There is seemingly a Machiavellian motive behind the Bharatiya Janata Party's confrontation with the Election Commission over the party's anti-Muslim compact disc, which was meant for use during the campaign for the ongoing Uttar Pradesh elections.
Not surprisingly, even as the controversy was raging, the BJP brought out an equally provocative anti-Muslim advertisement in the print media in a belligerent gesture that will undoubtedly appeal to its followers.
Although the party has had to withdraw it following uproar over its venomous contents, BJP leaders must feel satisfied that its message has had wide circulation because of the controversy. Since the CD was intended mainly for its committed supporters and gullible onlookers, all that the saffron brotherhood wanted was that its customary anti-Muslim line should be conveyed to the electorate with redoubled vigor.
In the case of the CD, the BJP may have had an additional objective. This was to deliberately invite a battle with the Election Commission so that the party could play an anti-establishment role to underscore its distinctiveness.
The earlier occasion when it had taken on this institution was at the time of the 2002 elections in Gujarat, which were held within a few months of the riots in which hundreds were killed. Chief Minister Narendra Modi had then insisted on calling the Chief Election Commissioner by his full name of James Michael Lyngdoh, not out of respect for him, but to send a not-so-subtle message that no fair play can be expected from an institution headed by a member of the minority community.
It was also an aspersion on the country's secular norms, which allowed a Christian to rise to such a high official position. Moreover, Modi insinuated at the time that there was a clandestine link between Lyngdoh and another Christian, Sonia Gandhi, the Congress president. This time too, the BJP has tried to distract attention from the CD through its allegations against Navin Chawla, a member of the Election Commission, because of his alleged links with the Congress.
It is easy to see, therefore, how the BJP is playing the same old tricks not only to denigrate the Commission, but also to make the point that the secular dispensation is prejudiced against the Hindus. To its followers, this is why the BJP remains as unapologetic about the CD in 2007 as it was about the Gujarat riots five years ago.
In addition to its efforts to undermine the authority of a widely respected autonomous institution, which is credited with holding India's almost continuous series of elections with remarkable success, the BJP is also fond of resorting to melodramatic tactics, as when its chief, Rajnath Singh, marched with his followers to a police station to court arrest in connection with the CD episode.
This act was reminiscent of former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Kalyan Singh's decision to court arrest for his acts of omission and commission during the Babri masjid demolition in 1992. When he was sentenced to a day's imprisonment by the Supreme Court, Singh had worn the broad smile of a victor, which was intended to tell the party faithful the extent to which the BJP was prepared to go to uphold its combative pro-Hindu agenda.
In addition to its preoccupation with the Hindu cause, the fact that the BJP remains true to its longstanding core group of supporters, the traders, also became evident when, like Kalyan Singh, a BJP leader in New Delhi, Harsharan Singh Balli, was sent to jail for having defied the judicial diktat on the sealing of unauthorized constructions in the city. And like Kalkyan Singh, Balli too showed his lack of remorse for his defiance of the law.
The purpose of such acts of bravado is obviously to test the limits of institutional patience and to ascertain whether they can be intimidated. Since the BJP has routinely subverted the process of the law, especially the functioning of the police, in the states where it is in power, such as Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, the only institutions it has reasons to fear are the Supreme Court and the Election Commission. Since these institutions cannot be openly accused of bias, all that the saffron lobby can do is to indirectly accuse them of being unfair.
It is worth recalling that during its agitation for demolishing the Babri Masjid in order to build a temple there, the BJP and the Hindutva brigade were in the habit of saying that matters of faith were beyond the jurisdiction of the courts. Their targeting of the Election Commission, whether because of Lyngdoh or Chawla, reflect a similar stance.
Arguably, the BJP can afford to be perceptively aggressive during the Uttar Pradesh elections because its chances of success are not too bright. Moreover, it is currently engaged in retaining its hold on the Brahmins, who are being wooed by the pro-Dalit Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) as a part of the latter's new tactic of reaching out to more caste groups.
The BJP's intention therefore is apparently to strengthen its anti-minority credentials to keep the Brahmins and other upper castes in its ambit and also in preparation for larger battles in the future, notably for control of the centre.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)