Jai Shri Ram: Why Modi's Dussehra speech was just dog-whistle Hindutva
The most significant portions of Narendra Modi's Dussehra speech, delivered from Aishbagh Midan in Lucknow, were his opening and closing slogan - "Jai Shri Ram". Ignore everything he said in between and you would still get the essence of the BJP's UP-centric politics in these three words (or four, in case of 'Jai Jai Shri Ram').
In short, with 'Jai Shri Ram' Modi on Thursday launched his party's campaign for the Uttar Pradesh assembly election due early next year. That he did so at a Hindu religious event is telling.
Are we reading too much into the prime minister joining in the celebrations and praising Lord Ram, particularly when many prime ministers before him have done the same? What really is so significant about it?
Well, everything from the choice of this day to make a public statement, the choice of the venue, the phrase itself.
Nowhere in north India, at least, is Vijayadashmi marked with cries of "Jai Shri Ram". Instead, devotees collectively cheer "Siyavar Ram Chandra Ki Jai. Pavanputra Hanuman Ki Jai". Nor usually is 'Ram' chanted alone; one says "Sita Ram" as one says "Radhe Shyam".
'Jai Shri Ram' has a specific connotation. The last time it was used was in the early 1990s, during the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation. And it was to evoke the image of Ram Mandir - for long promised by the Sangh Parivar to its faithful but never delivered - that Modi used this phrase. In other words, he made an outright political and not a religious statement from Aishbagh on Tuesday.
"This was a blatantly political phrase. Their party has tried Muzaffarnagar, Saharanpur and now Kairana. Since people aren't responding to that, this is what the party is left with. This clearly shows the desperation in BJP camp. This is going to be a no holds barred election campaign," said Prof Ramesh Dixit of Lucknow University.
Modi's shouting of 'Jai Shri Ram' was a signal to the Sangh Parivar cadre on the ground to rake up the Ram Mandir issue as much as possible.
Vijayadashami is a special day for the BJP and for the Sangh in general. It was on Dussehra, 27 September 1925, that the RSS was launched by Keshav Baliram Hedgewar. The symbolism of the prime minister making a speech and ending it with 'Jai Shri Ram' on this day is not lost on the cadre of the Sangh, or the people of Uttar Pradesh.
Modi could have chosen to continue the tradition of Indian prime ministers celebrating Dussehra in Delhi, or he could even have visited Mysore where spectacular Ramleela shows are put up if, that is, all he wanted was to join in Dussehra celebrations.
But he broke the tradition and became the first prime minister to celebrate Dussehra not in Delhi but in Lucknow, quite conveniently the capital of the electorally most significant state, and one which is headed to polls. He also became perhaps first prime minister to deliver a public speech on Dussehra.
Any Modi programme is bound to be played out on a big scale, not least in a poll-bound state where eager party leaders hopeful of getting election tickets can be counted on to bring in large crowds. Would it not have made more sense then to hold the event at a bigger ground like the Ambedkar Maidan, where Mayawati had organised her programme two days previously?
"The idea clearly is to polarise the society. Aishbagh Maidan is located in an old part of the city with a very mixed population. There is an Eidgah right in front of it. So for someone who wants to polarise the voters, it makes sense to deliver such a message in a place with some Muslim population. If you say the same things in a Hindu-majority locality, it won't have the same effect," said Prof Pramod Kumar, who teaches at Lucknow University.
The Ramleela itself was turned into a BJP rally, with the entire top rung of the party on the dais. Not much of Ramleela happened before or after Modi's speech, except for the speaker who followed Modi reflecting the mood of the evening by proclaiming, "Jo Ram ka hai wohi kaam ka hai."
Many analysts had predicted that the circumstances and issues which could "ensure" a BJP victory - tensions with Pakistan, Ram Mandir - would come up only in the run-up to the 2019 general elections. That neither the BJP workers nor the Sangh cadre would want to exhaust themselves, and the mileage from these issues, before the "ultimate test".
Only, the ultimate test is here and now. The BJP has apparently realised that defeat in UP, on the back of the loss in Bihar no less, would seriously dent its prospects not only in other states going to polls over the next two years or so - Punjab, Goa, Gujarat, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh - but also in the 2019 election.
Which is why 'Jai Shri Ram'.
It's a different matter whether the slogan will resonate with the public, and whether the BJP will be able to maintain the momentum of this movement over the next four-five months.
Political analysts are sceptical. Nadeem Hasnain, a professor of anthropology, insisted that the "BJP will never be able to generate the same excitement on the Mandir issue."
"That Sangh euphoria is over," Prof Hasnain argued. "I think Ram Mandir is an issue with diminishing returns. The previous NDA governments realised this as well. The Mandir issue reached its pinnacle in the early 90s but that is as far as it will ever go. I don't think people are going to buy it anymore. After all inflation and unemployment are on a high and that is what people are more concerned with at the moment."
Nevertheless, won't the Sangh want to keep the pet peeves of Hindutva on the boil in the run-up to the polls, probably even by inciting violence as was done before the 2014 general election? "Undoubtedly yes," Prof Hasnain replied.
Prof Kumar said Modi's 'Jai Shri Ram' and amplification of the "surgical strikes" shows that the BJP has put development on the backburner. "See while they talk of vikas or suraksha, they also want to incite sentiment over Ram Mandir or try and polarise voters through Dadri. They want to serve a subzi with every masala in it. But we know doing this spoils the dish," he said. "My feeling is that the common man is tired of polarisation. What he wants to see is people making more constructive offers and promises."
Remember, two days before he shouted 'Jai Shri Ram' at Aishbagh Maidan, Modi had said this Vijayadashami was going to be "very special". Now we know why.