BJP believes that Kejriwal’s party will cut into the votes of the Congress
It does not seem surprising at all. The decision of the Bhupendra Patel government in Gujarat to set up a committee to go into the issue of bringing in the Uniform Civil Code was not like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Such a move was expected from the BJP government ahead of the state Assembly polls, due to be held early next month.
The fact of the matter is that the BJP, which has been at the helm of affairs in the state for 27 long years, has always relied on time-tested formulas to win back the people’s confidence in election after election. It has raised emotive issues in the state, known for its polarised polity.
This time as well it is no different. Just before the announcement of the polls scheduled on December 1 and 5, the Gujarat government headed by chief minister Bhupendra Patel decided to set up a committee to examine the possible implementation of the Uniform Civil Code.
What the move meant was that the BJP, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah, does not want to leave anything to chance. Given the history of Gujarat, the issue is emotive. The BJP has succeeded in turning the key state into its Hindutva laboratory by following the line in which it can directly or indirectly resort to minority-bashing.
If one goes by the elections in the past two decades and more, what one witnesses is that the BJP benefits only when it raises emotive issues. The Prime Minister knows the psyche of the people of his home state, which catapulted him to the country’s top job in May 2014.
Gujarat had seen repeated attacks by Mahmud of Ghazni in the eleventh century, who had even plundered the famed Somnath temple. The invader was the first to carry the banner of Islam into the heart of India. In later years, the state had been under the Mughals or their subedars.
Lal Krishna Advani’s late-1980s rathyatra from Somnath to Ayodhya changed the politics of the country and the states which were affected the most were Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh. The issue of “kamandal” was brought into play aggressively by the BJP through the yatra to counter the Mandal effect.
Narendra Modi’s first election as chief minister in Gujarat in 2002 itself had taken place in the aftermath of the Godhra incident. So, over the past two decades and more, the BJP has devised slogans and themes that would appeal to the majority community and would be seen as “anti-Pakistan”. Once it was “Miya Musharraf” at a time when Gen. Pervez Musharraf was ruling the roost in Islamabad. There was also minority-bashing through slogans like “hum panch, hamare pachhis” (We five, our 25) as well as propaganda alleging that the Muslims burst crackers when Pakistan wins in cricket matches against India. At one time, the minorities were targeted by attacking the then chief election commissioner, James Michael Lyngdoh, who had put several restrictions in place to ensure a free and fair poll.
The biggest problem this time for the BJP is that Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party, the new kid on the political block in Gujarat, is trying to be one-up on the BJP in wooing the majority community. Mr Kejriwal, who proclaims himself to be a Hanuman bhakt, has only recently suggested that India’s currency notes bear the images of Lakshmi and Ganesh to bring good luck to the economy. It was widely perceived as a left-handed compliment to Mr Modi by suggesting that despite hailing from Gujarat he has failed to handle the economy well and the rupee had slid against the dollar to an unprecedented extent. Mr Kejriwal knows that Gujarat is a land of industry and business, and therefore to appeal to the ordinary Gujarati, it is necessary to show he is more pro-business than his rivals.
On the Uniform Civil Code issue too, Mr Kejriwal seeks to take the wind out of the BJP’s sails by favouring such a move only after taking all communities into confidence. The Delhi chief minister is claiming that the BJP wants to exploit the code issue only electorally, and would forget about it after the elections.
The detractors of the BJP allege that the UCC move is was just to divert the attention of the people as the Modi government at the Centre had done nothing in the matter despite being in office for eight long years. Such a code, to be effective, needs to be enacted at the national level after wider consultations and cannot be done at the state level, they claim.
An ideal Uniform Civil Code can be evolved only after codifying all the practices across cultures, regions, religions and castes and finding some common ground among all these practices which can be applied across India, with dialogue — or so goes the argument.
Political observers say the move is a leaf straight out of the BJP playbook in Uttarakhand, and in keeping with its 2019 election manifesto. Reports quoting unnamed legal experts claim that the decision, announced days before the Model Code of Conduct came into force in Gujarat, might not be constitutionally sound even though it might serve the ruling party’s immediate political objectives.
Like Gujarat, the BJP has also announced a similar committee in poll-bound Himachal Pradesh. But the problem in the Himalayan state is that in recent decades it has changed governments every five years. Former CM and BJP veteran Shanta Kumar has questioned the relevance of the issue in the hill state, noting that most of the population there is Hindu. Muslims constitute less than 10 per cent of the seven crore population of Gujarat.
It remains to be seen how much the UCC issue gains traction in Gujarat, but there’s no doubt that for the BJP, it’s the best foot forward. Somehow the ruling party wants the focus shifted from the Morbi bridge collapse.
The entry of the AAP in Gujarat’s politics is seen by the BJP as a blessing in disguise as it believes that Mr Kejriwal’s party will cut into the votes of the Congress and help retain its hold on the key state. However, as the campaign is on, the BJP has realised Mr Kejriwal is making more dents in urban areas, where the ruling party has more influence. Therefore, tackling the challenge from the AAP is among the BJP’s major priorities for now.