If the mood at the executive meeting was celebratory, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's mass appeal added to the jubilation. That thousands lined the streets from the airport to the meeting venue, a distance of some 6 km, in blistering heat bang in the afternoon, had the effect of shaking Odisha's BJD government to its bones. There is a widely-held perception in Bhubaneswar that after an uninterrupted 17-year reign, Naveen Patnaik is finally worried about losing power in 2019. In fact, Odisha was chosen as the venue for the National Executive meeting precisely for Amit Shah to give out this message. And the BJP was more than successful in achieving its aim of rattling the state's ruling party with which it was in alliance till 2009.
But the National Executive meeting had two other strategic aims that were unveiled in Narendra Modi's valedictory address on the afternoon of April 16. He emphatically underlined the party's need to consolidate its support base among OBCs. This was first underlined in the Political Resolution that was adopted on the first day of the meeting. Speaker after speaker repeated the BJP's commitment to uplift the underprivileged sections of society, mostly clubbed under the Other Backward Classes category. The party achieved spectacular success in UP primarily by welding a social coalition of the upper castes and the bulk of the OBCs, with the exception of the Yadavs who by and large stuck to Akhilesh Yadav's party.
But the BJP made deep inroads into the Extremely Backward Classes category and also grabbed a sizeable share of the Dalit vote, reducing Mayawati's BSP to a paltry 19 seats. In recent years, especially since the Lok Sabha election of 2014, the BJP has aggressively wooed the poor and tried hard to shed its upper caste party tag. This strategy was consecrated at the National Executive meeting by the party's recurrent emphasis on setting up of an Other Backward Classes' Commission on the lines of the pre-existing Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SCST) Commission and Minorities Commission. At the meeting, it was volubly pointed out that opposition parties had been obstructing the passage of the OBC Commission Bill on procedural grounds in the Rajya Sabha despite claiming to be champions of the downtrodden. Leaders exhorted party activists to take this message to the grassroots and hold conferences of the targeted groups in their localities to convince them that only the BJP was serious about the social and economic uplift of OBCs.
Although the party did not formally oppose the Mandal Commission Report, it has always spoken for creating an undivided Hindu society by criticizing vote banks based on caste. But this National Executive was categorical in spelling out the party's sharp turn away from its image of being an upper class-upper caste party to one that enjoyed the support of the backward classes in the same measure as it did of the better privileged. This dramatic shift in the BJP's political vocabulary is remarkable. However this has been possible first on account of Narendra Modi's immense personal credibility and, second, due to the huge expansion in the party's membership numbers. The BJP is clearly leveraging the fact that it now boasts of 11 crore members reaching every corner of the country. Even if not all members are active and despite the fact that the party remains organisationally weak in states like West Bengal and Kerala, it is now in a position to implement its programmes across most of India.
The second and probably even more politically significant outcome was the Prime Minister's outreach to triple talaq victims. For some months, the BJP has been raising this issue but few had guessed that Narendra Modi would deploy the party machinery to deepen a fault line in Muslim society, virtually dividing the community on gender lines. By urging BJP workers in towns and villages to locate Muslim women who are threatened with, or victims of, triple talaq and then extending all possible help to them, the BJP can potentially turn this into a game changer in Indian politics.
Although many commentators have claimed that a section of Muslim women voted for BJP in the UP election to support the party's campaign against this practice of verbal divorce, there is insufficient evidence that Muslim women defied their male family members to do the unthinkable - namely, vote for the BJP in significant numbers. But there is no doubt that the party's steady propagation of the evils of "teen talaq" has drawn many victims of this practice to sympathise with the BJP as it is the only party to speak out against it.
Recognising that general Muslim antipathy to the BJP still runs deep, Mr Modi cleverly chose the gender issue to make inroads into the community. In other circumstances, the BJP might have launched a shrill mass campaign against triple talaq or even linked it to the Uniform Civil Code issue and thus taken a legalistic route to end this practice. But Mr Modi eschewed this path despite the Supreme Court being already seized of the matter. Instead, he directed BJP workers, especially women, to reach out to Muslim victims living in their vicinity and provide solace. This way, the BJP hopes that in due course, the more progressive among Muslim women may be able to convince men in their family and relations to publicly reject this practice. Muslim religious organizations, Mr Modi knows well, will never agree to dilute any facet of religious practice under pressure from or persuasion of the BJP. They are highly unlikely to shed their conservatism as self-appointed guardians of Islam, although the fact is that 19 major Muslim countries including Pakistan have banned triple talaq.
So the BJP has consciously adopted a soft approach to Muslim society, instead of confronting it as in the past. This soft approach to Muslim society may yield dividends that the hardline stance failed to deliver. Already there are growing voices among Muslims calling for ending cow slaughter even in the states where this is still permitted. By endearing itself to Muslim women who have long suffered male abuse on account of archaic practices, the BJP may actually garner a sizeable section of Muslim support, especially among women.
Therefore the just-concluded BJP National Executive can be termed a possible turning point in the party's bid to project itself as an inclusive political organisation. The BJP is aggressively pursuing a policy of outreach to communities and sections it has ignored or even confronted in the past. This inclusiveness may indeed make the BJP India's natural party of government.
(Dr. Chandan Mitra is a journalist, currently Editor of The Pioneer Group of Publications. He is also former BJP MP, Rajya Sabha.)
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