BJP tally didn’t dip only due to minorities. But blaming them is both easy and strategic

It helps to not acknowledge the loss of support among sections of Hindu voters, and solidifies the us-against-them agenda.

WrittenBy:Jyoti Punwani
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Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma was the first. A “certain community”, he said, was responsible for the defeat of the BJP in three northeastern states: Manipur, Meghalaya and Nagaland. Sarma, it seemed, was referring to Christians. 

Then came Maharashtra deputy CM Devendra Fadnavis, who blamed Muslims for voting en bloc against the Mahayuti alliance, and thus contributing to the BJP’s tally being reduced from 23 to nine.

And then it turned into a barrage. 

From videos showing Muslim voters queued up outside polling booths being circulated within WhatsApp groups run by BJP supporters, to leaders like NCP’s Ajit Pawar and Maharashtra CM Eknath Shinde’s son and newly-elected MP Shishir Shinde blaming the consolidation of Muslim votes behind the opposition, Muslims were repeatedly portrayed as a major reason for the defeat of the BJP in Maharashtra. 

What these leaders said wasn’t a lie, but a half-truth. Muslim mobilisation against the BJP and its allies was indeed one reason for the defeat of the BJP in Maharashtra, but certainly not the primary one. Without sections of the majority community turning against the BJP, they wouldn’t have lost so many seats.

Majoritarian agenda, INDIA bloc: What changed this time

But why did Muslim mobilisation not happen at this scale in the previous Lok Sabha polls? After all, by 2019, lynchings had peaked and there was no fig leaf left to hide the hollowness of the “sabka saath, sabka vikas” slogan.

Two developments brought about the change this time.

Soon after it was re-elected in 2019, the BJP appeared set to fulfil its core Hindutva agenda. In August 2019, Parliament abrogated Article 370. One year later, PM Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. As 2024 approached, the governing party became vocal about its intention to act on another core RSS issue: a uniform civil code. In February this year, barely two months before the Lok Sabha polls began, BJP-governed Uttarakhand introduced it. Then, just a month before the elections, the Centre injected new life into an enactment it seemed to have given up on after nationwide protests – it notified rules for the Citizenship Amendment Act.   

These two phenomena – the impending enactment of a uniform civil code and the inevitability of a National Register for Citizens after the CAA – triggered panic among Muslims. In meeting after meeting attended by this reporter, the fear expressed by speakers was that their very identity, as expressed by their personal laws and their claim to Indian citizenship, was likely to be wiped out by these two measures. 

While the BJP’s pronouncements and actions before the 2024 polls generated these fears among Muslims, a third factor gave them a way out: the coming together of the INDIA alliance. In 2019, Muslims had rallied behind whichever candidate seemed best placed to defeat the BJP; the party hadn’t mattered. Where there was more than one “secular” party, their votes were divided. This time, the reverse happened. Muslims found a front which they could unitedly support. “Candidate toh majboori hai, INDIA alliance zaruri hai” was a slogan I heard from a Muslim in Aurangabad. Where the alliance didn’t exist, as in West Bengal, Kerala, and Punjab, they voted as per their choice. 

Did BJP and allies expect a division of votes?

But surely the BJP knew this. When their own leaders have often declared they don’t need Muslim votes, (such declarations were made  before these Lok Sabha polls too), how can they expect the community to vote for them? To add to it, this time, the PM demonised Muslims in his speeches during the election campaign. While Modi refrained from naming the community in the past, this time he did not exercise any such restraint. 

Yet, someone as astute as Ajit Pawar could say that “unexpectedly, Muslims distanced themselves” from the Mahayuti – the governing alliance comprising the BJP, the Shinde Sena and the Ajit Pawar-led NCP.  

In Maharashtra, the NCP has traditionally been a party with substantial Muslim support, and even after breaking away from the original party, Ajit Pawar did try to woo Muslims. But he should have known it would yield little. 

Maharashtra’s education minister Deepak Kesarkar, belonging to the Shinde Sena, explained the defeat of his party by blaming “fatwas’’. But anyone with their ears to the ground would have known that since Modi took over in 2014, fatwas have become irrelevant. Muslims knew who they had to not vote for.

So why this high-pitched and uniform blame game? Has the fact that the Muslim vote did not get divided this time, as it did in 2019, unnerved the BJP? 

The AIMIM could play no role; Imtiaz Jaleel, the party’s only MP apart from Asaduddin Owaisi, lost from Aurangabad, and the party’s other four candidates in the state lost their deposits. Perhaps sensing the mood of his community, Owaisi didn’t even campaign for these four.

Can BJP blame the Marathi Manoos?

Devendra Fadnavis, in his speech at the party’s final rally at Mumbai’s Shivaji Park, accused Uddhav Thackeray of “appeasement” and made the false charge that Pakistani flags were waved at his rallies. He even used the word “janaab” and brought up Tipu Sultan to attack Thackeray. Was a speech such as this meant to attract Muslim voters?

If he and the rest of the BJP are now blaming Muslims as an important factor for their defeat, it’s because they cannot acknowledge the real reasons. It wouldn’t have been possible for Muslims alone to cause the defeat of the BJP had other sections, including Marathi-speaking Hindus also not voted against the party. 

Fadnavis and Shinde have been crying themselves hoarse about being the true heirs of Bal Thackeray’s legacy, but the Sena founder’s supporters have proven them wrong, especially in Mumbai – the party’s birthplace and stronghold. Their votes gave a substantial edge to the INDIA alliance’s victory in four of the city’s six constituencies. But imagine the BJP blaming the “Marathi Manoos”.

While BJP leaders do blame other sections for their loss, such as the Scheduled Castes and the Marathas, they qualify that with an explanation. For Scheduled Castes, the INDIA alliance is blamed for spinning a “false narrative about changing the Constitution”.  

What the BJP deliberately ignores is that their own candidates and leaders had said that 400-plus seats would help them change the Constitution, with one of them even specifying that the “anti-Hindu” portions of the Constitution could be removed.

For Marathas, who were so angry with the BJP that they didn’t allow stalwarts such as Ashok Chavan, who is now in the BJP, into Maratha-dominated villages, the BJP blames “polarisation” due to the reservation agitation “despite the government giving them 10 percent quota”.

This neither-here-nor-there explanation is understandable. 

No BJP leader will be foolish enough to invite the wrath of the state’s most dominant community by blaming it without a caveat. On the other hand, by blaming Muslims per se, the BJP loses nothing. In fact, it stands to gain.

Blaming Muslims strengthens the BJP’s propaganda that the opposition is “anti-Hindu”. Earlier, this charge was applied only to the Congress and Mamata Banerjee, both of whom were portrayed as dependent on, and therefore always in a race to appease “Muslim vote banks”. Now, the INDIA alliance can be smeared with this label. 

By saying the fight turned out to be “not political but religious”, as Himanta Biswa Sarma did, the Assam CM – a known Hindutva hardliner – sent a message that there was little the BJP could do if “certain communities” opposed it on the basis of their religion. It then became unnecessary for him to acknowledge the violence in Manipur under the BJP’s watch, its spillover into the neighbouring states, and the attacks on Christians allegedly by RSS cadres in states such as MP and Karnataka.

Repeatedly blaming Muslims and Christians for its defeat is just another way for the BJP to further its core “us against them” agenda, and to avoid acknowledging the damaging loss of sections of Hindu votes.

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