In UP polls, the BJP has a clear edge - Hindustan Times
close_game
close_game

In UP polls, the BJP has a clear edge

Feb 24, 2022 07:35 PM IST

The lack of Opposition options, astute social engineering, welfare outreach, tight media management and the enduring appeal of Hindutva are likely to help the BJP in the crucial state

In the narrow lane leading from the Hanuman Garhi temple to the Ram Janmabhoomi site in Uttar Pradesh (UP)’s Ayodhya, the shopkeepers are upset. Their shops will be demolished to widen the road as part of a renovation design. Who will you vote for, I ask them. “Vote toh BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] ko padega, without Modi-ji and Yogi-ji, there would be no Ram Temple. Aastha [faith] bhi important hai!” is the telling response.

Bharatiya Janata Party supporters during a public meeting of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Kaushambi, February 23 (ANI) PREMIUM
Bharatiya Janata Party supporters during a public meeting of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Kaushambi, February 23 (ANI)

In a village near Kanpur, farmers from the Kurmi community are complaining about rising diesel prices and the stray cattle menace, but indicate that their vote is with BJP. “Yogi-ji’s government is giving us free ration for months now,” is their reasoning. Not surprisingly, the ration packets carry pictures of chief minister (CM) Yogi Adityanath and Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi.

Switch to urban Lucknow where the city’s youth is hanging out on a food street. Many of them are troubled by the lack of jobs. So, who will they vote for? “I would like to give the Yogi government one more chance, at least women’s security is now better, and I can move around after 7 pm,” says a software engineer.

While crisscrossing the Awadh belt of central UP, the country’s most populous and politically influential state remains a puzzling bundle of contradictions.

This isn’t the turbulent 1990s where caste and community identity “wars” were fought with frenetic zeal. There is disquiet over the tough times during the pandemic, but anxiety hasn’t turned into anger. Except for western UP, the epicentre of the farmer agitation, which dramatically changed political equations in the region, the state seems to have settled into a more stable order.

So, what explains the paradox of a disenchanted voter, but relatively clear-cut electoral preferences?

First, the lack of options is stark. Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party, which only 15 years ago won a majority, appears to have disintegrated. Under Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the Congress has tried to lift itself from the mire, but decades of organisational sloth can’t be overcome by a few months of effort. That leaves the energetic Akhilesh Yadav. His attempts to recast the Samajwadi Party (SP) by striking strategic alliances with smaller caste-based parties are a recognition of the limits of the party’s original Muslim-Yadav base. However, he still has to live down the perception of leading a force that is identified with Yadav “bahubali” (strongmen) dominance.

Second, the BJP has invested heavily in astute social engineering over the past seven years. It has built a new power structure where non-Yadav Other Backward Classes (OBCs) have become the party’s engine. This has led to friction at the leadership level between the upper-caste elites and the more recent entrants, but it has also meant that the party has a much wider social base than its competitors.

Third, the flagship welfarist schemes of the Modi-Yogi “double engine” have created a pro-poor image that may enable the party to tide over price rise and creeping discontent against its MLAs. For example, the PM-Kisan launched in February 2019 assures farmers an income of 6,000 per year over three instalments. UP has the highest number of beneficiaries (25 million): It is this vast pool of beneficiaries of cash transfers and free rations that is at the heart of the BJP’s political outreach.

Fourth, the media is tightly controlled by the government’s bureaucratic machine so that no negative news can become a sustained prime time narrative, be it dead bodies floating in the Ganga during the Covid-19 second wave (2021), alleged ministerial corruption, the Hathras rape and murder case, or the Lakhimpur mowing down of protesting farmers by a VIP cavalcade. The occasional journalistic expose has been met with heavy-handed state action, including FIRs against journalists, creating an atmosphere of fear and foreboding.

But above all else, there is the lure of the Hindutva project, wherein UP, much like Gujarat in the Modi years, has become the centrepiece of a deepening religious polarisation. Yogi Adityanath’s controversial “80:20” remark is designed to shore up his image as a “protector” of “Hindu interests”. The CM has been a serial offender when it comes to brazenly appealing to one religious grouping while demonising another. But what is offensive to those who swear by the constitutional norms of non-discriminatory politics is cheered on by vast multitudes of supporters. They contrast Hindu assertiveness in the last five years with the so-called “appeasement” of Muslims in the previous regime. In fact, even the CM’s core appeal of being tough on law and order is viewed through the prism of anti-Muslim sentiment: ‘Muslim’ gangsters are seen as prime targets of Yogi’s “bulldozer” boast.

This doesn’t mean UP’s traditional caste fault-lines have disappeared or that local anti-incumbency isn’t a factor, one reason why the BJP faces a decline in its 2017 numbers. It is just that a majority in UP seems unwilling to break with the Modi-Yogi fixation. Women, in particular, remain a crucial demographic whose support may cut across the caste barrier. Just how long this cult-like fascination for the BJP’s “UP-Yogi” poll pitch lasts is uncertain. But for now, it seems that the Hindi heartland is still content to keep rocking in its Hindu cradle.

Post-script: In the power corridors of Lucknow, there is much speculation on whether a section of the BJP leadership would prefer a narrow victory to an overwhelming one. As per this theory, a downsized Yogi would suit specific political interests within the BJP’s established power structure. If only electoral politics were so easy to control.

Rajdeep Sardesai is a 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
OPEN APP
Saved Articles
Following
My Reads
Sign out
New Delhi 0C
Sunday, March 03, 2024
Start 14 Days Free Trial Subscribe Now
Follow Us On