The formidable election machinery of the BJP has begun to roll once again, this time in India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh. With elections to the state assembly barely seven months away, Prime Minister Narendra Modi set the ball rolling by sounding the poll bugle on July 15. He unleashed a breathtaking 280 projects, worth ₹1500 crore, on his parliamentary constituency of Varanasi.
Modi declared open a convention centre built with Japanese aid, 3 km from Kashi Vishwanath Temple which shares a wall with Gyanvapi Mosque. The centre, shaped like a ‘Shivaling,’ is named ‘Rudraksh,’ the seed used as prayer bead by the faithful. It also connotes the Vedic name of Lord Shiva, the presiding deity of the town. When in Varanasi, Modi greets his audiences chanting ‘Har Har Mahadev.’
The significant aspect of the PM’s visit wasn’t the announcement of numerous development projects but his unabashed praise of State Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath for his ‘stellar’ performance in handling the second wave of the deadly Coronavirus. Setting the tone for an assembly contest, which, in many ways, is the jumping board for his own return in 2024 parliamentary elections, the Prime Minister said Yogi’s management of the crisis was ‘unparalleled.’
In the third week of April, as the virus continued to set new records, the health system collapsed in Uttar Pradesh. Hospitals ran out of beds, and there was acute shortage of Oxygen as supplies simply could not keep pace with the surging demand. This resulted in deaths of several patients. Distraught relatives cremated their loved ones on roadside pavements as cremation centres began to fill up. The new COVID-19 cases surpassed Brazil and India became the second worst-hit country in the world.
There were heart-wrenching reports of attendants of patients crying outside the hospitals, complaining that they had been told to commandeer their own oxygen cylinders. Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, his deputy and several high ranking officers were in home quarantine recuperating as they too had contracted the disease.
All this seems to have been conveniently forgotten. While public memory is considered short, that of the ruling class has proven to be even more limited. Immediately after PM’s endorsement of Yogi, a number of BJP leaders promptly took to social media and television debates on Thursday to announce that Yogi’s handling of the crisis was the best. They claimed that from World Health Organisation to Mumbai High Court there was wide appreciation of the “UP model” of managing the pandemic. Earlier the state government had issued a statement proclaiming this.
Since the Modi-led government came to power in 2014, high voltage election campaigns have become a regular feature. The campaign drums of the ruling party have never ceased to sound all these seven years, in fact, the cacophony has only been on the rise. Worryingly, the pace of electioneering is refusing to slowdown despite a pandemic.
The surge of second wave in the north was attributed to Kumbh Mela, a festival that attracted three million devotees who gathered cheek-by-jowl on the shores of Ganges to take a dip in the holy waters. The event was described as ‘super spreader’ by experts as pilgrims, tourists and sadhus returned to their homes carrying the virus. Both the State and the Central governments ignored calls for cancelling the festival. Alongside in the neighbouring West Bengal, campaign for elections to its state assembly progressed without interruption. The Election Commission did announce Covid-19 appropriate protocols, but it was observed more in violation.
With the third wave knocking at the doors, what is happening now has an eerie resemblance to the events that occurred before the onslaught of the second wave. If there was Kumbh then it is Kanwariya march now; if there was election in West Bengal then, it is in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat now. If personal prestige of Modi and his deputy Amit Shah were on line then, UP elections have much higher stakes now. The party had a stellar performance in 2014 and 2019 parliamentary elections in UP as it won 71 and 62 seats respectively of a total 80 seats. In the 2017 UP assembly elections, the party created a record of sorts bagging 302 seats in a house of 403. The BJP desires to repeat the feat in 2022.
To achieve that singular objective the party seems to have decided to whitewash the recent setbacks it suffered. Briefly there were murmurs of protests within the BJP over the mishandling of Covid-19 situation. Modi had to rush one of his most trusted officer-turned-politician to Varanasi to take charge of pandemic relief work. Within weeks of his arrival the aide dramatically announced reversal of the infections. Meanwhile, Yogi Adiyanath stood his ground and denied any medical shortages or mismanagement. But once the crisis abated he was quickly summoned to Delhi for a confabulation with the big two. RSS cadres were summoned to take positions in the state and BJP begun to look for newer allies in the state.
A cabinet reshuffle at the Centre brought in huge representation for state politicians. Caste equations were kept in mind and socially backward communities were given prominent positions in the Union Cabinet. In fact the entire character of the Cabinet is now changed to send across a broader message that far from being a Baniya-Brahmin dominated outfit, BJP is now a party of backwards and socially marginalised groups.
While several state governments backlogged the data representing Covid-19 deaths, Uttar Pradesh so far has made no such efforts. Independent expert studies have estimated a much higher level of deaths caused by the pandemic. An investigative report carried out by the website Article 14 examined 24 most affected districts (out of a total 75) in UP. The study revealed that “during the no-pandemic period between July 1 2019 and March 31 2020, these 24 districts registered around 1,78,000 deaths. Over the same period in 2020-2021, deaths increased by 110% to 3,75,000, an excess of 197,000.”
The report also said that, “the number of people who died in 24 districts over nine months to March 31 2021 was, cumulatively, 43 times higher than the total official Covid-19 death toll reported from these districts over this period.” Meanwhile, UP’s official Covid-19 death toll since the pandemic broke out till end of March 2021 stood at 4,537. Other independent reports too claimed a wide gap between reported official deaths and excess deaths. Images from the ground seem to reflect these claims. There were ghastly scenes of corpses either floating in the Ganges or buried in the sands along the banks. There were stories of deaths that went unacknowledged by the official data.
BJP has responded to these horrors by simply brushing aside the whole thing. The party spokespersons claimed that pushing corpses in the Ganges was a local cultural practice. This is true to some extent, but never in the past the locals have seen so many bodies floating in the waters in such a short time. The BJP officials claimed that the state has had the best record of managing the crisis. For instance, it had done the highest number of Covid-19 tests surpassing all others. The numbers, however, tell a different story. Between March 2020 and July 2021, Uttar Pradesh, with a population of 24 crores, had done 6.4 crore tests. In the same period, Kerala, with a population of 3.5 crores, had done 2.4 crore tests.
The BJP seems to have decided to go on the offensive as the best form of defence. In the 2017 assembly campaign, the party won UP handsomely, sweeping aside the doubts that were cast following the disastrous demonetisation a year before. In 2019 parliamentary polls, a powerful development narrative, a high-pitched nationalist campaign and subsidies in the form of direct transfer benefits came handy. Modi’s personal appeal and charisma swept the voters off their feet.
Compared to that the ground situation for the 2022 assembly elections is quite altered. The BJP regime has made Ram Mandir a reality, Varanasi and other towns may once again witness a spate of construction and developmental activities. But on the other hand the scars of the pandemic are unlikely to evaporate overnight. The long march of the migrant labourers caused by a knee-jerk lockdown in the first phase, high unemployment and inflation rates, a slowing economy, the death and destruction caused by the second wave, the vulnerabilities of the medical infrastructure are all there for everyone to see.
Whether the electorate in 2022 seeks a decisive change or chooses to move on terming these incidents as fatalistic inevitability is anybody’s guess. But what is clear is that the BJP, armed with its own narratives and altered realities, has decided to step on the gas and move ahead with a clear target in mind whereas the Opposition is still listless and disorganised.