UPward and forward
Understanding an election result as monumental as that of Uttar Pradesh is akin to unravelling a deep thriller plot. The why, when, where, how and what — this is what we have been told must be understood to reach to the bottom of a mystery. In the case of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s stunning win, the ‘where’ is obvious: Uttar Pradesh. And so is ‘what’ (an electoral landslide) and the when (it came to be known on March 11). It’s the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ that is enticing and which is continuing to occupy much media space more than a week after the verdict.
But first a greater appreciation of the ‘what’ is desirable because figures speak when words fail. This is the first time in 37 years that a single party has crossed the 300-seat mark in Uttar Pradesh. The last time it happened was in 1980, also the year Indira Gandhi and the Congress made a triumphant return to power in New Delhi following the collapse of the Janata Party experiment. It won 309 out of the 425 seats (Uttarakhand had then not been created) and VP Singh took over as Chief Minister, handpicked by Sanjay Gandhi. Three years before, when the Janata Party won the national election in the post-Emergency period, the Morarji Desai Government sacked the State’s Congress regime and Uttar Pradesh voted for the Janata Party, giving it 325 seats.
In both these cases, powerful emotive sentiments were at play and evident to all. There was an anti-Congress wave in 1977 and a pro-Indira tornado. Clear forces were in operation in 1991 as well, when Mandal and Mandir politics dominated, giving the BJP 211 seats. By contrast, the 2017 mandate was not driven by similar emotive issues, and yet the BJP ended up with more than 300 seats in a 403-member House. The question then is, not what happened, but how this happened and why.
There are two ways to approaching the solution. The first is to go deep into the strategy the party adopted to win over voters across the social spectrum. There is no doubt that the BJP’s strategists, led by party president Amit Shah, crafted an electoral plan that outsmarted rivals. The outreach to various caste groups was done through a careful SWOT analysis. This was especially the case with non-Yadav Other Backwards Classes and the Scheduled Castes. The upper castes were in any case with the BJP this time around, given the division in the Samajwadi Party, the marginalisation of the Congress and the non-winnability of the Bahujan Samaj Party.
The Prime Minister’s aggressive campaigning worked, and so did his unmatchable charisma. Micro-management down to booth levels by Amit Shah made a huge difference. On the other hand, the rivals got it wrong in equal measure. The Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance began and ended at the Rahul Gandhi-Akhilesh Yadav level; it was less evident at the grassroots. Besides, the Samajwadi Party was split down the middle, with two factions battling for individual supremacy more than to win the election. For the Bahujan Samaj Party, Mayawati’s strategy was to stitch a workable coalition between the Scheduled Castes, the upper castes (especially the Brahmins who had voted for her in large measure in the 2007 election) and the Muslims. The strategy flopped miserably. The Congress had, of course, outsourced its strategy to one Prashant Kishor, whose claim to fame was that he had successfully played a similar role in Nitish Kumar’s victory in Bihar months ago. His strategic approach ended up confusing not just the voters but also senior Congress leaders in the run-up to the election. They often didn’t have a clue as to what their party high command was up to.
The other way to understand the ‘how’ and ‘why’ is to shift focus from the ‘war rooms’ of parties to the mind of the electorate. What did the voters perceive? How did they see the existing situation? On what parameters did they analyse the claims and counter-claims of the contestants? Why did they trust the words of one leader and not the other? Why did they vote so decisively across the State in one common direction and refused to hedge their bets? In here are many half-hidden truths, some bitter truths, and a glimmer of the future as well.
Often the most complex problems have simple solutions but we fail to spot them because we are looking for some non-existent deeper ones. In Uttar Pradesh’s case too, analysts have been burning the midnight oil, figuring out how the BJP got a 300-plus mandate without a ‘wave’.
There is a wave that is seen and there is a wave which remains latent but is as powerful. The following is what the voters deliberated upon and acted accordingly: The first is about credibility. In 2014, Narendra Modi won the Lok Sabha Elections on hope. People believed him when he said that he would bring change. They didn’t believe the Congress because they had seen and experienced the disastrous last five years of the party-led UPA regime at the Centre. Besides, Modi’s appeal of trust was based on his widely appreciated performance as Gujarat’s Chief Minister.
In 2017, the vote was not so much for change (though that naturally was a factor given that for the last decade and a half, regional parties had ruled the State) but for an endorsement of the ‘change’ that the Modi-led regime had brought in the country. So, ‘performance plus fresh hope’ — one national and the other regional — became an unbeatable combination. Enough attention has not been paid by analysts to realise that various social welfare schemes of the Union Government did percolate down to the masses and the beneficiaries happened to be from all sectors of society, cutting across caste and religious divides. The direct benefit transfer scheme, the Jan Dhan account, subsidy for cooking gas, rural electrification, enhanced crop insurance scheme etc, impacted the lives of millions of people.
The positives were so powerful, in the public perception, that the electoral fallout of demonetisation was neutralised. Thousands of voters in Uttar Pradesh must have been hugely inconvenienced in the first three months of the demonetisation decision; they must have faced cash shortage in times of personal and farming needs; they would have stood in long queues before the banks to withdraw money that belonged to them, and even that money had been rationed by the authorities. Yet, they believed the Prime Minister when he told them it was for their good, in the larger national interest. The voters refused to believe Modi’s rivals when the latter said that the Prime Minister had betrayed their trust and helped moneybags with demonetisation.
The voters also believed in the Prime Minister’s version that Uttar Pradesh was lagging behind in development because the State regimes had not effectively performed, and that a same-party Government in the State and at the Centre would accelerate growth, provide employment, and firm up agriculture. They also lapped up his claim that successive regional regimes had promoted corruption and disruption of law and order machinery. It helped the BJP that the people had actually experienced these things. Everything falls into place where there is trust; minus trust, nothing sounds credible — not even if the content and the intent are noble.
The second matter which seized the voters’ mind in Uttar Pradesh had to do with the ground reality of caste and religious parity. Analysts seated in television studios and armchair journalists (and even some who were in the field and should have known better) ought to have picked the signals. They didn’t partly because they were not looking for them and partly because they were in denial mode. Take two instances. The ‘Yadavisation’ of the police force in Uttar Pradesh had been a reality; according to reports, a majority of police stations was helmed by officers from the Yadav community. A similar trend was witnessed at the middle and lower ranks of the bureaucracy as well. This had angered the non-Yadav OBCs and the upper castes as well.
The second had to do with minority appeasement. Modi’s comment about crematorium and burial grounds as well as about electricity during Eid and Diwali resonated because it was true to a large extent. The argument that he had exploited imagined fears does not hold because the massive mandate could not be had otherwise. The voters responded with vengeance. There was a huge polarisation of majority community votes, cutting across castes (with only the Yadavs perhaps, and to an extent the Jats in western Uttar Pradesh, holding out and opting for either the Samajwadi Party or others). It must be added though, that significant sections of the Jat community did, perhaps, join this broad pro-majority coalition. Remember, the shadows of the Muzaffarnagar riots still loomed large across the State’s western region and impacted the Jats’s voting pattern.
And this happened alongside the fragmentation of Muslim votes into the Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav camps. Interestingly, in more than 100 constituencies where the Muslims formed 20 per cent or more of the population, the BJP candidates won the contest. There is some evidence to suggest that even a section of the Yadavs and Muslims preferred the BJP in certain constituencies. The Samajwadi Party didn’t do too well in its strongholds, while many young Muslim women voted for the BJP, driven by the party’s stand in favour of abolishing triple talaq and polygamy. The BJP can continue to be criticised for not having fielded a single Muslim candidate, but the plan — even if unintended in the sense of deliberately shutting the doors on the minority community — worked. The majority community saw it as a sign of welcome non-appeasement. From an electoral viewpoint, the BJP left the field open for competing Muslim candidates to neutralise one another in the fight for the ballot and give advantage to itself.
The third thought which played in the voters’ mind had more to do with the sorry state of affairs within the Samajwadi Party. It confused the party’s supporters and delighted its rivals. Its non-Yadav and Muslim voters didn’t know which way to tilt their affection; there was the Shivpal Yadav camp and there was the Akhilesh Yadav camp. Old-timers sympathised with the former and the younger lot with the latter, and both knew that since a confluence was not possible, they toyed with the idea of switching over to Mayawati. The chaos resulted in votes being split. The direct beneficiary of the internal crisis in the Samajwadi Party was the BJP, and not the Bahujan Samaj Party.
The situation was further complicated when the Samajwadi Party decided to tie up with the Congress. Committed upper caste voters of the Congress dumped the party and went over to the BJP. Many non-Yadav OBCs, who held a grudge against the Congress for the latter having in the recent past backed the Samajwadi Party, too repeated the act. And many Muslims, who would have backed the Samajwadi Party, switched their loyalty because they abhorred the Congress — they hold the party as much responsible as the BJP for the demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya.
The fourth was the voters’ determination to not let Mayawati seize the advantage. With her 2007 rainbow coalition in tatters, she had no base to stake claim to majority support barring the Scheduled Castes. Mayawati had lost her committed vote base in 2014, with her party being completely wiped out from Uttar Pradesh in the general election, and was hoping to regain ground. She failed yet again, ending up with barely five per of the total seats in the Assembly. While she may have held on to her Jatav vote-bank, the non-Jatavs, as in 2014, voted against her party. The Muslims were a divided lot and so she gained little from them. The upper castes ditched her as well.
Is the marginalisation of these two caste-based parties in Uttar Pradesh a harbinger of change: From identity politics to the politics of development? If we take the 2014 and 2017 elections together, that seems to be the suggestion. Still, it’s too early to jump to a firm conclusion. At best, the verdicts can be considered as straws in the wind. Much will depend on how governance plays out in the State. If the BJP regime succeeds in providing an effective administration that does not differentiate between caste or community, that ensures that benefits flow to one and all, that keeps extreme rhetoric at bay and swiftly punishes the guilty, that unveils schemes and programmes targeting the most needy (especially among the minority and the Scheduled Castes), that which fixes law and order and corruption, and that which does not succumb to pressure from fundamentalist positions (upping the ante offensively over building the Ram temple or backtracking on triple talaq), it could trigger a real change. However, were the Government to assume the arrogance of numbers, it would not just fritter away the historic mandate but also take politics back to the old caste-and-religion template.
The BJP’s success in constructing a new paradigm in Uttar Pradesh will reflect on its prospects elsewhere too. Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh vote by this year-end; Karnataka and a clutch of northeastern States do so the following year. There are expectations that the party will do well in Gujarat — the question is will it better its 2012 performance of 119 seats out of 182, this time without Modi as its chief ministerial candidate? In Himachal Pradesh, the party has a real chance at seizing power from the Congress. But it is Karnataka that will test the BJP’s resolve. If it demonstrates inclusive development in Uttar Pradesh, the minority voters in Karnataka as well as those who have traditionally kept away from the party for ideological reasons, could re-think. Of the total 224 seats in the Assembly there, the BJP had managed just 40 in 2013. That was a bad phase for the party; it had been tormented by allegations of corruption against its senior leaders and had struggled with internal divide.
Today, the BJP has an opportunity, provided partly by the slipping levels of governance of the Congress Government led by Chief Minister Siddaramaiah. Caste and religion is strong in Karnataka too, and there is the Janata Dal (Secular) also, for the BJP to consider. Karnataka is the only major State left, besides Punjab now, with the Congress. If the BJP wrests it, the Congress could well become a regional party for all practical purposes. And a year after the Karnataka election, Rahul Gandhi and his team will have to face the Lok Sabha test. Riding on a Karnataka win and propelled by the earlier winds of success, the BJP will be unstoppable.
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