NEW DELHI: Prime Minister Narendra Modi may not have repeated the shamshan-kabristan remark himself after February 19, 2017 but given the remark’s potential to fan embedded persecution complexes among sections of both Hindus and Muslims, it is not surprising that other Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) notables have picked the cue.
Power minister Piyush Goyal has alleged preference to ‘certain castes and communities’ in Uttar Pradesh’s electrification efforts and power supply, Yogi Adityanath has found the UP landscape dotted with only crumbly infrastructure and kabristan walls during his travels in the state and Sakshi Maharaj has openly wondered whether the nation needs kabristans at all. At this rate, the remark could acquire a life beyond the UP assembly elections – and therefore becomes important to decode.
It is only appropriate for a piece centering on a single remark to present it in full. So, here is what the Indian Express reports Modi saying at a campaign rally in Fatehpur, UP: ‘If a village gets a graveyard (kabristan), it should get a cremation ground (shamshan) too. If there is electricity during Ramzan, there should be electricity during Diwali too. It there is electricity during Holi, there should be electricity during Eid too. There should not be any discrimination.’
A cursory read reveals enough qualifiers (the ifs and the shoulds), a larger, unexceptionable principle (no discrimination) and no explicit allegation here. Hence, the question BJP spokespersons have been asking: What’s so controversial about what the PM said? Why can’t the words be taken at face value?
The words can’t be taken at face value because words acquire added meaning depending on who they come from and when. Had the exact same words come from Kabir, that ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity, they would have been celebrated as a blow to bigotry. Had the exact same words come from Rahul Gandhi, currently in a politically difficult space, they would have been read as a sign of the Congress’ desperation and resort to Hindutva Lite. Since they have come from Modi, we need to interpret them in the context of PM Modi’s politics.
Saying that the PM was making a case for equal development opportunities and fair allocation of public resources makes little sense. His own sabka saath, sabka vikas slogan would have achieved that without leaving scope for alternate interpretations. The eschewal of the benign sabka saath, sabka vikas and the juxtaposition of distinct Hindu and Muslim identity markers in the remark encourages us to speculate on other possible meanings.
The extreme (charitable) theory that PM Modi’s remark was meant to assure Muslims about his party and government – yes, one has heard that too! - is far from convincing. After all, the remark comes from a leader whose party believes that religious minorities have been appeased enough and can’t find a single Muslim candidate in all of UP. Call it naïveté if you wish to but I would equally strongly like to believe that my country’s elected PM is not so petty as to grudge fellow countrymen their festivities and death rituals.
Which leaves us, in an Occam’s Razor-ish way, with the Hindu vote consolidation theory.
It is no secret that the BJP’s best chance of winning UP - a state with a large and BJP-wary Muslim population and two rival parties with a sizeable base among sections of Hindus - is via such consolidation. It is also no secret that the kind of consolidation that powered the BJP in UP in 2014 is eluding the party in 2017.
Acche din remain awaited, demonetization has hurt all but bubble dwellers, sections of the youth and backward castes that the BJP had won over in 2014 have an option in Akhilesh Yadav-minus-the-old-Samajwadi Party (SP)-guard and non-Jatav dalits may be turning to Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) again after the Rohit Vemula and Una episodes.
Talk of shamshan-kabristan and assorted festivals aims then to raise another emotive issue that voters will connect with primarily as Hindus (rather than as, say, an occupational or demographic group) and slice through the combination of Hindu and Muslim votes that may be coalescing around the opposition.
The real clever part though is the bringing of electricity into the picture. Electricity adds a new, ‘development’ angle to the BJP’s consolidation pitch - after pitches in the name of religious symbols (Ayodhya and beef ban), honor and demographic change (love jihad) and law and order (Kairana). It’s also an angle which permits a PM to join the pitch with the least damage to his position’s dignity.
(Manish Dubey is a policy analyst and crime fiction writer with interest in politics, cinema and cricket.)