A weakening of the backward-Muslim coalition and the Narendra Modi factor have pushed the BJP to centre stage in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar

“Oh … that Modi … the Chief Minister of Surat,” said Shiv Charan, a 30-year-old farmer in Patna, after a few minutes of confusion following a question on what he thought of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate. Not far off from the highway, people in the Bhagirathpur village, about 80 kilometres north of Patna, do not find an instant connect with Narendra Modi’s name. Rather, State BJP leader Sushil Modi is the “Modi” who they are more familiar with, and the resonance with the industrial city of Surat is because many Bihari migrants work there. But people on the highways and urban centres in Uttar Pradesh can instantly connect with Mr. Modi. “I support Modi for Hindutva,” said Arvind Thakur, a 20-year-old backward caste boy in Hajipur district, Bihar. His friend Abhishek Jha, a Brahmin boy of similar age, said: “Modi’s campaign has been convincing. He is a true leader.”

Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, two States that together elect 120 members to the Lok Sabha, are the most crucial in the political calculations of 2014. The BJP’s hopes of winning over 200 seats in India hinge on the number of seats that it wins in these two States. For those who want to stop Mr. Modi also, the outcome in U.P. and Bihar will be crucial.

Two themes Mr. Modi repeatedly laid stress on during the campaign are instructive of the twin-agenda that he has pushed in these two States. In April, he asked how those who worship the cow could tolerate its slaughter. Last week, in his most pronounced invocation of his lower caste identity, he said the Congress and its leadership were unable to digest his rise because of his caste. What the BJP under the leadership of Mr. Modi has presented before the electorate is the possibility of a Hindu consolidation led by a backward caste leader, reconciling two social forces that have been contradictory for the most part of the last 25 years — Hindutva and backward caste assertion. A social combination between the Muslims and the backwards has been the speed bump for the BJP’s emergence in both States, and the rise of the BJP in these two States would not be possible without a corresponding weakening of this alliance.

Though spotting any sweeping and universal “Modi wave” in either U.P. or Bihar is not an easy task, he has indeed made a mark on the scenario. The “Modi effect” is proportional to the level of urbanisation and penetration of the media — therefore, it is more visible in U.P. than in Bihar. But Mr. Modi alone is not the factor nor is he the primary factor in the elections in U.P. and Bihar. There are several other factors at play in both States, some unique to each State and some common to both.

Return of ‘Lalu Raj’?

Many commentators have interpreted the enthusiastic mobilisation of the Yadavs and Muslims around the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief, Lalu Prasad Yadav as a sign of his return to prominence. In the campaign, Mr. Prasad has promised a return of “Lalu Raj,” a code that his supporters understand as the dominance of backward castes when Mr. Prasad and his wife, Rabri Devi largely ruled the State without interruption from 1990 to 2005. “Those days you could walk into the police station or the block office and the officers treated you with respect. I will bring back those days. I will bring back ‘Lalu Raj’,” he has promised people through the campaign. But what is a promise to many, particularly the Yadavs, is a threat to many others. “Those were the days when kidnappings were routine and Bihar had a bad name,” Janata Dal (United) leader and Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has countered in his speeches. “I have brought order and peace to Bihar.” Barring the Muslims, the primary concern for everyone in this election has been around the possibility of a return of “Lalu Raj” — not the prospects of Mr. Modi. It is Mr. Prasad who framed the question that way, to attack Nitish Kumar, whose attempts to strengthen the State have led to a total marginalisation of backward castes from the lower level apparatuses of state power. Upper caste people have largely staffed the police and civil administration under Nitish Kumar, and this has rankled the highly assertive backward castes. Mr. Prasad has been trying to get the backward castes to focus on this “betrayal of the social justice movement.”

While bureaucratic highhandedness and petty corruption are a recurring complaint among backward caste voters in Bihar, except the Yadavs, nobody may be yearning for a return to “Lalu Raj.” A huge chunk of non-Yadav backwards, who consider the return of “Lalu Raj” as a threat rather than a promise, are considering the BJP as an option. Even those who rate Nitish Kumar high, such as Mr. Jha and Mr. Thakur, claimed they have voted for the BJP. “We will consider Nitish when the Assembly elections come,” they said.

Then, there is the case of the Extremely Backward Castes whom Nitish Kumar has tried to consolidate as a distinct political constituency. These fragmented small groups are faced with the prisoner’s dilemma. Being unsure of who else will vote for their first preference, which is the JD(U), they could shift to their second preference, which is the BJP.

For the upper castes, the first choice is clearly the BJP.

The cumulative outcome of this would be Nitish Kumar ending up with seats not corresponding to the tremendous goodwill he has, the BJP getting disproportionately more seats than its support, and Mr. Prasad riding almost exclusively on the Yadav-Muslim combination.

Polarisation in U.P.

While the goodwill for Nitish Kumar’s incumbent State government and the fear/promise of the return of Mr. Prasad are the determining factors in Bihar, in U.P., the declining popularity of the Akhilesh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party (SP) government and its spin-off politics are the key factors determining voting behaviour.

SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav and Akhilesh Yadav started the election campaign of 2014 by laying stress on the achievements of the last two years — free laptops, unemployment allowance, loan waiver, etc. But they realised early on that the sentiments against the government on account of the worsening law and order and power situation in the State were high. The SP then changed track and made Mr. Modi the main election plank. This has been a godsend for the BJP, which no longer needed to proactively play the communal card in U.P. The party — and Mr. Modi — more assertively put forth his backward caste credentials in various ways. The religious polarisation has been already sharp in the State that has witnessed around 130 instances of riots since the SP government came to power, and among them, a major one in Muzaffarnagar. The severe loss of credibility of the SP combined with communal polarisation has put the BJP in an advantageous position.

The SP is benefitting less from the polarisation it contributed to in creating as a sizeable chunk of the Yadavs are taken in by the “Modi factor,” and the argument that this election is not about maintaining the Yadav dominance in State politics. “Mulayam Singh is not going to be Prime Minister anyway. We will think about him when the State elections come,” says Munnilal Yadav, on the outskirts of Varanasi. Also, there has been some erosion among the Dalit votes in the riot-hit areas of western U.P. away from the Bahujan Samajwadi Party (BSP). However, it is intact in other parts of the State.

As a result of all these factors, unlike in Bihar, the U.P. scenario is confusing for Muslims. The SP’s track record in preventing riots and managing the fallout has left much to be desired. U.P.’s Muslims have been left with a feeling of having been betrayed by the SP, and unsure of the prospects of the Congress, and have been looking at the BSP as a second option.

Regardless of the so-called “Modi wave,” its claims of a Hindu consolidation or otherwise, the BJP has emerged as the primary pole in both U.P. and Bihar. In U.P., the party had been dominant through the 1990s but in Bihar, this is the first time that the BJP has managed to emerge out of the shadow of a regional ally. “We are the primary pole in U.P. and Bihar. Everyone else is fighting us,” said Sushil Modi, Bihar’s BJP leader. Clearly, the BJP’s strategy of consolidating the Hindutva identity along with projecting Mr. Modi’s backward identity and the disaffection among people for regional players seems effective.

varghese.g@thehindu.co.in

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