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Expanding the national footprint

Expanding the national footprint
In a not so significant development on Monday, PK Kunhalikutty of the Congress-led United Democratic Front won the Malappuram Lok Sabha by-poll in Kerala. The Bharatiya Janata Party's candidate N Sreeprakash finished at a distant third place. What was significant about this by-poll was the campaign that preceded voting. Even as most BJP-ruled states have supported tough laws against cow slaughter and given a free reign for the propagation of beef politics, N Sreeprakash promised voters good beef in his constituency if elected. Yes, the BJP's candidate might have lost miserably, but one must contextualise it in the overriding message that was articulated during the party's recently concluded national executive in Odisha—a bid for a pan-national presence. Speaking to party workers at the BJP's national executive, party president Amit Shah said that the hard work had just begun and that their "golden era" was still ahead of them. Shah urged his fellow party workers to expand the party's footprint by spending more time on the ground in states like Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, West Bengal, and Tripura, which have remained as unconquered for the party. Ahead of the 2019 general elections, Shah asserted that the party should set its sights in these states, not to mention Odisha, where it seeks to dislodge the long-time incumbent, the Biju Janata Dal. The BJP president's central message to his party was that it should aim to be in power from panchayat to Parliament—a complete sweep. Admittedly, winning every election (state or panchayat) is a near impossible task considering India's fragmented polity. However, it is safe to suggest that the BJP has become the defining party in Indian politics today. There is no other party with such a pan-India presence, overshadowing a flailing Congress. A scrutiny of beef politics gives political observers an idea of what a pan-India BJP presence, akin to the Congress party's influence of the Nehru era, would entail.

With its ideology based on the provisions of Hindutva, cow protection has become a central plank for the BJP, especially in the northern states. Proponents of Hindutva argue that the ban on cow slaughter is an issue of religious sentiment for the majority Hindu population, especially in states like Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh, and protecting the sacred animal has become a matter of state policy—a legacy of past Congress governments. But this sentiment has also become a tool to attack religious and caste minorities. Many people think it is perfectly acceptable to attack others on mere suspicion of possessing cow meat when, in many cases, it is buffalo meat or worse, it is not actually illegal to possess. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had called these cow vigilante groups involved in such attacks as "anti-social" last year. After the BJP's massive win in UP, however, these vigilante groups have once again made the news for their murderous acts with some senior BJP leaders even going to the extent of denying that such things happen. Recently, the Supreme Court asked the Centre and five BJP-ruled states why cow protection groups shouldn't be banned, based on a petition filed, which says that there has been a spike in instances of vigilantism. Contrast these circumstances to what its politicians have propagated in Kerala and the Northeast, where some have even made the provision of beef a campaign promise. Some might suggest that this is hypocrisy. Others, however, believe that this is not hypocrisy, and reflects a party with desires for a pan-India presence. In other words, the party is willing to embrace local cultural (culinary) norms of other states, communities, and ethnicities within its approach for expansion. Beef, for instance, is kosher in Kerala, Goa, and the Northeast. Moreover, the politics that parties engage in the Northeast is vastly different from the cow belt. Unlike the communal and caste fissures in states like Madhya Pradesh and UP, politics in the Northeast is driven by competing ethnic nationalisms. Determining who is indigenous and who is an "outsider" is what drives politics in particular parts of the Northeast, for example. Nonetheless, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat claims for a national ban on cow slaughter does not help the BJP's cause. Such a proposal does put off voters from states where the BJP would like to expand its footprint. For the uninitiated, the RSS wields enormous influence on the BJP. Allied with a leadership overtly dependent on Amit Shah and Prime Minister Modi, the party's bid for expansion may definitely hit a few bumps along the way.
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