State elections should never be confused with sporting nomenclature of ‘semi-final’, but in all significant State elections, it is imperative that we draw clear lessons. What must leave the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chuffed is that the elections from disparate States around India have resulted in its bettering its performance — and by a significant margin. The BJP era appears to be in top gear and cruising.
The BJP gains
In Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party (SP), up from its meagre seats in 2017, led a robust campaign and enthused those who saw the election to believe that it had the momentum. But the message was clear when the votes were counted. Any spring in its feet from the boost it secured from emerging as the sole Opposition pole was no match for the BJP that kept its enormous advantage in the urban and semi-urban seats. Even more, the BJP has gained in vote share from 2017.
The decimation of the informal economy in U.P. has consequences that hurt the poorest. Youth unemployment is among the highest in the country and has grown in the past five years, with 16 lakh fewer people employed in the State in 2022 than they were in 2017. The much lower growth in the State’s GDP, when compared to the 2012-2017 phase, and the meteoric price rise, impacting the food basket, are all matters of statistical record. NITI Aayog ranked U.P. at the bottom of the multi-dimension poverty index. But the incumbent Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath, was returned to power, in a first since 1985. So, in the face of deep economic distress, the Centre and State taken together with a nearly eight-year incumbency at the Centre and a full majority in Lucknow, one must look at the implications of when the voter does not factor her/his own well-being when making electoral choices. The ‘something else’ that has driven Mr. Adityanath back to Mukhya Mantri niwas must concern us.
Mr. Adityanath was careful to pursue his campaign with a single-minded focus on Hindutva. From the ‘separateness’ argument of preferential treatment of ‘Kabrastan’ versus ‘Shamshaan’ under the then Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, made prominently by the Prime Minister in 2017, Mr. Adityanath and the new 2022 campaign took things to another level throughout his tenure.
The treatment meted out to anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) protesters (mostly Muslim) was unprecedented, and a key legislation enacted in the middle of the novel coronavirus pandemic was the anti-conversion law known to provide legal cover for mobs wishing to attack inter-faith couples, mostly where the man was Muslim. The shutting down of abattoirs and tanneries had a communal slant as it attacked the economic backbone of several Muslims. And then during the campaign, an analysis of 34 publicly available speeches over three months (between the first week of November and the first week of February), found “100+ Instances of Hate Speech, Religious Polarisation, Hindutva Supremacy”. There were bulldozers as campaign pieces placed outside rallies of the incumbent Chief Minister and the anti-Muslim stance of several MLAs, some of whom even went as far to speak of “tearing beards off faces of Muslims”.
A Chief Minister, also a head priest in Gorakhpur, in India’s most populous State, who made no bones about standing for what he did, gets back with a comfortable majority. This has national implications as it suggests that a significant section of the people here have bought into a sharply divisive idea of a Hindu Rashtra. The BJP’s confidence in pushing for similar actions, making States theatres of a show of aggressive Hindutva — like Karnataka, Assam and Madhya Pradesh — would get a fillip.
It had been believed after the elections in the Hindi heartland in the winter of 2017 that Narendra Modi could sway voters nationally, but the BJP was consistently losing States. That ‘jinx’ on the BJP has gone away with this round, as these elections were in States all around India, and with varying social complexions and political cultures. The BJP has managed to retain power across the board.
If the BJP finds no electoral pushback to its economic policies, of simultaneously keeping big business (via privatisation) as well as the extremely poor (in its labaarthi, or beneficiary logic) on its side, there would be no problems with raising the price of petrol even further, or re-introducing farm laws. Watching economic policies unfold, in the face of mounting challenges in the next two years, would be a fascinating exercise.
The remaking of the Opposition space is a key message in these elections. The only Opposition party that has succeeded is the Aam Aadmi Party in Punjab. The losers would include, other than the Congress, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Akali Dal. The full kaleidoscope of parties with connections with old India, who thought of themselves as progressive or linked to social justice in some way, have been turfed out. AAP, a party which came into its own in the post-2014 world, after the Congress-era had waned fully, is the only one tasting success. AAP having as many Chief Ministers as the Grand Old Party, and parties such as the SP and others unable to mount an electoral challenge to the BJP, signals a blow to the whole universe of how politics was done before 2014, at least for the moment.
When this winter, the absence of a caste census was a serious issue with smaller Other Backward Classes and several prominent leaders leaving the BJP and joining the SP, there was hope that there could be a burgeoning social justice and welfare model, akin to the Dravidian model. A BSP unwilling to fight appeared to be a positive. But as results have come in, it is clear that merely trying to use another social faultline as a counter to the Hindutva faultline will not work at a time when so much political, institutional and monetary power is concentrated in Hindutva. It would need much more in the mix to mount the challenge. To think of a resurgent ‘post-Mandal’ to take on Hindutva would be foolhardy. U.P. is miles away from a Dravidian model.
Mounting a challenge
It is not clear if the challenge to the dominant narrative can be met with just electoral tactics. If anything, these elections have proved that to counter the idea of Hindu nationalism or ensure that voters are enthused by harmony, or even a 21st century version of Indian nationalism, would need much more than smart electioneering or tactical plays. For the moment, these verdicts have provided the justification of the ‘popular will’ that the ruling party in Delhi needs to implement policies which it may have hesitated to until now — for example, to bring back the farm laws or push more aggressively towards a Hindu Rashtra, by law.
Seema Chishti is a journalist-writer based in New Delhi
- In Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party (SP), up from its meagre seats in 2017, led a robust campaign and enthused those who saw the election to believe that it had the momentum
- The decimation of the informal economy in U.P. has consequences that hurt the poorest
- When this winter, the absence of a caste census was a serious issue with smaller Other Backward Classes and several prominent leaders leaving the BJP and joining the SP, there was hope that there could be a burgeoning social justice and welfare model, akin to the Dravidian model