Can Modi distance himself from cows?

In India, Narendra Modi owns the strongest ‘dog whistle’ there is. His supporters know when he means something, when he doesn’t mean what he is saying, how he means it, and what the implication for them is. In recent speeches, if Modi has made it clear that he is very ‘gussa’ about cow vigilantes, he also made it amply clear that his anger was only limited to those cow vigilantes that attacked Dalits – a constituency crucial to his party’s prospects (and in some ways, his own reputation) in the upcoming Uttar Pradesh assembly elections. In response then, expect a brief respite from attacks, possibly conditional on a pardon from sympathetic state governments for the excesses already committed. They have already been ‘assured’ that the extent of a state government’s action would be to prepare a dossier.

Another view is that Modi is conscious that the negative publicity stemming from atrocities on Dalits affects the publicity he is (rightly) seeking for reforms such as the Goods and Services Tax (GST), and other initiatives aimed at establishing India as a favourable destination for investments. Add to that, Modi’s desire and efforts to build a favourable personal reputation, and you should have a Prime Minister who is deeply concerned that the ongoing lawlessness in the name of the cow.

I am of the belief that Modi’s concerns are firmly with the former, not the latter. He is too shrewd a politician to fall for the charms of the ‘west’. He knows his electorate is back home, and what is needed is a mix of favourable domestic economic conditions, and a host of emotive issues on which he can polarise the electorate. Do not be misled by his stage shows in New York or London – those are aimed at the domestic audience, who take western and NRI approval as a sign of success. The fact that NRIs work the social media platforms tirelessly and raise money for Modi (as well as for Trump) is a bonus, but that’s clearly not the raison d’etre.

As a vehicle to go beyond domestic economic issues, cow vigilantism has usually worked – and Modi himself has used his dog whistle to great effect not just as when he was a Chief Minister, but even after he was sworn in Prime Minister of this country. So has a well-measured policy on Muslims – alternately ignoring them (under the garb of ‘India first’, ‘sabka saath, sabka vikaas’, etc) and demonising them (for terrorism, population growth, etc). In fact, this tactic worked so well in the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections that Modi and his party returned an absolute majority for the first time in three decades.

It is probably safe to conclude then that Modi cannot distance himself from cows. Having grown up as a swayamsewak himself, his very instincts are to use divisive topics such as ‘cow slaughter’ to stoke communal tensions. This isn’t about ‘opportunism’; this is about the core nature of the RSS and its followers. Distancing himself from ‘cows’ would thus mean distancing himself from the RSS, and that is a risk even Narendra Modi would not take.


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