Modi & His “Secular” Strategy!

Narendra Modi1

So, how seriously should Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s words be taken about his “never” having expressed anything against Muslims, talked about any Hindu-Muslim communalism and so forth? He even stated that if he said anything of this nature, he would not remain “fit for public life.” What an irony, it has taken several decades for a die-hard saffron activist to come somewhat close to understanding that communal extremism has limited temporal as well as political reach against deep-rooted strength of Indian secularism. If he was still confident about communal rhetoric having greater electoral power than “secular” expressions he has attempted, he may not have tried this strategy. His communication strategy is exclusively targeted towards the goal of returning to power. Irrespective of however “communal” his image, that of other BJP-stalwarts and saffron-brigade may be, if need be, he has no qualms about displaying a totally different image to the general public through various tools of media. He is trying to propagate this (secular image) through his team as extensively as possible.

Of course, till June 4, prospects of this strategy’s impact remain fairly blurred for several reasons. However “genuine” Modi’s “secular” mask may be viewed as, voters are well aware that if this were not the electoral-phase, in all probability, he would not have tried it. Besides, this is also suggestive of his going overboard to please secular Indians, including religious voters, whether Hindu, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians or of other communities. There is no denying, in Indian elections, defeat by even a single vote amounts to losing a seat in the Lok Sabha. As of now, Modi doesn’t want to face any such risk. Enthusiasm displayed by his political rivals together with increasing importance being gained by them in media circles seem to have rung alarm bells for Modi and other BJP-stalwarts. But while he has begun giving more importance to his “secular” mask, specifically linked with saffron brigade being infamous for its communal bias against Muslims, all BJP-stalwarts don’t seem to be even attempting the same “secular” approach. These include Amit Shah and Yogi Adityanath.

What else can be gauged by Shah hitting out West Bengal Chief Minister while expressing at Serampore in Hooghly, “Mamata Banerjee came into power with the slogan of Ma, Maati, Manush but this slogan has lost now and Mulla, Madrasa and Mafia is there at the ground. Tell me should mullas (clerics) be paid from Bengal’s state treasury?” This is his way of linking Muslims with mafia while Modi is trying to distance his own image from anti-Muslim bias held by those extremely close to him.

Besides, Shah and Yogi have time and again reportedly lashed out at Congress during their respective rallies for having fed biryani to “terrorists.” Usage of biryani as a political missile, however, has too many limitations. Of course, Shah and Yogi’s aim has been to target Congress for favouring Muslims, as in their perception biryani is a favourite dish of primarily Muslims. They certainly need to do a little research on this. Popularity of biryani among those fond of fried rice is not confined to it as a non-vegetarian dish. Vegetarian biryani is equally popular among vegetarians, without meat being used at all. Instead, various vegetables are cooked along with fried rice. In addition, whether vegetarian or non-vegetarian- types of biryani recipes popular in various parts of country differ in keeping with what is favoured most by people of different areas. Hyderabadi biryani isn’t the same as Lucknowi biryani. In addition, non-veg and veg-biryanies differ in style of cooking and ingredients used from place to place. Difference in taste and choice also depends on which type of rice, oil, etc. is used in different households. Biryani is not just biryani- its taste, ingredients and style of cooking differs in numerous ways across the country. Handi-biryani (cooked in traditional clay vessels) is just not the same as that cooked in pressure-cooker, ordinary pans and so forth.

With biryani- vegetarian or non-vegetarian- being an extremely favourite dish across the country, the question is whether its usage as an “electoral strategy” can have the desired appeal upon voters at large? Nobody is likely to instantly believe that biryani was actually served by Congress to terrorists. People are well aware that such manufactured strategies are used by politicians at large as a part of their negative campaigns against their rivals. But, many may deliberate on why was biryani chosen? You see, quite a few advertisements of basmati-rice, refined oil, menu of restaurants and so forth focus primarily on “biryanis” – veg as well as non-veg. Well, chances of biryani-electoral tactics prompting these to change nature of their advertisements are non-existent. Their prime agenda is to keep their business doing well and that is totally dependent on their being no change in demand of consumers for their products. So far, irrespective of whatever politicians may think or say about biryanis, it appears to have had no impact. It continues to be a favourite, whether cooked at home, ordered online or eaten outside as and how desired by those wishing to do so. Chances of their considering themselves as “terrorists” simply because they eat biryanis don’t prevail.

Interestingly, Banerjee has countered BJP leaders fairly aggressively on their targeting rivals for eating non-vegetarian food. She has openly talked, as reported, about being ready to cook fish-biryani for these leaders. This is just another indicator about the popularity of biryani. Certainly, it is rather strange that certain respected politicians have linked biryanis with terrorists. This is only suggestive of their having limited knowledge of Indian food culture as well as national and international popularity of biryani. They have certainly aimed to “spoil” image of Congress by linking it with biryani. This strategy is least likely to help them politically as it is not going to have any appeal with a greater population of India being non-vegetarians, including Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and of other communities. Rather, chances of these sections being amused and even angry for usage of such “tactics” cannot be side-lined. Think seriously, why should politicians decide who should eat what? It would be wise to exercise food-strategy by giving some importance to feeding the hungry, ensuring no one sleeps with an empty stomach, people don’t die because of hunger and similar such moves.

Interestingly, from halwa-puri, cakes, chole-pature, idli-dosa, biryani, shami kebabs and countless other dishes, Indians from North to South, East to West, give greater importance to regions, where they are most popular and hardly any to “religious” factors. Biryani- Hyderabadi, Lucknowi, Kashmiri, Vegetarian, Chicken, Mutton and so on- as suggested earlier, is not linked with just Indian Muslims’ religious identity. Neither can any political party’s image be associated exclusively with biryani. Simply speaking, biryani should be spared in being used as political missiles targeting rivals. Let its role remain that of building bonds among Indians fond of eating tasty food, whether non-veg or veg.

In addition to Modi propagating his “secular” image by having never apparently spoken about “Hindu-Muslims” along communal lines, he should perhaps also consider speaking about biryani from a secular angle!

Nilofar Suhrawardy is a senior journalist and writer with specialization in communication studies and nuclear diplomacy. She has come out with several books. These include:– Modi’s Victory, A Lesson for the Congress…? (2019); Arab Spring, Not Just a Mirage! (2019), Image and Substance, Modi’s First Year in Office (2015) and Ayodhya Without the Communal Stamp, In the Name of Indian Secularism (2006).  

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