It is unfortunate, but customary, for politicians to turn into rabble-rousers when the poll heat rises. They make divisive and politically incorrect statements to pander to voter insecurities with an eye at polarisation. But no one does it as brazenly as UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.
Not known to care about decorum in public speaking, Adityanath, during an interview to a TV channel on 8 January, said that the upcoming UP election was a fight between 80 per cent and 20 per cent, slyly implying that it was a fight between 80 per cent Hindu majority and 20 per cent Muslim minority of the state.
While opposition parties were quick to condemn the statements, surprisingly, neither the Allahabad High Court nor the Election Commission of India took suo moto cognisance of the communal barb presumably aimed at Samajwadi Party (SP), which enjoys the backing of Muslim voters in the state.
The Model Code of Conduct laid down by the Election Commission says, “No party or candidate shall include in any activity which may aggravate existing differences or create mutual hatred or cause tension between different castes and communities, religious or linguistic.” Apart from being in violation of the Code of Conduct, Yogi’s communal innuendo marked a political shift from the main thrust of the high-profile campaign Prime Minister Narendra Modi had been carrying on for the previous month-and-a-half.
Sensing a steady erosion in BJP’s support base in comparison to 2017, when it won 324 seats in the 403-seat Vidhan Sabha, Modi launched a campaign blitzkrieg in the state, making more than a dozen visits within a short span of 12 weeks. Modi used his visits to mostly lay foundation stones for large-scale infrastructure and other developmental projects and addressing public rallies.
The media too went overboard in covering Modi’s visits streaming live visuals of the Prime Minister for hours and hours. The high-pitched campaign did not go in vain. It did however bring about a palpable change in the mood among some urban voters, especially among the urban poor, who have benefited from the government’s free foodgrain scheme. Quite like 2017, in 2022, the BJP tried to shape its campaign around Modi’s charisma.
Modi’s developmental populism now stands reversed
All the pomp and show around the announcement of big-ticket projects and schemes was an attempt to hide the truth. Out of the 50-60 projects announced by Modi pompously, many had been pending for the last five years. Not a single rupee flowed from the Centre, or was allocated in the last five state budgets, for any of these projects. Many were, in fact, announced without any time schedule and many were repackaged abandoned projects.
Though Modi’s emotive rhetoric at the inauguration of Kashi Vishwanath Corridor project tried to pander to Hindu religiosity, unlike Yogi, Modi carefully avoided brazen majoritarianism.
The BJP decided to make development the main plank in a state that had for years been denied basic infrastructure and employment opportunities. Modi’s desperate campaign, laden with project announcements, however, was nothing but a show of post-truth ‘developmentalism’.
Though Modi appeared to be salvaging some of party’s lost ground using his own popularity, the defection wave followed soon and disrupted the rhetorical binge of developmental populism.
Ironically enough, even as Yogi Adityanath was busy trying to attempt Hindu-Muslim polarisation, a different kind of polarisation surfaced to haunt him—a polarisation stemming from the alienation of sections of non-Yadav OBCs and even Brahmins from the party. On January 10, veteran leader Swami Prasad Maurya along with three MLAs left the BJP, hinting at a serious dent in BJP’s Maurya votebank.
An OBC source close to Swami Prasad Maurya, who did not want to be named, told The Federal, “Maurya had to leave the BSP to join BJP because his voice was not being heard in Behenji’s party. But we had warned him not to join the BJP. Since last year, Maurya had been mulling on the prospect of leaving the BJP. At least 10 more MLAs, and a couple of ministers, may follow him. Whether they will join SP formally or form their own outfit remains to be seen. This will seriously impact at least 4 per cent of the total 7 per cent of the Maurya, Kushwaha, Saikya and Saini votes in Purvanchal, which is a big number as this tilt may damage the prospects of BJP forming government in UP.”
It is in the wake of these defections that Yogi attempted to do what he does best—play the communal card. Just that this time he is finding it hard to find any takers for it.
Rajjan Kol, panchayat pradhan of Sehuda village in Prayagraj, told The Federal, “This time the communal card did not have any impact as issues of livelihood have taken precedence. Price rise, unemployment and the breakdown of law and order in the state are the main issues today. Even the Haridwar Dharma Sansad failed to attract the Hindus.”
A month earlier in December 2021, some Brahmin MLAs too deserted the BJP reflecting Brahmin alienation. Ramnaresh, who belongs to Brahmins-concentrated Kanahiya Durlapur village of Pratapgarh, told The Federal, “A large section of poor Brahmins feel they have no place in the BJP and nearly 50 per cent may vote for the SP. It is up to Akhilesh Yadav to make them feel secure in his party. Small farmers are also angry with Yogi because of the destruction of their crops by stray cattle.”
Among other things, elections are also a battle of perceptions. And so waves of desertions seriously dented the BJP’s winning proposition. The dominant image that emerged within a couple of days is that of a sinking ship from which many are escaping. Yogi’s ‘80 per cent’ appear to be locked in internal wars. Predicting precise numbers is always hazardous in poll analysis, but it can be safely said that the recent turn of events has strengthened the odds against BJP in about 80-100 constituencies.
Tottering social coalition of 2017
That some influential BJP MLAs from the Brahmin community such as Vinay Shankar Tiwari, Kushal Tiwari, and Ganesh Shankar Pandey, also deserted the BJP in December 2021 shows the scale of the challenge facing the BJP. Considering that BJP’s historic victory in 2017 was scripted by rallying non-Yadav OBCs around an upper caste consolidation, the shift of Brahmins and major non-Yadav OBCs and MBCs such as Mauryas and Rajbhars has again raised questions not just on the number by which the BJP’s 2017 tally would come down, but about the BJP’s chance of even coming close to a comfortable majority.
Sabiha Mohani, former president of Allahabad unit of SP and one of the prominent leaders of the anti-CAA-NRC movement in Roshan Bagh of the district, told The Federal, “There is a 70 per cent chance of SP forming government in UP as of now, as there is a sizeable shift in OBC votes. Non-Jatav Dalits may also vote for SP in a big way this time. The only way BJP is trying to undercut the huge popularity of Akhilesh is to use Covid restrictions and ban rallies as well as saying old people will vote from their homes. Why don’t they just postpone the elections if Covid is posing such a huge risk?”
In fact, the original upper castes plus non-Yadav OBCs consolidation itself was an uneasy coalition. And the high-handed manner in which a haughty Adityanath ran the government made the marriage unsustainable. Moreover, upper caste unity between the three major caste groups of Brahmins, Rajputs and Banias with Bhumihars and Kayasthas thrown in is a highly unstable proposition even in normal times as they are at loggerheads with each other in almost all institutions of power.
It can hold together for a while only insofar as the perceived ‘Yadav-Muslim goondaism’ backed by institutional power remains alive. Else, lower OBCs can never become equal partners and hence they would be the ones to quickly fall by the wayside. The 2017 coalition is clearly coming apart.
BJP’s free fall would begin from western UP
An important recent defection has been the leaving of Meerapur BJP MLA Avtar Singh Bhadana in western UP. His walkout is reflective of the simmering anger of the farmers in the region. More significantly, Bhadana is a Gujjar, the second major OBC community in the region after Jats. Some local BJP leaders were trying to woo Gujjars and pit them against Jats but the common resentment shared by Gujjars with Jats over farm laws, Lakhimpur Kheri atrocity and, above all, Yogi’s brutal suppression of farmers’ at Ghaziabad border has obviously made these divisive tactics untenable.
Zaffar Bakht, a prominent civil society leader in UP, told The Federal, “The emerging prospects of a formidable Jats-Gujjar-Muslims unity, which would easily account for 50 per cent of the local electorate, would be decisive in about 40 to 50 constituencies in western UP. Western UP, with 14 districts, has 71 assembly seats and BJP’s record victory in 2017 was consolidated by winning 51 of these seats. This time around, BJP’s surprise defeat might well begin with the party losing 50-60 seats from this region. I can already see a wave like situation building up against the BJP here in Western UP.”
Political observers say that even a partial shift of Mauryas—also known as Kushwahas or Shakyas in different regions—Rajbhars and a section of Kurmis—also known as Patels (as can be seen from the recent defection of influential Kurmi MLAs Roshan Lal Verma, Madhuri Verma, Shivshankar Patel from BJP to SP and Lalji Verma from BSP to SP. Mukesh Verma, the BJP MLA from Shikohabad, who resigned today, is the latest in the list) can seriously dent BJP’s winning prospects in about 35 constituencies—including about two dozen seats in Gorakhpur, Basti, Varanasi, Azamgarh, Mirzapur and Prayagraj.
Demographically, they are also significant in about a dozen seats spread over Bundelkhand (especially, in Banda), western UP (Meerut and Badayun) and even in some pockets of central UP (Etawah and Auraiah). Though BJP is reportedly going strong in the Awadh region, Mauryas-Shakyas-Kushwahas have a sizable presence here too and can present a headache to the BJP candidates.
Clearly, a sharp bipolarity between BSP and SP is emerging. The SP now symbolises not just a whittled down M-Y (Muslim-Yadav) alliance as in 2017, when even sections of Yadavs and Muslims moved away from the SP, but a new convergence including some non-Yadav OBCs and sections of upper castes also around a near-total consolidated core of the M-Y combo as indicated by Congress leaders like Imran Masood and Masood Akhtar from Sahranpur joining SP.
In 2017, the BJP could get only 40 per cent of the total polled votes while the SP could manage only 28 per cent in alliance with Congress. Though the absence of Congress as an alliance partner could negatively impact SP’s vote share marginally, the emerging bipolarity and the new convergence can only increase the SP’s overall vote share.
Can the 12 per cent gap between BJP and SP witnessed in 2017 be bridged?
A six per cent swing of votes is normally a big thing in electoral politics. Addition of votes from other parties such as BSP and Congress would definitely help the SP but what is crucial for the SP to steal a march over the BJP is denting BJP’s own vote share. That has already started happening. If it progresses beyond six to seven per cent, a critical point can be crossed and the neck-to-neck fight might turn in favour of the SP.
BJP’s options are also limited. Modi’s ‘sop opera’ has already given way to a ‘soap opera’ of a serial tragedy of separations. The sob story for the BJP is bound to continue in the next couple of weeks.
Thanks to their authoritarian arrogance, they made the mistake of letting the lower rungs know that about 50 per cent of the sitting MLAs would not get tickets again to beat anti-incumbency. The BJP high-command asking the state unit to propose three or four alternative candidates to each constituency also did not help. It, instead, created an uncertainty in the minds of party leaders and made some enterprising ones look for greener pastures. The otherwise unassuming Akhilesh Yadav did a smart job of establishing behind-the-scene contacts and wooing the disgruntled elements. While Yogi tried in vain to achieve Hindu-Muslim polarisation to paper over the emerging cracks among Hindus with his 80:20 imagery, with a core consolidation of around 33 per cent of Yadav-Muslim voters behind him, Akhilesh has greater space for maneuverability to polarise sections within the 80 per cent.
The flood of desertions from the BJP might turn into a wave once the list of candidates is finalised. That is why a high-level meeting of BJP central leaders with Yogi and Keshav Prasad Maurya convened in Delhi on January 11 to finalise the list of candidates avoided taking up the task.
Even if there is no hung assembly and the BJP manages to get a wafer-thin majority, BJP’s real crisis would get precipitated only after the victory. Earlier whenever internal dissidence came to a head within the BJP against Yogi, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leaders and the central leaders of the BJP did troubleshooting with the single promise that all aspirations would be accommodated after elections are over.
All the accumulated anger of different aspirational castes would explode and the remaining factional leaders inside the BJP would be out daggers drawn against Yogi. Yogi still has powerful detractors including Keshav Prasad Maurya. The real crisis for the BJP would start if it romps home with a thin majority and it might prove to be a pyrrhic victory.
(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal).
(The author is a senior journalist based in Allahabad).