India's PM Narendra Modi speaks during the inauguration of a hydro power plant in Kashmir earlier this month. The Archbishop of Delhi has called for a prayer campaign until the next election, accusing Modi's party, the BJP, of threatening the country's secular fabric. Photo: Reuters/ Danish Ismail
India's PM Narendra Modi. Photo: Reuters/ Danish Ismail

In the midst of the heat and dust of the recently concluded poll in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided on a sudden break, to travel up to the border town of Janakpur in Nepal for a meeting on May 11 with his Nepalese counterpart KP Sharma Oli.

The presumption of the saffron party’s political managers might well have been that the Prime Minister’s Nepal visit could give the BJP the last-minute push it badly needed to recapture power in Karnataka.

But a bigger message emerged though PM Modi’s oddly-timed visit to Janakpur, capital of the kingdom of mythical Hindu ruler Raja Janak, father of Hindu deity Sita. The message was that in the run-up to India’s general election next year, the BJP would be seeking the divine help of both Lord Rama and Goddess Sita (consort of Lord Rama).

At Punora Dham, a place close to the Indo-Nepal border in the state of Bihar and commonly regarded as the birthplace of Sita, the incumbent Janata Dal-United (JDU) and BJP coalition government last month announced plans to build a “Grand temple of Goddess Sita”, with Rs 48.5 crore (US$7.1 million) in funding from the state government.

On May 11, Prime Minister Modi flagged a bus-service connecting Janakpur in Nepal and Ayodhya (known as the birthplace of Lord Rama) in India and revealed the government’s plans to develop the “Lord Rama circuit” connecting Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

The symbolism of these developments is stark. The Sita temple plan not only enables the BJP to brush off the taint of being a patriarchal party, but will also work towards consolidating the Hindu vote bank across the landscape of the two Hindi heartland states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which together account for 120 (more than a fifth) of the total of 545 seats in India’s lower house of parliament.

BJP’s dilemmas

By all counts, the BJP has done exceedingly well since 2014 to emerge as the country’s most dominant political party by assuming power in 20 states in the last four years – up from the seven it had in 2014.

But there is a flip side to the story. Over the past four years, the BJP has lost massively in important states such as West Bengal, Odisha, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Delhi, Punjab and Puducherry. The party got less seats in Manipur, Goa and Meghalaya compared to the Congress, but succeeded in forming governments by stitching together post-poll alliances. In that period, the BJP has only won six states on its own: Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Tripura, Gujarat, Himachal and Uttarakhand.

In the Gujarat elections earlier this year, the BJP survived a scare but – for the first time in 22 years – its victory came down to the 100 mark in the 182-member assembly, and the party has won just four of 23 by-elections since 2014.

On the other hand, BJP’s alliance partners such as the Shiv Sena and the Telegu Desam Party have been adopting a harder posture. And after the saffron party’s humiliating failure to form a state government in Karnataka, an anti-BJP platform of regional parties has begun to consolidate with the Congress.

According to BJP’s internal surveys, the “invincibility” of their election-machine, notably PM Modi and party president Amit Shah, has several fault lines. “The emerging Opposition axis in the Hindi heartland states, in particular, does pose a serious challenge to the BJP in 2019”, a senior party leader conceded.

‘Clear effort to militarize campuses in Bihar’

With Bihar, which sends a substantial 40 MPs to the Lok Sabha (the lower house of Parliament), as the new epicenter, the BJP’s plan is to confront the emerging opposition by injecting a huge dose of the “saffronization” or Hindutva – Hindu nationalism.

With the JD(U)-BJP government that began in July last year, the saffron party sees its best chance of firmly establishing its footprint in Bihar without the support of Nitish Kumar’s JD(U), so the BJP’s campaigning has become aggressive.

“We are working on plans to develop the Bihar chapter of the ‘Rama circuit’ by linking pilgrimage centers such as Buxur (where Hindu sage Vishwamitra was supposed to have lived), Sitamarhi (birthplace of Sita) or Madhubani (where Sita would apparently visit to pluck flowers),” said Sanjeev, a spokesman of the Vishwa Samwad Kendra, an affiliate organization of BJP’s ideological arm the RSS.

“Shakhas” (training camps) are being organized by the BJP at the block levels, while BJP offices are coming up in all the 34 districts of the state,” Prof DM Diwakar, of the Patna-based AN Sinha Institute of Social Sciences, said.

Two years ago, there were news reports suggesting that days before Modi announced his decision to demonetize certain currency notes the BJP purchased parcels of land where they planned to construct party offices in 25 of Bihar’s 34 districts. During the “Ram Naumi” (Hindu festival) last March, Hindu zealots were seen brandishing swords and tridents. Indeed, the situation led to a communal flare-up in Bhagalpur and seven other districts.

“Never before has Bihar witnessed the Hindu stridency that has been on display in past months,” 52-year-old Patna-based journalist Ajay Kumar said. “BJP cadres are working overtime to polarize society along religious lines in the run-up to the general elections,” Anisur Rehman of a Patna-based seminary called Imarat-e-Shariah, said.

The more recent and disturbing development has been “militarization of university campuses in Bihar”. In an official order on April 2, Bihar’s governor approved the selection of retired colonels and brigadiers from the Indian Army as Registrars in 10 of the 12 universities in the state.

“The attempt is clearly to militarize campuses and spread terror in the academia. Even the erstwhile British rulers did not do something like this,” Professor Rajesh Jha of Delhi University said.

Professor Sanjay Pandey of Patna Commerce College agreed. “People owing allegiance to the ideology of the Rashtriya Swayamseval Sangha (RSS) are being appointed as Vice Chancellors. University campuses are being politicized like never before”.