How the BJP rewrote the rules of politics in UP - Hindustan Times
close_game
close_game

How the BJP rewrote the rules of politics in UP

Mar 12, 2022 08:23 AM IST

The party expanded its social base, pushed welfarism, and targeted the SP’s and Congress’s dynastic culture. The BJP’s rise, however, would not have been as striking without the presence of Modi as messenger-in-chief

If a week can be a long time in Indian politics, a decade is truly an eternity. Rewind to Uttar Pradesh (UP) 2012, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a mere 47 seats and barely 15% of the vote while the Samajwadi Party (SP) won a clear majority. Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi, then Gujarat chief minister (CM), didn’t even campaign in the polls in protest against the choice of Sanjay Joshi, his great rival from early Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) days, as the BJP’s key organiser for the polls. Now, as the BJP has hit a historic “chauka”, its fourth consecutive win in India’s most populous state, what explains the dramatic power shift?

Despite a governance deficit, the BJP was able to create a ‘pro-incumbency’ momentum because the Modi factor often overrides all else. The emotional connect that the PM has fostered, especially in UP, transcends a ‘normal’ voter-neta equation (AFP) PREMIUM
Despite a governance deficit, the BJP was able to create a ‘pro-incumbency’ momentum because the Modi factor often overrides all else. The emotional connect that the PM has fostered, especially in UP, transcends a ‘normal’ voter-neta equation (AFP)

If a week can be a long time in Indian politics, a decade is truly an eternity. Rewind to Uttar Pradesh (UP) 2012, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a mere 47 seats and barely 15% of the vote while the Samajwadi Party (SP) won a clear majority. Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi, then Gujarat chief minister (CM), didn’t even campaign in the polls in protest against the choice of Sanjay Joshi, his great rival from early Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) days, as the BJP’s key organiser for the polls. Now, as the BJP has hit a historic “chauka”, its fourth consecutive win in India’s most populous state, what explains the dramatic power shift?

The short answer is this is a “new” BJP operating in a “new” India: The party of Narendra Modi-Amit Shah has discarded the mask of gentle reasonableness of the LK Advani-AB Vajpayee era and become a relentless election machine that decimates rivals by the force of its ruthless methods. This is a political juggernaut that combines State power and media coercion to overwhelm and even invisibilise its hapless opponents into pale submission.

In the process, the BJP has rewritten the rules of Indian electoral politics, even pushing traditional notions of caste-based identity politics to the margins: Witness the near total collapse of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in UP. While flaunting the badge of Hindutva and pushing coarse anti-Muslim sentiment, the party has managed to widen its social base by nurturing a Hindutva-plus or Moditva constituency that goes beyond religious hatred and class antagonisms.

Central to this broadening of the BJP’s appeal is the targeted pro-poor “welfarism”, aimed at creating a vast pool of beneficiaries or “labharthis” of government programmes. It isn’t as if previous governments didn’t have a pro-poor outreach — the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, for example, is a successful pre-2014 arrangement — but the manner in which the BJP linked the delivery of public conveniences, be it a toilet, a gas cylinder, free ration or a house to political choice, makes it a genuine game changer. The remarkably high percentage of women vote the BJP has received suggests that “mahila [women]” and “yojana [schemes]” are a new “M-Y” factor that has uprooted the original “M-Y” (Muslim-Yadav) community-caste arithmetic.

But the rise of the BJP would not be as striking without the domineering presence of PM Modi as messenger-in-chief. After all, it isn’t as if the four BJP governments that have been re-elected provided wholesome governance. Yogi Adityanath, for example, might justifiably claim to have tightened UP’s law and order machinery with stricter policing, but does the glitzy “UP Shining” propaganda blitz mirror the reality of a state where millions are jobless? Manipur has had relative peace in the last five years, but the state’s per capita income is still among the lowest in India. Three CMs in one year in Uttarakhand is proof of the leadership deficit in the state. In Goa too, the Pramod Sawant government is perceived to have failed on a variety of fronts, from Covid-19 management to endemic corruption.

And yet, if the BJP is able to create a “pro-incumbency” momentum, it is because the Modi factor often overrides all else. The emotional connect that the PM has fostered, especially in his “karmabhoomi” of UP, transcends a normal voter-neta (leader) equation. Deep in the Hindi heartland, a woman voter laments how her husband died unattended during Covid-19 and her son is without a job, but affirms that she will still vote for the BJP because of “Modi-ji”. The almost irrational belief that “Modi hai to mumkin hai [anything is possible with Modi]” isn’t just a catchy slogan, but a symbol of a billion-plus aspirations. The well-marketed “pradhan sewak [servant]” and “karmayogi” image portrays the PM as an ascetic, almost cult-like figure, who is challenging a withered and corrupted ancien regime.

In a sense, the Opposition, too, has provided a Modi-led BJP with the perfect enemy. Then, be it an Akhilesh Yadav in UP or a Rahul Gandhi at the national level, they both represent a non-meritocratic, dynastic culture that smacks of entitlement. For an ever-expanding neo-middle class India, there is acute discomfort with this old order of political inheritors who cannot quite shed past baggage. It becomes easy for the BJP to target the SP for patronising political goondaism or the Congress for being elitist or attacking both for corruption and so-called Muslim appeasement because the charges have stuck in public imagination. When a rival party is seen to be parivar (family)-controlled, the BJP strikes a chord by effectively drawing a contrast in leadership evolution and organisational functioning.

This is why it is perhaps not entirely coincidental that the other big winner is Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). While straddling the anti-corruption platform, Kejriwal, too, challenged the established order in Punjab: A moth-eaten and factionalised Congress, on the one hand, and a feudal and corrupted family raj (rule) of the Akali Dal on the other. Like Modi, Kejriwal, too, symbolises the politics of hope and change, albeit without the massive resources available to the BJP leader. This is perhaps why the BJP fears a rising Kejriwal as a political opponent far more in the long-run than they would any other potential contender. If the last seven years have brought such tectonic changes in Indian politics, who knows what the next phase might usher in: Maybe Modi versus Kejriwal in 2029?

Post-script: Two weeks ago, in this column, I explained why the BJP was in pole position to win UP. Then I was criticised for jumping the gun by those who insisted that the state was witnessing a fiercely competitive fight. I hate to say I told you so, but the truth is, an election hawa can be gauged only when you step out of an echo chamber of like-minded voices.

Rajdeep Sardesai is senior journalist and author

The views expressed are personal

Unveiling 'Elections 2024: The Big Picture', a fresh segment in HT's talk show 'The Interview with Kumkum Chadha', where leaders across the political spectrum discuss the upcoming general elections. Watch Now!

Continue reading with HT Premium Subscription

Daily E Paper I Premium Articles I Brunch E Magazine I Daily Infographics
freemium
SHARE THIS ARTICLE ON
Share this article
  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
    author-default-90x90

    Rajdeep Sardesai is senior journalist, author and TV news presenter. His book 2014: The election that changed India is a national best seller that has been translated into half a dozen languages. He tweets as @sardesairajdeep

SHARE
Story Saved
Live Score
Saved Articles
Following
My Reads
Sign out
New Delhi 0C
Friday, February 23, 2024
Start 14 Days Free Trial Subscribe Now
Follow Us On