On Sunday, a series of seven low-intensity bombs rocked Patna, the capital of the eastern Indian state of Bihar. The Indian Express reports five people died in the blast and more than 90 were injured. The explosion occurred minutes before Narendra Modi, the controversial leader of the right-wing Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was to address a rally in the state capital.
According to The Telegraph, 12 bombs were planted in the city; eight detonated and four were defused. The first blast took places at Patna’s railway station, around two kilometers from the venue of the rally. News reports claim that the first victim was one of the bombers himself. The remaining four lives were lost at Gandhi Maidan, the ground where the rally was taking place.
All the blasts took place during the rally, minutes before Modi was to take the center stage. Analysts say that perhaps the attempt was to create panic at the gathering and start a stampede in the crowd. The local police and state administration have refused to tag the incident as a terror attack.
Bihar has not been known for terror attacks of this sort; it has made headlines for a decade due to its economic turnaround under the leadership of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. But in the last few months, Bihar has seen an increase in religious disturbances and political turmoil.
The timing of these blasts in Patna raises several questions and has important implications for Indian politics in the run-up to the 2014 election.
The blasts took place against the backdrop of a raging debate in India about the genesis of terror. Congress Party Vice President Rahul Gandhi, at a recent election rally in Madhya Pradesh, blamed the Hindu-nationalist right wing for exacerbating communal tensions between Hindus and Muslims. He further claimed that all this volatility has been exploited by Pakistan’s external spy agency, which has sowed the seeds of terror in India. He was referring to violence in the Muzaffarnagar district of Uttar Pradesh where a communal conflict has led to the death of more than fifty people–mostly Muslims–and the displacement of hundreds of families. The Centre for Policy Analysis (CPA), a Delhi-based think tank, indicted the BJP for inciting violence.
Ever since Narendra Modi was declared the BJP's prime ministerial candidate, there has been an aggressive campaign to capture the public's imagination. It has divided the electorate and stirred a national debate over whether Modi is suitable for the country’s highest political post. As Gujarat’s Chief Minister, Modi is largely blamed for presiding over communal violence in 2002 that claimed, by some estimates, over one thousand Muslim lives and has resulted in the sharp ghettoization of the Muslim community in the state ever since. Though never convicted, popular perception in India holds him responsible for turning a blind eye during the crisis.
Nitish Kumar’s government in Bihar broke its two-decade-long association with the BJP in June after Modi was named as the party’s candidate for the 2014 general elections. Bihar has been in turmoil ever since Kumar parted with the BJP. The state has witnessed attacks on Buddhist temples in Bodh Gaya and repeated communal violence.
It is no coincidence that Bihar and Uttar Pradesh (UP) have witnessed growing religious tensions after Modi’s ascendance. For the BJP, these two states, which account for 120 parliamentary seats out of 545, are crucial to its electoral strategy. The party won a majority of the seats in these states in 1998. Today, the right-wing group is a marginal player in UP and without any political allies in Bihar. Religious polarization is known to favor the BJP, however, and it is trying hard to make its presence felt in these two states.
Never before in the history of Bihar has a terror attack taken place at a political rally. Patna’s Gandhi Maidan has hosted many historic rallies without incident. The frenzy that Modi evokes with his presence is not assuring; he captures the imagination of only one section of the population, leaving minorities and liberals in deep fear about the consequences of his rise to power.