A face-off between the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress over the Hindu vote bank indicates how the two parties are planning new strategies ahead of the 2023 Madhya Pradesh Assembly elections.
Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan has said that a committee must be formed to implement the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) in the State. He has also emphasised the need for a stronger law to “counter love jihad, if needed”. According to BJP leaders, such statements seek to remind the average Hindu voter that the party has not forgotten their “interests and concerns vis-à-vis safety”, especially when it is trying to expand its base among Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) through social experiments and targeted government programmes. In fact, Mr. Chouhan’s statement on ‘love jihad’ was made at an event marking the martyrdom day of the tribal icon Tantya Bhil in Indore. Since then, he has raised the issue at other public events too.
Mr. Chouhan justifies his statements on UCC and ‘love jihad’ by claiming that land owned by the tribal people is now owned by non-tribal people belonging to other faiths after marriage. In the coming days, the Madhya Pradesh BJP plans to emphasise its claim that non-tribal people, widely understood to be Muslims or Christians, are also entering the power structures in tribal regions by fielding their spouses as sarpanches.
Not only have many of Mr. Chouhan’s Cabinet and party colleagues endorsed his views on ‘love jihad’, but Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) general secretary Dattatreya Hosabale, who is currently in Madhya Pradesh, also appealed to party volunteers last week to keep a tab on religious conversions and instances of ‘love jihad’ in their respective colonies and zones. Going ahead, these issues are expected to prominently figure in the BJP’s election campaigns as “there is credible information that such incidents are on the rise,” say BJP leaders.
However, there is no official data to support this. The Opposition dubs such occurrences as the government’s failure. It believes that claims on development and government initiatives have scattered, if not limited, appeal. But such emotional issues work in attracting different communities, it says, which is crucial for the ruling party which is divided into different power centres in the State. This is also why Mr. Chouhan has been more vocal about these issues since he returned to power in 2020 and has backed his statements with legislative action such as the introduction of the anti-conversion law. Talking about a more stringent law will only further consolidate voters, say Opposition leaders.
Despite its focus on these issues, the BJP is wary about the Congress’s comparatively “softer approach” in wooing Hindu voters, particularly during the Bharat Jodo Yatra. The party feels that at the least, it has to ensure that its support base comprising upper and intermediate caste Hindu voters is not swayed by the Congress’ manoeuvres, including Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s visits to various temples such as the famous Mahakal temple in Ujjain. More recently, when Mr. Gandhi claimed that the BJP and the RSS say ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and not ‘Jai Siya Ram’ because they do not worship Sita, State Minister Narottam Mishra was ready with a mythological explainer of the meaning and context of the honorific ‘Shri’. And when former Chief Minister Kamal Nath challenged the BJP, RSS and the Vishva Hindu Parishad to debate “religion and spirituality” with Mr. Gandhi, State Minister Vishvas Sarang and an array of BJP spokespersons offered to participate in this debate in a bid to prove their “Hindu credentials”.
Moves such as the revamp of the Mahakal temple, for which Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Ujjain and spoke of a cultural renaissance, are significant for the BJP to keep its Hindu vote base intact and expand it further. However, such issues do not hold the same kind of sway as contentious issues such as Ram temple and the Gyanvapi mosque have in Uttar Pradesh. It is in this context that subjects like ‘love jihad’, UCC, triple talaq and Article 370 become more crucial for the party to force the Congress to “play on the BJP’s turf”.
The Congress aims to stay clear of getting dragged into emotional issues. But a fallout of this has been the marginalisation of the Muslim leadership in the State. Arif Masood, an MLA from Bhopal who led campaigns against the implementation of the National Register of Citizens and other issues impacting minorities, is the only leader from the community in the reckoning.