As the interminable US presidential campaign enters its final hours, electioneering in Uttar Pradesh (UP) is just getting started. At the start of 2016, the mood inside the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regarding the party’s prospects for victory in the electorally pivotal state was somewhere between melancholy and morose. Indeed, BJP partisans were quickly readjusting the goalposts after suffering a humiliating defeat in the October-November 2015 Bihar election. Party talking points quietly shifted from optimism about seizing power in Lucknow after more than a decade in opposition to merely increasing its seat share. After claiming 71 of the state’s 80 parliamentary segments in May 2014, it is only reasonable that the BJP’s performance would decline from such unprecedented heights, one BJP member of Parliament privately mused.
What a difference a year makes. With around three months to go before polling begins, the mood in BJP circles is decidedly more upbeat. While the change in the party’s perceived fortunes has much to do with exogenous circumstances—the rising tensions with Pakistan and the civil war inside the Samajwadi Party (SP)—the party high command is also invigorated by its selling points, not least the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and strong (if not superficial) headline economic numbers. This time, the BJP is entering the battle guided not by a single poll strategy, but an approach with at least five layers.
The undisputed foundation of the BJP’s election pitch is nationalism. Here, the low-intensity conflict with Pakistan facilitates appeals to rally around the ruling party. On the eve of Dussehra, BJP state chief Keshav Prasad Maurya proclaimed, “This year will be special as there is a good feeling among the people about the strikes against Pakistan. It is the victory of good over evil.” More explicitly, Maurya remarked that Uttar Pradesh’s voters are “inspired by nationalist sentiment” and “looking to Prime Minister Modi” to lead them during these trying times.
The importance of context here cannot be overstated. When BJP president Amit Shah declared in the Bihar campaign that Pakistanis would be bursting crackers if the BJP lost the state, his statement was widely condemned as crass opportunism without pretext. A year later, #SurgicalStrikes offers pretext aplenty. The savvy channelling of the Pakistan conflict into UP electioneering was showcased by the posters plastered in Lucknow hailing Modi and Union home minister Rajnath Singh as the “avengers of Uri”.
While nationalism may have transitioned to the fore, it has not fully displaced Hindutva. Indeed, Union minister Mahesh Sharma’s mid-October jaunt to Ayodhya is a case in point. Sharma, to use his own words, was on a mission to inspect a site for a proposed “Ramayan” museum: “My visit to Ayodhya has nothing to do with UP assembly elections. I am visiting there as a tourism minister. It should not be linked to politics.”
Surely, the fact that Sharma is a member of Parliament from Gautam Budh Nagar and a top BJP leader had nothing to do with it. Of course, the SP government’s own opportunism—manifest by its decision to construct a “Ramlila” amusement park—gave Sharma an all-too-easy opening.
Despite Sharma’s apolitical assertions, his party colleagues were all too eager to contradict him. Another BJP member of Parliament and founder-president of the Bajrang Dal, the youth wing of the Vishva Hindu Parishad, Vinay Katiyar declared bluntly: “We should be trying to build a Ram temple. We won’t be happy with this lollipop.” For good measure, fellow Union minister Uma Bharti, one of the most prominent leaders of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, asserted that the disputed land in Ayodhya “will always belong to Lord Ram”. Even Sharma’s own speech barely concealed his true message: “Mann ban chuka hai, mahaul ban chuka hai. Ram Lalla ka adesh ho chuka hai” (we have made up our mind, the atmosphere is right, we have received Ram Lalla’s order).
The lesson the BJP learnt from the Bihar campaign was not that it erred in emphasizing Hindutva, but that: 1) its instruments were too blunt; and 2) the Prime Minister should not have directly engaged in majoritarian speechifying. In UP, targeted pro-Hindu rhetoric has replaced full-page newspaper ads featuring gau mata.
The third element is the Prime Minister’s enduring appeal. Whereas the BJP seemed paralysed by the lack of a chief ministerial face in UP mere months ago, it now endorses the prospect of Modi leading from the front. Indeed, Shah reportedly informed BJP workers months ago that Modi would be the chief rallying point of the campaign. This was a decision arguably shaped by three factors. The first is Modi’s continued popularity, as evidenced by his 81% favourability rating, according to the most recent Pew survey (this was marginally down from 87% in 2015). The second factor relates back to nationalism and the popular notion of supporting the country’s leader at a time of crisis. And the third is the BJP’s surfeit of leaders hailing from the state. Between Smriti Irani, Yogi Adityanath, Varun Gandhi, Uma Bharti, and Rajnath Singh—to name a handful of the most prominent faces—anointing any one first among equals could be a ready-made recipe for internal sabotage. Hence, it comes as little surprise that, just a few months after an opinion poll emerged touting Varun Gandhi as voters’ undisputed choice as the next chief minister, the young member of Parliament has been effectively marginalized. Riding the PM’s popularity to victory is not without risk—again, Bihar serves as a cautionary tale. But the PM is also a member of Parliament from Varanasi now, allowing him to continually remind voters that he is a true “UP-wala.”
But the decision to bank on the Modi brand has as much to do with a fourth factor: his association with a pro-development agenda. Under Modi, India’s economy appears to be trending in the right direction, if not at the swift pace Indians would like to see. The headline numbers the government is touting—near-8% growth, 4% inflation, shrinking fiscal and current account deficits, and record-high foreign investment flows—might explain why the Pew survey finds that 65% of respondents are satisfied with the direction of the country, while 80% say the state of the economy is good.
The Achilles heel of the current economic “revival”—generating gainful formal sector employment for ordinary Indians—is an obvious sore point, as demonstrated by successive agitations by the Jats in Haryana, Patels in Gujarat, and now Marathas in Maharashtra around the issue of reservations. But the sentiment the BJP is counting on for now is that people feel Modi is working hard to “get things done” and needs to be granted more time.
Finally, there are the inadequacies of the available alternatives. In recent weeks, the family feud within the ruling Samajwadi Party, which may have begun as a controlled burn, has spread like wildfire. While there may be popular sympathy for chief minister Akhilesh Yadav’s predicament, his party apparatus is badly divided among warring family factions. The Congress party’s campaign began with a bang—the hiring of poll strategist Prashant Kishor and the month-long padyatra of Congress scion Rahul Gandhi—but polls suggest it may end with a whimper. Unable to gain traction with voters, there are rumours that the Congress is seeking to construct a grand alliance akin to the mahagathbandhan erected in Bihar to stop the BJP.
Unsurprisingly then, the BJP is chiefly concerned about the threat posed by Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Although the BSP put up a dismal performance in the last general election—failing to win a single parliamentary seat—it could be a force to reckon with if it can create a new social coalition of Dalits and Muslims. Constructing this coalition, however, will not be easy. For one, research suggests that en masse voting by Muslims in Uttar Pradesh is, contrary to the conventional wisdom, quite uncommon. A study conducted by political scientist Madhavi Devasher during the 2012 assembly election revealed that only half of Muslim voters within a given constituency supported the same party, with the other half spreading their support across multiple parties. Second, there are real tensions between the two communities; indeed, an Indian Express analysis of 605 communal incidents in Uttar Pradesh in the 10 weeks following the May 2014 election found that one in nine involved Dalits and Muslims. And third, there is the possibility that an internally fractured SP manages to stitch together just enough coherence to stay together—albeit in an enfeebled state. Mayawati herself recognized this possibility when she warned: “If the candidate is from Akhilesh’s camp, Shivpal (Singh Yadav’s) supporters will try to defeat him. If the candidate is from Shivpal’s camp, Akhilesh’s supporters will try to defeat him. In this situation, the Muslim community should not waste its vote on the SP.”
The BJP strategy that is emerging—through circumstance as much as calculation—cannot be analysed using simple binaries: will the campaign be oriented towards vikas (development) or Hindutva? Will nationalism or majoritarianism be the wedge issue du jour?
It is clear that these are the wrong questions to ask. To be sure, the BJP’s five-layered cake is hardly foolproof, but it could represent the party’s best chance of swaying voters to its side in a state where its organizational foundations are wanting.
The stakes could not be higher, and the risks are—pardon the pun—already baked in.
Milan Vaishnav is a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of the forthcoming book, ‘When Crime Pays: Money And Muscle In Indian Politics’ (HarperCollins India, 2017).
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