Hindutva yourself, you can’t really be the one complaining that people are not talking about that shiny new highway from Mysuru to Bengaluru.

That is why, one would expect the BJP to now stick to economy, governance, development and welfare. There are five state elections in December 2023 and the general election in May 2024. Narendra Modi is by all accounts likely to make history by getting elected as Prime Minister for a third consecutive term, a feat achieved so far only by Jawaharlal Nehru.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Central Election Committee (CEC) meeting in the presence of party National President JP Nadda and Union Home Minister Amit Shah, at the party headquarters, in New Delhi Image Credit: ANI

Which is why one wonders if it is the BJP’s overconfidence that is making them commit the mistake of excessive Hindutva, to the point of overshadowing its Vikas agenda.

In January 2024 we will see the inauguration of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya. So there will be enough Hindutva positioning to please the core ideological voter. What, then, was the need to wage a polarising debate on Uniform Civil Code (UCC) at this time?

Making people discuss UCC and taking them away from discussing unemployment still doesn’t mean that attention will be on development or welfare achievements of the BJP.

Let your own achievements shine

The BJP’s strategists today are wondering why the piped water programme is not getting them credit from voters. After all, it should be a big deal if a housewife no longer has to walk with buckets or pots of water and store it in the house. Water flowing through a tap at home in rural India has been a rare sight. Why, then, are voters not expressing delight over it?

Perhaps the BJP’s inability to take credit for the scheme is affected by a single-point Hindutva agenda.

It is true that the media, the political class and the common man like to debate ideological and polarising issues rather than discuss policy implementation. Yet that should be all the more reason for a single-minded approach towards focusing only on Vikas and welfare in an election year rather than letting those narratives be sidestepped by emotional identity politics.

After the 2002 Gujarat violence, the BJP lost the 2004 general elections. Despite the allegedly ‘soft’ approach to the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, the Congress only won more seats in 2009. It is good to remember that the Indian voters’ electoral verdict can’t be predicted in one direction.

Hindutva politics has peaked. It is not going to bring any extra votes for the BJP for now. It is time that the BJP allowed its own governance achievements shine in the public sphere by going easy on Hindutva.