After a patchy, lacklustre two years, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has stormed back into the reckoning in Uttar Pradesh, bolstered by its historic win in Assam, and sensing a clear road map in the Prime Minister’s strong-on-message ministerial expansion at the Centre.
The impression today is that the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah power duo is working to a “nothing will be left to chance” plan to wrap up the State in the 2017 Assembly election. The new Ministers from Uttar Pradesh have been inducted in a politically loaded Dalit-Kurmi-Brahmin combination, and also on the cards are alliances with smaller, caste-based parties on the lines of the one finalised last week with the Om Prakash Rajhbhar-led Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party.
The caste-communalism cocktail Of course, as anyone who has watched U.P. and the BJP, and even more the Modi-Shah combine, will know, by itself this caste cocktail cannot suffice and into it will be added in due course calibrated doses of communalism so that the BJP is fully battle-ready by the time the election comes around.
An early indication of how this might work was provided by Mr. Shah himself, when at a June 13 rally in Allahabad to kick off the party’s election campaign, the BJP president warned of the repercussions that could follow the alleged exodus of Hindus from Kairana. It didn’t seem to matter to Mr. Shah that the exodus charge had been strongly and convincingly refuted by the local administration and other independent inquiries. Kairana in Western U.P. is in the neighbourhood of Muzaffarnagar, the communally volatile region that had exploded into a vicious circle of riots before the 2014 general election.
The formula looks perfect on paper, and it would be no surprise if the BJP, which polled an unbeatable 42 per cent of votes in the State in 2014, reprises the victory, even if on a smaller scale. And yet, questions remain, starting with why the BJP, a party headed by a leader single-mindedly focussed on vikas, vikas, vikas (development and only development), needs to play the same caste-communal card that it denounces in the hands of its rivals but is quite happy to employ for its own electoral gain. Ironically, only a day before the Cabinet expansion, which many in the media saw as a brilliant exercise in social engineering, Mr. Modi had asserted that the expansion would not be motivated by the usual concerns of caste and region.
Not building on the momentum Second, why did the BJP not follow up its grand 2014 victory with sustained work on the ground? Little of the BJP’s current purpose and energy was visible until a few months ago. For most of the last two years, the star of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections looked stripped of the killer instinct that had made short work of its opponents. Indeed, travelling in the eastern parts of the State in April 2015, one year after the BJP’s eye-popping victory, I was struck by how easily the euphoria had dissipated.
A combination of drought conditions, devastating crop failure and unfulfilled expectations had dampened the mood of a people who had frenziedly voted to give the BJP 71 of Lok Sabha 80 seats — the richest haul by any party since the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress’s 1984 record of 83 of 85 seats.
Election 2014 consigned to the bin the wisdom that the best effort of Mr. Modi could not breach the BJP’s previous high of 57 of 85 Lok Sabha seats, achieved in 1998 as a spin-off from the communally polarising Ayodhya agitation. But Mr. Modi and his party chief, with a record of jointly winning elections, and a personal chemistry so strong that the now elevated Union Cabinet Minister Prakash Javadekar would call them “two bodies in one soul”, were not the kind to be bound by benchmarks. Mr. Modi’s abundant charisma, the clever foregrounding of his OBC origins and the sometime covert, sometime overt communal messaging, all blended seamlessly with the overarching “development” theme to take the BJP to its highest ever tally in U.P.
Against this backdrop, the early down phase was a surprise. Forget granting a longish honeymoon period to the party with the terrific seat and vote numbers, the BJP’s 2014 voters were almost hostile to it, and sharply questioned the gap between the Prime Minister’s expansive promises and their own unchanged struggle with life’s challenges.
If the disenchantment with the BJP was visible, so were signals that U.P. might, if reluctantly, return to its regional parties, the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). The latter in particular was seen to be resurgent because of a widely-held perception of Ms. Mayawati as an astute administrator. Voices within the BJP too admitted to a growing voter interest away from the BJP to the BSP.
In retrospect, it would seem that Mr. Modi and his party chief did not feel the need to concentrate on U.P. while they had other jobs to finish. The BJP’s rout in the Assembly elections in Delhi and Bihar had made Assam a State the BJP could not and would not lose.
That one victory virtually rewrote the script for the BJP, and the party, gifted like none other in the art of creative communication, spun it like only it can. With characteristic aplomb, Mr. Shah declared that the BJP’s aim of Congress-mukt Bharat (India without Congress) had been achieved, and the party was on course to win from “ panchayat to Parliament.”
This small uptick in fortunes and the Prime Minister’s authoritative U.P.-focused Cabinet expansion might together explain why the BJP is seen to have reclaimed its place at the top in U.P. However, neither has the situation on the ground changed, nor has the BJP done anything to improve the lot of the people for the party to be so confident about its prospects in the State. From infrastructure to jobs to farmer uplift, the promises made in 2014 have remained promises.
Other contenders: a sob story In truth, the BJP’s comeback in U.P. is less on its own merit than aided substantially by the near-ruinous state of its rivals. Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav is youthful and driven but he has been undermined by his own party and his father, Mulayam Singh, who clearly resents having ceded space to the son. The SP is also stuck with the image of lawlessness, further reinforced by the Chief Minister’s disastrous handling of situations like the Mathura siege in early June.
Of the two remaining contenders, the Congress has been on a downward spiral from which it is unlikely to be able to recover, whether or not the party presses Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra into the campaign. There are many problems with the idea that Ms. Vadra can overnight turn things around for the Congress. If at all she is to be taken seriously, she must come upfront as the Congress’s chief ministerial candidate. Ms. Vadra has the same charisma that her grandmother Indira Gandhi had, and like her she is an effortless crowd-puller. However, the only way she can be a game changer is by proving that she is serious about politics, that she intends to stay and fight rather than imperiously offer her managerial services to her bankrupt party and its much-cosseted but nonetheless ineffective vice-president and her own brother, Rahul Gandhi.
Besides, statistics show that Ms. Vadra’s days as a campaigner are virtually over. Forget spreading herself thin all across U.P., she has not even able to able to keep the Congress’s flag flying in the family bastion of Amethi and Rae Bareli. In 2002, with Ms. Vadra still to become active, the Congress had three of 10 Assembly seats in this belt. Ms. Vadra campaigned energetically starting 2004, and the results were visible in the handsome victories of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi in 2004, and again in 2007, when the Congress picked up seven of 10 Assembly seats in the region.
By 2012, Ms. Vadra had ceased to be able to charm the voters of Amethi and Rae Bareli. The patronising style she adopted on the campaign trail and the obsessive references to the family and little else began to look out of step with the growing aspirations of the ordinary people. In that Assembly election, the Congress won only two of the 10 seats. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, her exertions did little for Rahul Gandhi who just about retained his seat, after initially trailing the little-known Smriti Irani.
So if the Congress thinks it can use Ms. Vadra like a carrot, as a temptation for an undefined future, to woo the voters, it is bound to be mistaken.
The saddest story here is of Ms. Mayawati. With zero seats in 2014, she looked set for a return based solely on the people’s recollection of her achievements. Yet her failing has been on two levels: the refusal to engage with party seniors and not sufficiently educating her constituency on the values and social importance of B.R. Ambedkar.
The early Mayawati denounced the manuwadi parties but as she made compromises, now aligning with the BJP and now wooing the upper castes, the message was lost somewhere. It should have been an article of faith with her cadre that Hindutva and Ambedkar’s beliefs are mutually exclusive and antagonistic and will remain so. By way of consequences, the BSP supremo has not only suffered high-profile desertions from her party, the BSP’s young seem increasingly open to embracing the BJP.
If the BJP wins this time, it will have its opponents to thank.
Vidya Subrahmaniam is a Senior Fellow at The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy