Outside the BJP’s ecosystem, there has been near unanimity that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to withdraw the three controversial farm laws was guided not by empathy for the protesting peasantry but by the fear of electoral reverses, particularly in poll-bound Uttar Pradesh. However, Modi’s belated effort at an electoral reconciliation with agitating farmers doesn’t seem to be paying off like his past political manoeuvres, at least, not just yet.
The longevity of BJP’s political dominance across UP is an accepted pre-requisite for the party’s return to power at the Centre for a third consecutive term in 2024. If Modi, the supposedly invincible gladiator in India’s electoral Colosseum armoured in an alloy of jingoistic nationalism and Hindutva, has been spooked enough to retreat on reforms he was hard-selling as essential national interest prescriptions, then clearly things aren’t going well for the BJP in UP. This impression also runs counter to chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s loud proclamations of guaranteed poll victory on the basis of his self-projected image as the state’s real ‘Vikas Purush’.
Two opinion surveys conducted by different private groupings had, in the days before Modi announced the withdrawal of the farm laws, projected a near 100-seat fall in the BJP’s bench-strength in the 403-member UP assembly. These surveys, one conducted by C-Voter-ABP News and another by Polstrat-Times Now (the ideological affiliations of both need no elaboration), project the BJP plummeting from the massive 312-seat victory of 2017 to anywhere between 213 and 245 seats in the polls due in February-March 2022.
These surveys predict the BJP’s return to power – a remarkable feat, if accomplished, in a state that hasn’t seen an incumbent government winning a second term since 1989 – in the mammoth UP assembly with a majority mark of 202 seats. However, the surveys also disprove the hitherto held perception that the BJP had no real electoral competition from its rivals. The surveys show Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party, which was reduced to just 47 seats in the 2017 polls, on a revival path with a projected win across 119 to 160 seats (the lower and upper limits of the two surveys). The SP has nearly finalised its pre-poll alliance with Jayant Chaudhary’s Rashtriya Lok Dal – a party fast regaining ground at the cost of the BJP in the peasant-dominated western UP districts that account for over four dozen assembly seats. If this upward trajectory of the SP and RLD’s poll prospects continues over the next three months, UP could well be headed for a cliff-hanger poll.
For Modi, Yogi and their BJP, there are clear reasons to be nervous about the poll outcome in UP. The farmers’ disaffection towards the saffron party that the community had voted for in huge numbers since 2014 has been clear and growing over the past year. Modi’s attempt at salving wounds he and his party inflicted on the protesting farmers with the controversial laws and subsequent brutalities – verbal, psychological and physical – hasn’t helped.
The farmers have refused to end their stir and shot off a terse letter to the Prime Minister listing six demands. Among these are demands for a statutory guarantee of minimum support price, withdrawal of the Electricity Amendment Bill, scrapping provision for penal action against farmers accused of stubble burning, withdrawal of cases registered in different states (mostly BJP-ruled) against agitating farmers and the construction of a memorial at Delhi’s Singhu border dedicated to the over 700 farmers who lost their lives during the ongoing agitation.
Evidently, the protesting peasantry that had, so far, met with an aggressive BJP machinery stubbornly refusing to give them any quarter, has realised that their electoral might can bring even Modi to heel. And now, they want to rub the humiliation in deeper. Despite the PM’s announcement, Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM) – the umbrella organisation of farmer unions spearheading the protests – went ahead with its Kisan mahapanchayat in Lucknow on November 22. And, on November 29, when the Parliament convenes for its winter session during which the Modi regime plans to formally scrap the three laws, the farmers have promised a Sansad Gherao to raise their six demands.
Sources in UP’s ruling BJP told The Federal that they fear Modi will find it difficult to meet several, if not all, of these demands. “Can Modi, who fiercely guards his image of a ‘strong’ leader immune to criticism and intimidation, allow his persona take a severe beating – even for electoral gains, so soon after being forced to backpedal on the farm laws,” asks a senior BJP minister in UP, requesting anonymity. The minister says, “Until now, what set Modi apart from his rivals was his image of an all-powerful leader who can’t be intimidated to change his politics or policies… After the withdrawal of farm laws, people on the streets are saying ‘Modi ghabra gaya’ (Modi got scared); this does not bode well for us when elections are just months away.”
Another UP BJP MLA The Federal spoke to said the party’s problems are being compounded by “motormouth leaders like (Unnao MP) Sakshi Maharaj” who have made public statements indicating that the farm laws may be brought back once the UP elections are over. “Our leaders are making such statements when there is already a widespread perception that the laws were withdrawn keeping the UP election in mind. How do you expect us to regain trust of the farmers? These statements make it easy for Samajwadi Party, RLD and the Congress to convince farmers that the withdrawal (of laws) is also an election jumla (rhetoric).”
Modi’s gambit of securing UP’s western flank, where politics is dominated by the farming community, against electoral reverses forced by angry peasants, appears to be a non-starter. But this isn’t the only problem before Modi – or Yogi.
The farmers also want immediate sacking of Union minister of state (home) Ajay Mishra, the BJP’s Lok Sabha MP from Kheri in Uttar Pradesh, whose son is accused of running over a group of peacefully agitating farmers and killing four of them in the October 3 incident. The demand for sacking Mishra, a Brahmin, couldn’t have come at a worse time for the BJP. UP’s Brahmins are believed to be upset over the dominance of Thakurs under Yogi.
Political commentators in UP and the BJP’s rivals believe that there is a clear undercurrent of anti-incumbency against the Adityanath government, which, coupled with the anger among farmers against the Modi-led Centre, is finally being harvested by the likes of SP’s Akhilesh Yadav, RLD’s Jayant Chaudhary and Congress’ Priyanka Gandhi Vadra to varying degrees of success. Though opinion polls have, so far been dismissive of the Congress, Vadra’s aggressive campaigning, litany of populist promises and relentless outreach to the state’s Dalits and Brahmins – both communities apparently moving away from the BJP for different reasons – has triggered some discussion over a possible surprise, albeit still limited, revival of the Grand Old Party in UP.
“Till about a year ago, it was largely felt that Yogi and the BJP were having a free run, despite poor governance and increasing law and order problems, because the opposition was non-existent. Things began changing in wake of three key issues – the farmer agitation, which affected entire western UP, the Hathras gang-rape that revived discussions over deteriorating law and order as well as atrocities on Dalits and the Covid second wave. Add to this the growing fissures in the caste-based coalition that the BJP had stitched together since 2014 by appeasing the non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav Dalits while firming its grasp over Brahmins, Thakurs and other forward castes. Now, with the exception of Mayawati’s BSP, all Opposition leaders have sprung into action while the BJP is battling its internal conflicts,” Lucknow-based political commentator Rajeev Ranjan Jha tells The Federal.
For the past few months now, the BJP’s ideological parent, the RSS, has been trying hard to reverse the impression in UP that Yogi – the saffron front’s Hindutva mascot in the state whose political ambitions purportedly rival those of Modi, the BJP’s national-level Hindu Hriday Samrat – is being hamstrung by the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo. Similarly, the RSS has also been trying, with limited success, to convince the headstrong Adityanath to be more accommodating of leaders from other castes – Brahmins and Dalits, in particular.
In the tradition of governments keeping their big-ticket populist ventures reserved for the last lap of their tenure, a slew of projects are now ready for announcements and inaugurations in UP. The recent heavily publicised inauguration of the Purvanchal Expressway, which would vastly improve connectivity in the otherwise infrastructure-shorn districts of eastern UP, for which Modi and Yogi were both present, was only one such event. Though the Expressway project was launched during Akhilesh Yadav’s chief ministerial tenure, the BJP has sought to appropriate all credit for the multi-crore project.
Lucknow-based veteran journalist Sharat Pradhan says the objective of the publicity blitzkrieg around the Expressway’s inauguration is clear – “consolidate the BJP’s electoral prospects in Purvanchal, the region home to Modi’s Lok Sabha constituency of Varanasi and Adityanath’s fiefdom of Gorakhpur, and reverse the growing disenchantment of voters with the BJP in this region.”
Jha explains that the 17 districts in Purvanchal contribute over 110 seats to the 403-member UP assembly, of which the BJP had swept over 70 constituencies in the 2017 polls. “There are major challenges for the BJP in this region now. The horrific images of dead bodies floating in the Ganga during the Covid second wave were from Purvanchal. People who lost their family members in the pandemic have neither forgotten these images nor forgiven BJP for insisting that Yogi handled the pandemic well. These districts have also traditionally had high rates of unemployment and aftermath of the Covid pandemic made the situation worse, which too has added to public anger,” Jha says. He adds that the eagerness of the BJP to woo Purvanchal also stems from the fact that Brahmins hold sway on the electoral outcome in a huge chunk of seats in the region.
“Brahmins have been slighted by Yogi’s systematic alienation of the community and increasing patronage to the Thakurs. The present impression is that Brahmins are weighing their options between the SP and the Congress but, at least in Purvanchal, they will vote en bloc against the BJP. If the Congress takes a calculated risk of fielding Priyanka from a constituency in Purvanchal, it may succeed in winning back Brahmins, who were a traditional Congress votebank. Congress gave UP most of its CMs from the community, such as ND Tiwari (the last Brahmin CM of UP in 1988-89) and Kamlapati Tripathi. If the Congress dilly-dallies, the Brahmins may switch in large numbers to the SP, which is also wooing them, but they are unlikely to stick with a Yogi-led BJP despite Hindutva and the Ram Mandir (in Ayodhya).”
UP Congress chief Ajay Kumar ‘Lallu’, while stridently insisting that the party “does not do politics of caste”, concedes that the “Brahmins, just like the Dalits, OBCs and tribals, have been persecuted under Yogi-raj”. Lallu declines to answer The Federal’s queries on whether Vadra will contest the upcoming assembly polls but insists that she is “leading our campaign and will revive the party in these elections.” The Congress, under Vadra, has made a slew of populist promises to the UP electorate over the past few months, each of which have been tailor-made to appeal to various segments – women, Dalits, youth, etc. Lallu says “Priyanka Gandhi wants to change UP’s politics by addressing issues that concern every individual and are not limited to the interests of one caste, community or religious group.”
While the Congress’ task is more daunting considering that its three-decade exile from power in the state has practically left the party with no loyal grassroots workforce, the SP-RLD combine, with a dedicated cadre, is hopeful of unseating the BJP. “The people know that only the SP can oust Yogi and the BJP. The BSP has surrendered to the BJP while the Congress is like a new party in the state, which is still rebuilding itself. The Congress may be making a lot of noise but people know that it lacks the political strength to give the BJP a real electoral challenge. Akhilesh and our other leaders have already been touring the state and they are receiving massive support as you can see from their rallies and public meetings. We are the ones fighting the BJP. Our alliance partner (RLD) is also the natural choice for voters in western UP,” says SP spokesperson Ghanshyam Tiwari.
Yogi and the BJP have been trying to thwart the SP’s bid to return to power by reminding voters of the ‘goonda raj’ and the hegemony of the Yadavs during the tenure of earlier Samajwadi government. Clear signs of communally divisive rhetoric – the BJP’s usual resort in any election – are also evident with Yogi and Amit Shah raking up the appeasement of Muslims by the SP and Congress as opposed to the ‘Ram Rajya’ offered by the BJP. Pradhan says that the BJP’s increasingly loud Hindutva pitch, which is expected to get even louder in the coming days, is a clear sign that the saffron party doesn’t believe that the publicity blitzkrieg by Modi and Yogi of the “unprecedented development in UP under BJP” or the “massive doles of free ration, subsidised electricity or LPG cylinders and financial security schemes offered by the state” are finding great resonance with the voters.
Modi, at the Centre, and Yogi in Lucknow, will need to do a lot more in the next three months to turn the tide in the BJP’s favour in UP. Will there be heavy doses of populism or an unabashed rhetoric of polarisation – or both?