At a campaign rally in a north Indian city, a visibly drunk election worker from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s nationalist party climbs unsteadily onto the stage after being called to speak.
Swaying, he unzips his leather jacket, drops a saffron party flag and declares: “I want to teach Muslims a lesson; a lesson that will prove Hindu unity and protect our religion from Islam.”
A year before Uttar Pradesh holds a state election that could make or break Modi’s chances of a second term, political opponents, analysts and commentators say his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is re-testing a divisive formula at a by-election on Saturday in a troubled corner of India’s most populous state.
It was here in Muzaffarnagar, in 2013, that at least 65 people were killed in communal clashes between Hindus and Muslims. Around 12,000 people were driven from their homes in the surrounding villages where farmers grow sugarcane.
The following year, the BJP won 71 of 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh in a general election, handing Modi India’s biggest parliamentary majority in three decades.
Despite two major state poll defeats since, the BJP recently re-appointed Amit Shah as its campaign manager, counting on him to win again in the 2017 regional vote. Shah, who holds the rank of party president, was banned by the Election Commission of India from campaigning in 2014 for statements promoting “hatred and ill will” between religions.
A senior aide to Shah told Reuters the Muzaffarnagar campaign raised legitimate issues to expose the flaws of the state government, led by the left-wing Samajwadi Party that is widely supported by Muslim voters. “It’s not illegal to voice the concerns of Hindus,” said the aide, who did not want to be named.
“To assume that we will only win elections by polarisation is ridiculous. Our work will prove a point and Modi’s image will work the best for us.”