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SP-powered Opposition reverses UP script

By, Lucknow
Jun 05, 2024 06:35 AM IST

By mid-March, euphoria for the new Ram Temple seemed to have evaporated

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was expected to do well in Uttar Pradesh this time, better than 2019 when it won 62 of the state’s 80 seats, and perhaps even better than 2014, when it won 71. After all, this was the state where it won successive assembly elections with clear majorities in 2014 and 2019. This was the state that is home to Narendra Modi’s constituency. And this was the state run by the strongman-monk Yogi Adityanath, spoken of in some circles as a possible successor to Modi himself.

SP chief Akhilesh Yadav. (AFP)
SP chief Akhilesh Yadav. (AFP)

But voters had other plans. The BJP won just 33 seats in the state (the larger National Democratic Alliance won 36). Worse still, from its perspective, the INDIA bloc won 43 seats, led by a resurgent Samajwadi Party (SP) that won 37. The Congress won six. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi won from Rae Bareli, SP chief Akhilesh Yadav from Kannauj, but Modi’s victory margin in Varanasi dipped from 479,505 votes in 2019 to 152,513, and Union minister Smriti Irani, who famously defeated Gandhi in 2019, lost to the Congress’s Kishori Lal Sharma in Amethi.

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In a post in Hindi on X, Akhilesh said: “Salute to the public, salute to the public opinion! The conscious people of Uttar Pradesh have once again shown a new path to the country and have awakened new hopes. This is a victory of saving the Constitution, democracy and reservation and ensuring social justice.”

He added: “We have received the views of the progressive people of UP in the form of votes. This is a victory of harmony, brotherhood and positive politics against the negative politics of division. This is a victory for the unity of INDIA bloc and PDA. My heartfelt thanks to everyone, my heartfelt thanks!”

The SP-Congress’s attempt to consolidate the Dalit, OBC (other backward class) and Muslim vote seems to have worked, and countered the BJP’s Hindutva-driven campaign pitch in the state where, just a few months ago, Prime Minister Modi oversaw the consecration of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya.

Back then, in January, the BJP looked invulnerable, the temple being the extra layer of glue to help it hold on to the Hindu vote it had successfully consolidated in the state, cutting across backward classes and even Scheduled Castes and Tribes. The Opposition seemed to be in disarray and Modi-Yogi’s double engine narrative, a reference to BJP governments both at the Centre and the state, dominated the political landscape.

This perception of the sweeping saffron dominance, however, started to peter out with the SP and the Congress sealing their alliance in late February. By mid-March, euphoria for the new Ram Temple seemed to have evaporated. And it was becoming evident that the elections, like many before in the state, would be fought on the lines of caste.

The BJP, no stranger to social engineering itself, strengthened its own caste base by forging an alliance with the Rashtriya Lok Dal, and strengthening ties with existing partners such as the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP), Nishad Party and the Apna Dal (S) .

Akhilesh bats well

The SP has previously been accused of focusing too much on its M-Y (Muslim and Yadav) base, to the detriment of other OBCs, one reason why the Mandal-era social justice party lost ground in the state, with other OBCs rallying behind the BJP.

This time, though, contesting on 62 seats – the Congress contested 17 and the Trinamool Congress, one – Akhilesh focused on a more equitable caste representation. In all, 31 tickets were given to OBC candidates, out of which only five were from the Yadav community. The party also fielded 18 Dalits, four Muslims and nine from the upper castes. Among the Yadav candidates, all were from the SP’s first family and included Akhilesh himself from Kannauj and his wife Dimple from Mainpuri.

The ticket distribution was in accordance with the party’s new political positioning of PDA (the Hindi acronym for backward, Dalit and minorities).

With candidates finalised, Akhilesh ensured he stuck to issues that were important to his PDA-base. The promise of a caste census emerged as one of his biggest campaign issues. He, along with Congress, successfully perpetuated the narrative that the BJP wanted 400-plus seats in order to change the Constitution and do away with reservation for the Dalits and the OBCs.

Both the SP and the Congress also continued to focus on issues that pointed to gaps in the BJP’s governance. Issues such as unemployment, paper leaks (in exams to government jobs), the angst over the Agniveer scheme for recruitment to the armed forces and price rise featured, along with emotive concerns related to caste.

In the state where politics of caste (Mandal) has, over the past few years, played second fiddle to the BJP’s politics of Hindutva (Kamandal), experts said, the emerging caste pitch was probably the ideal turf for the SP-led Opposition. It was strong enough to even counter the BSP’s role as a potential spoiler. As it turned out, the BSP won no seats, and ended up with only 9.39% of the vote, a clear sign that, in a state where around 22% of the population is Dalit, some of them had moved to the INDIA bloc.

Prashant Trivedi, associate professor at Giri Institute of Development Studies, said: “The electoral equations in UP have completed a full circle starting from 2014 to 2024. The Dalits and backward communities, which have been supporting the BJP since 2014, are no longer with the party. The BJP’s defeat in urban centres like Allahabad and narrowing of the victory margin in Lucknow, Varanasi and Kanpur indicates that a significant section of the upper caste and the middle class have also been alienated from the BJP.”

He added: “The question of Constitution and democracy has struck a chord with the voters, resulting in a significant shifts towards the INDIA bloc that was in a direct fight with the BJP on almost all the seats.”

As elections progressed, BJP struggled to set the narrative

By the time the first eight seats of west UP went to polls on April 19, the emergence of the possible Dalit and the larger OBC shift towards the SP-Congress alliance was evident. The BJP was also battling increasing Kshatriya upper caste discontent over ticket distribution and Union minister Parshottam Rupala’s controversial remarks against members of the Kshatriya community.

These rumblings gained pace by the second phase of polling on April 26. Soon after, experts said there was a clear shift in the BJP’s campaign strategy. The emphasis on “400 plus seats” was replaced by a stronger Hindutva pitch.

The BJP led by Modi initiated a strong attack on the Opposition, accusing it of promising reservation on religious lines, and igniting a polarising debate around the Ram Temple. The party also stressed on the track record of the Yogi Adityanath government, including its crackdown on crime.

In rally after rally, Modi and top BJP leaders invoked Yogi; some analysts said this was perhaps too late, and also a bit ironic, because the chief minister did not have much of a say in candidate selection other than in and around Gorakhpur, where the monastery he heads is based.

In hindsight, it is clear that the BJP was playing catch-up across the state. Focusing on Ayodhya and the Ram Temple, Modi visited the temple town again on May 5 before the third phase of polling on May 7. But the party lost Faizabad Lok Sabha constituency, under which Ayodhya falls, which went to polls in the fifth phase on May 20.

Experts said the BJP failed to gauge the real mood of voters and likely fell victim to multiple factors, ranging from fundamental flaws to an overambitious campaign pitch. In the state, where caste arithmetic continues to be relevant, the BJP failed to catch the caste alignment happening in favour of the SP-Congress.

“The BJP not only failed to gauge the mood, it also failed in fulfilling the promises made during the previous elections,” professor Sudhir Pawar of Lucknow University said.

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