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How BJP won hearts & minds in UP
As perception of cronyism, nepotism and misgovernance about the SP and the BSP remained intact during the poll campaign, the BJP, being absent from power in UP for long, filled in the vacuum. Moreover, Modi’s image as selfless politician, an effective administrator and a great nationalist, who is committed to sabka saath, sabka vikas, was unmatched by the SP whose politics was discredited as “minority appeasement”
Commentators and observers completely failed to predict the result of the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections. By contrast, by the time of the fourth round, ordinary people knew that there was a wave of support for the BJP. It is now clear that the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi enjoyed greater credibility in the eyes of the UP voters.
The BJP was pitted against parties and individuals who were either discredited or were just seen as unconvincing. Corruption, Bhai-Bhatijawad (cronyism), lack of development, and misgovernance were common perceptions about both the preceding SP and BSP Governments. Mayawati is regarded as an effective administrator, but her lack of personal probity (the sale of party tickets), and the stories about her brothers and relatives making money were matched only by the even more flagrant corruption and cronyism of the SP Government and the Yadav family. This is contrasted with Narendra Modi’s “selfless” image of someone who has renounced all family ties. Perceptions are relative, of course: pitted against Nitish Kumar or Arvind Kejriwal, Modi’s probity and selflessness doesn’t create similar popular approval. But voters are very capable of making comparative judgements. The stigma of protecting and promoting criminals is particularly severe against the SP. The delay and dithering in dismissing and arresting then minister Gayatri Prajapati dented Akhilesh’s efforts to distance himself from his party’s past reputation.
People see Modi as an effective administrator and a great nationalist. Demonetisation and surgical strikes are viewed as proof of his courage, boldness, and patriotism. They accept demonetisation as a necessary evil (much like surgical strikes) to rid society of the ills of black money, corruption, and terrorism. Problems are attributed to the inefficiency and corruption of some bank employees and at worst a bitter pill for the greater good (an analogy made by one villager). Noisy opposition to demonetisation from politicians of various hues only created sympathy for “honest Modi”. Modi’s foreign policy is another feather in his cap, with people believing that he has cornered Pakistan and China and raised India’s prestige in the global arena.
Our research in eastern UP revealed interesting popular discourses about caste and religion. Caste is accepted as a social reality, but it is also viewed as “divisive”. People expect politicians to rise above it. Modi, belonging to the OBC category, is seen as having transcended the narrow boundaries of caste, whereas both the SP and the BSP are seen not merely as caste-based parties but as dominated by one or two castes (SP by Yadavs and BSP by Jatavs/Chamars). BJP’s attempt to reach out to non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav/Chamar SCs expanded their social base and it also promoted their image as a party with support cutting across castes and in many ways as an “inclusive force” (sabka saath, sabka vikas). The alliance with caste-based outfits of the Kurmis and Rajbhars consolidated their support among these communities.
As against caste, religion is seen as a binding force by the majority of Hindus, and has no negative connotations. In fact, secularism has become discredited as “minority appeasement” and there were people who talked about sops — “undue preference” — given to Muslims in the form of Government-sponsored schemes (while Yadavs were seen as having cornered the much more valued Government jobs). Modi’s religiosity is not only appreciated by the devout, especially forward castes, but it is also seen as a fitting rejoinder to minority appeasement of the “secular parties”. The BJP’s stance on the need for a uniform civil code and the triple talaq is thought to be “courageous” by many. Mayawati’s open (and cynical) appeal to Muslims to vote for her party by allotting nearly 100 seats to the community only made the BJP’s work easier. People, especially in villages/localities with mixed populations, supported the BJP leadership’s allegations about the differential treatment of “Kabristan-Shamshan” (graveyards and cremation grounds) as constituting minority appeasement on the part of the SP Government.
The BJP’s massive and aggressive propaganda machine was very effective in winning the perception war. For weeks before polling, the front page of the Dainik Jagaran, a Hindi daily with the highest circulation in UP, was awash with catchy slogans and promises. The promise of a loan waiver for farmers had great appeal among the large farming community in the State. Some of the other promises with which people were bombarded daily included Rs 5,000 for every girl child born in poor families, no age bar for widow pensions which will be Rs 1,000, all students scoring about 50 per cent to get free education till graduation, up to Rs 6 lakh loans for building permanent houses and toilets, BPL citizens to get Rs 2 lakh life cover, 24x7 electricity in all houses, laptops without any bias with free 1 GB data per month, FIRs for all citizens to be filed without caste bias, a task force in every district to tackle different mafias, and above all, the BJP had a highly appealing motto: Na goonda raj, na bhrashtachar (no mafias, no corruption).
This slogan and many of the policies were aimed at reminding people of the biases and shortcomings of the SP and BSP Governments. The Ujwala Yojana, under which many village poor have received free LPG connections and stoves, is seen as proof of the Modi Government’s sincerity and political will. The relatively better record of the earlier BJP Government led by Kalyan Singh in terms of law and order and corruption helped the party’s claims in this regard. Meanwhile, the infighting within the Yadav family undermined voters trust in the SP. One strong SP supporter admitted that the party was deeply divided.
However, more than local issues, the BJP under Modi was able to fight the election on a nationalist agenda. Local leaders like Akhilesh and Mayawati could not match him on that big canvas. The massive blitzkrieg-style campaigning, in which the top and second-rung BJP leadership visited almost every constituency and forcefully put across the party’s policies, was something the SP-Congress combine and the BSP could not match. It worked because people wanted change and the BJP, absent from power in UP for over a decade, seemed like an attractive alternative. Many young voters were keen to give the party a chance. One voter, a Yadav in Shikohabad, aptly summarised, “BJP ka to plus hi hona hai. No one is angry with them. No one has seen them for long, so they are not sure. This will help the BJP.” Some students of Gorakhpur University remarked, “We have seen the other parties, the BJP should also get a chance.”
(Prof Sanjay K Pandey teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Shashank Chaturvedi teaches at Indraprastha College for Women, Delhi University, and Prof David N Gellner teaches at the University of Oxford. The comments in this article are based on a study on Politics in Eastern UP, which is part of a larger project on “Democratic Cultures in South Asia”. The writers reproduce (but do not necessarily endorse) the opinions/observations of those whom they met and interviewed)
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