The city of Hyderabad in Telangana, India, held a municipal election on December 1-3, with results coming out a day later. With perhaps the exception of municipal elections in Mumbai, most contests akin to the one in the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) are low key affairs. The responsibilities of elected corporators concern city administration and urban planning – important, but not particularly exciting. Yet, the GHMC election was in the national spotlight in the last two weeks of November. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was principally responsible for this. Why was this the case? And what does it say about the party’s national political strategy?
The BJP got the campaign rolling by sending its senior leadership on the trail. It included Tejasvi Surya, the chief of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM, the party’s youth wing), Home Minister Amit Shah, former Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, and BJP President Jagat Prakash Nadda. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, too, timed a visit to a biotech facility in Hyderabad to coincide with the campaign. For a “mere” municipal election to play host to such political heavyweights is virtually unheard of. Yet it reflected the seriousness with which the BJP took the contest. And it seems to have paid off. The party won 48 divisions of the 150 – up from just the four it snagged in 2016.
As other observers have argued, the BJP does not consider its monumental win in the 2019 general elections as a sign of having at last arrived. Rather, its leadership saw the victory as an opportunity for the party to seep into the very soil of Indian politics and plant itself everywhere. Thus, from panchayat (village) to parliament, the BJP is intent on entrenching itself ubiquitously. Only then would it be able to achieve its vision for a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu nation). It therefore stands that it must take every contest as an opportunity to build its political hegemony from the ground up. Whether it’s a state election, a parliamentary contest, or a battle for a municipality, they all matter to the BJP.
Unsurprisingly, the All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) put up a strong showing in the GHMC election. As in previous contests, it won over 40 divisions. The party’s storied history in the city, coupled with the fact that Hyderabad is 44 percent Muslim, has made the AIMIM a staple in the GHMC. The AIMIM has also been increasingly effective at co-opting Muslim voters who backed the Indian National Congress (INC) in other parts of India. Indicative of this trend is the result of the October 2020 state election in Bihar, in which the AIMIM won an unprecedented five seats. The fact that the INC’s relevance is dwindling has left many Muslim voters with few alternatives other than parties like the AIMIM
As the GHMC contest has demonstrated, this trend is incredibly favorable to the BJP. The BJP’s Hindu nationalist credentials are contingent upon being able to identify and chastise a Muslim bogeyman. In previous elections, the BJP leveraged the notion that the INC engaged in politics of appeasement towards Muslims. Of late, however, the BJP has simply doubled down on branding the AIMIM as the party that protects “illegal immigrants” – such as Rohingyas and Pakistanis – and has referred to AIMIM President Asaduddin Owaisi as the second coming of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. BJP leaders also warned that voting for the AIMIM in Hyderabad would pave the way for it to become well established across India.
The narrative that the AIMIM may consolidate Muslim voters nationwide serves the BJP’s interests, for it allows the party to open the door to pan-Hindu support. This also allows the BJP to attack non-Muslim parties that are either allied or have a working relationship with the AIMIM. During the GHMC campaign, the BJP made it a point to emphasize the notion that the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), the dominant party in the state, was in cahoots with the AIMIM. The implicit message was that Hindus could not trust the TRS. Considering that much of the BJP’s GHMC campaign centered around Hindu nationalism – rather than local issues per se – it would appear that its tried-and-tested method of majoritarian politics was effective in undercutting support for the TRS. TRS won just 55 divisions, down from 99 in 2016. This suggests that the BJP may similarly attack predominantly non-Muslim parties allied with the AIMIM in future elections elsewhere.
The BJP has been traditionally shunned in South India. In the 2018 Telangana state election, the party managed to win just one of the 119 seats. However, it won four of the 17 parliamentary seats in 2019. In this context, winning slightly under one-third of the divisions in Hyderabad is no small matter. Already, the BJP has lauded its performance in the city as an indicator of widespread frustration toward the TRS, which runs the state’s government. And indeed, while TRS emerged as the single largest party in the GHMC elections, it took a big hit from the BJP. While the climb may be slow, the BJP’s trajectory in Telangana is discernibly upward and it will sense an opportunity to make an impact in the 2023 Telangana state polls.
But it’s not just Telangana that the BJP wants. With an eye on the 2021 Tamil Nadu state elections, the BJP’s long-term objective is to become truly pan-Indian and shed the unpalatable image that is has among many South Indians. This will hardly be easy though. Except for Karnataka, where the BJP has surged since 2019, it is a non-factor in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala. Gaining ground in any of these states that care little for Hindu nationalist aspirations will be a struggle. Neither is it the case that the BJP can easily replicate its growth in Karnataka elsewhere. While the BJP has been in and out of state power in Karnataka for the last 20 years, it has not made a dent in the other three states. It would then seem that the BJP has little choice but to play the long game.
Prashant Waikar is a Senior Analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU).