At a campaign rally in a north Indian city, a visibly drunk election worker from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s nationalist party climbed unsteadily onto the stage after being called to speak.
Swaying, he unzipped his leather jacket, dropped a saffron party flag and declared: “I want to teach Muslims a lesson; a lesson that will prove Hindu unity and protect our religion from Islam.”
A year before Uttar Pradesh holds a state election that could make or break Modi’s chances of a second term, political opponents, analysts and commentators say his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) retested a divisive formula at a by-election in a troubled corner of India’s most populous state.
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It was here in Muzaffarnagar, in 2013, that at least 65 people were killed in communal clashes between Hindus and Muslims. Around 12,000 people were driven from their homes in the surrounding villages where farmers grow sugarcane.
The following year, the BJP won 71 of 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh in a general election, handing Modi India’s biggest parliamentary majority in three decades.
Despite two major state poll defeats since, the BJP recently reappointed Amit Shah as its campaign manager, counting on him to win again in the 2017 regional vote. Shah, who holds the rank of party president, was banned by the Election Commission of India from campaigning in 2014 for statements promoting “hatred and ill will” between religions.
A senior aide to Shah said the Muzaffarnagar campaign raised legitimate issues to expose the flaws of the state government, led by the left-wing Samajwadi Party that is widely supported by Muslim voters.
“It’s not illegal to voice the concerns of Hindus,” said the aide, who did not want to be named. “To assume that we will only win elections by polarisation is ridiculous. Our work will prove a point and Modi’s image will work the best for us.”
At the BJP rally in Muzaffarnagar, a town of 300,000 people, a businessman chanted a Hindu prayer and, to cheers, said girls should not fall for Muslim boys waging a “Love Jihad” against his community.
As the party worker tottered off the wobbly podium, he got a pat on the back from Sanjeev Balyan, a federal agriculture minister who was elected as the local member of parliament in the 2014 landslide.
Balyan, 42, is being tried in a Muzaffarnagar court for rioting, disturbing the peace and unlawful assembly during the 2013 clashes, his lawyer said. He spent 12 days in prison before being granted bail. Further hearings are pending, and Balyan has pleaded his innocence.
Balyan gave no speech; only expressed gratitude to his voters. Asked later about the broader significance of the Muzaffarnagar by-election for Hindu unity and for Uttar Pradesh, he described it as a prelude to “an all-out final attempt to protect Hindus”.
Modi must win in Uttar Pradesh, India’s biggest electoral prize, to sustain his hope of one day gaining full control of parliament, where he lacks a majority in the upper house that represents the federal states.
A victory there would help the 65-year-old leader advance his development agenda by passing land, tax and labour reforms that have been thwarted by the opposition. Defeat could turn his government into a lame duck ahead of the 2019 general election.
With Modi’s promise of growth and jobs yet to materialise, the temptation to shore up his political base is growing, say political analysts.
“The party has nothing to boast about on the economic or development front,” said Sanjay Kumar, director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, a New Delhi think-tank specialising in social sciences and opinion research. “If polarisation works, then they will be tempted to replicate it in the 2017 state elections.”
Party leaders say the BJP is determined to keep its base intact with a message of Hindutva, or the idea that India is a Hindu nation.
“Many people are taken aback by the directness of the BJP’s Hindutva messaging in the Muzaffarnagar by-election, but we are only speaking the truth,” Chandra Mohan, a BJP spokesman in state capital Lucknow said.
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Hindus make up nearly 80 per cent of India’s 1.3 billion people. Uttar Pradesh, home to one in six of the population, is also predominantly Hindu. But, in the west of the state, Muslims are in a slight majority.
“The BJP has mastered the art of winning elections by labelling Muslims as terrorists and traitors,” said Sajida Khatoon, a 54-year-old Muslim whose brother and eight neighbours were killed in 2013.
She says she has warned her two teenage sons to avoid Hindu youths and not get involved with Hindu girls. “They’re at an age when they easily get attracted to girls, but a Muslim falling in love with a Hindu can lead to riots here.”