‘Thanda’ election: Notes from Hindi heartland - Hindustan Times
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‘Thanda’ election: Notes from Hindi heartland

May 19, 2024 12:18 AM IST

There is no clear wave in favour of any party, but the BJP’s organisational dominance may have undermined the challenge from the Opposition

Compared to the fervour and excitement of 2014 and 2019, this year’s election, according to most political pundits and the majority of ordinary voters we talked to, is thanda (cold, lacklustre, uninspiring). The sheer dominance of the BJP and the lack of any serious alternative is certainly part of the reason. Some unhappiness and grumbles on the part of the BJP’s core supporters have also dampened enthusiasm. The BJP’s deliberate changing of emphasis depending on the phase of the election also contributes to mixed messaging. In addition, the BJP may have peaked too soon with the consecration in Ayodhya happening in January. The BJP’s well-known organizational dominance has undermined the challenge from the opposition parties still further.

**EDS: IMAGE VIA PM MODI WEBSITE** Barabanki: BJP supporters during a public meeting addressed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for Lok Sabha elections, in Barabanki, Uttar Pradesh, Friday, May 17, 2024. (PTI Photo)(PTI05_17_2024_000071B)(PTI) PREMIUM
**EDS: IMAGE VIA PM MODI WEBSITE** Barabanki: BJP supporters during a public meeting addressed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for Lok Sabha elections, in Barabanki, Uttar Pradesh, Friday, May 17, 2024. (PTI Photo)(PTI05_17_2024_000071B)(PTI)

Political analysts, academics, and the media have all speculated as to why there seems to be a decline in voter turnout in the first few phases. Among multiple explanations offered are: increased voter registration, a lacklustre campaign on all sides, and the clear winner apparently being obvious in advance. Beyond all this, two further aspects of the 2024 Lok Sabha election in UP are noticeable: (1) the manner in which the BJP has achieved its unassailable position, which we may call the Gujarat model of election dominance; and (2), in the absence of any other overarching theme across the state, the salience of ‘law and order’ and therefore praise being heaped on ‘Yogi’, i.e. UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.

As always, the tempo of the BJP election campaign has been carefully planned and systematically orchestrated. The consecration of the statue of Lord Rama in the newly rebuilt temple in Ayodhya on 22nd January was evidently part of the plan and it did indeed lead to a crescendo of excitement. The three months of January, February, and March were, as one office-bearer of the BJP put it, ”the last trimester of gestation and thus crucial in terms of preparing the booth-level workers to get ready for the delivery”. Indeed, during these months it appeared that there was a clear ‘Modi wave’ emanating from the felicitous combination of religion (the Ram temple), economics (infrastructure building and welfare schemes), and politics (no credible alternative to Modi as PM). However, it seems that the peak was attained too soon and, by the time of actual voting, for supporters, opponents, and voters alike, excitement had been replaced with resignation and apathy.

In the first few phases of voting the BJP’s key task in the crucial battleground of western UP, with its sizeable Muslim population reaching in some constituencies as high as 40 to 50 percent, was to consolidate its core vote base. Due to the Hindu-Muslim faultline, inflamed locally since the riots of 2013, it appeared to be an easy task for the BJP to attain its goal. Furthermore, since Jayant Chowdhary’s Rashtriya Lok Dal party, strong in this region, had joined the BJP-led coalition, there was little to threaten BJP dominance, apart from the decision by certain Rajputs not to vote for the BJP in protest at its failure to give tickets to Gen. VK Singh and Sangeet Som.

Meanwhile, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath remains a strong positive point helping to consolidate the BJP vote. Even while probing voters on national issues and on Modi’s record, the respondent would frequently switch to Yogi’s contribution in maintaining law and order in the state. Indeed, Yogi Adityanath’s numerous speeches never fail to remind his listeners that riots, mafia, and petty crimes were prevalent under the previous SP government. He likewise continually reminds voters of how he has improved the security situation for women and how he has systematically eliminated mafias from the state. Yogi’s famous slogan of controlling both mosquitos and mafias in Gorakhpur is now back – at the state level. Yogi Adityanath is also in demand as a speaker outside UP and has campaigned in West Bengal and elsewhere.

Surprisingly, in the first two phases, as indicated in March by a respondent in Etawah (an SP stronghold), Muslim voters have been keeping quiet. Small meetings in Muslim mohallas were few and thinly spread. Mohd J, a respondent in Bulandshahar, stated in clear terms that the community’s zeal to vote together for one party has decreased this time. By the same token, the community’s ability and motivation to engineer the defeat of one particular party seems to have gone down. An SP office-bearer pointed out that Muslim voters had, so to speak, “tactically gone underground” so as not to attract undue attention and to avoid the risk of gifting propaganda opportunities to the BJP.

The failure of the INDIA bloc to reach some kind of workable consensus at the national level will probably have dire consequences for a crucial state like West Bengal. Against this backdrop, UP offered a glimmer of hope to the opposition in the shape of the SP-Congress alliance. However, without the BSP, which is now a shadow of its former self, all arithmetical calculations of social dynamics in the state indicate that the SP-Congress coalition is unlikely to get its desired results.

Crossing the state during the two pre-election months (February and March), the lull in the electorate’s enthusiasm was palpable. Some were of the view that there was no clear wave but still, there were multiple ripples in the form of angst against sitting MPs. We came across numbers of respondents who were frustrated with the BJP due to inflation, roving cattle menace, or wrong candidate selection. But when it came to casting their vote, most admitted that they would vote for the BJP regardless. On further probing, they underlined the weakness of the opposition and the consequent lack of any viable alternative. They also emphasized what the BJP has achieved, in terms of free rations, Ayodhya (the rebuilt Ram temple), and defence of the country by the removal of Article 370 of the Constitution (which had granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir).

Whatever speculation there may be around the low percentage voting turnout or the dwindling fortunes of PM Modi, on the ground the BJP is attempting the Gujaratisation of UP and indeed eventually of the whole of North India. By Gujaratisation we mean continually building their vote base through caste engineering and reducing the space for the opposition to operate in. It is striking how many opposition leaders at the booth and district levels have switched sides and joined the BJP. The BJP has succeeded in undermining the opposition, mainly the SP, almost everywhere in the state. Except in its pocket boroughs of Etawah, Mainpuri, and Kannauj, just a handful of constituencies, nowhere does the SP appear to be organisationally strong. This marks a clear shift from the situation even as recently as the 2022 assembly elections. A Hindi newspaper reported that around 11,000 party workers from SP, BSP, and Congress have joined the BJP in the last few months in the Gorakhpur region alone., In fact, five of the ten sitting BSP MPs in UP have joined the BJP in less than two months.

Almost everywhere across the state other parties’ cadres are leaving to join the BJP. The party has constituted a special cell with a ‘prabhari’ dedicated to the task of encouraging opposition leaders and their supporters to join the BJP. The BJP has particularly targeted ex-MLAs and MPs from the opposition who did not get a ticket or who are sidelined in their respective parties for whatever reason. As leaders with a specific caste identity, they command some local support. When they join the BJP, their supporters usually also take membership, which the party uses in order to try and demoralise the opposition. Ex-MLA Nathuni Prasad Kushwaha of SP, who gave a close fight to the BJP in Kushinagar in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, and in fact relegated RPN Singh to third position, has recently joined the BJP. Similarly, the 2019 Congress candidate for Gorakhpur joined the BJP on the day of nomination of local candidates in the presence of Yogi Adityanath. Many such joining ceremonies have taken place across UP in the last few months. In fact, this is the template the BJP has long adopted in states like Gujarat and has now extended to Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and UP.

As an organisation, the BJP faces the huge challenge, as it has in Gujarat, of building up the party and accommodating newly recruited opposition leaders, while simultaneously keeping their own workers happy. Inevitably there is some discontent among the BJP rank and file that newbies are getting a chance while longstanding supporters are expected to clap from the viewing gallery. As one such annoyed worker stated: in its attempt to make India ‘Congress-mukt’ (Congress-free), the BJP has become Congress-yukt (Congress-ised or tied to Congress). However, in reality, despite its weaker starting position, this organisational conundrum is hurting the SP more than it hurts the BJP.

In terms of vote percentage, in the 2022 assembly elections, the SP gained substantially in comparison to the 2019 Lok Sabha election three years earlier. The question is whether the party will be able to carry forward its 2022 gains to the 2024 Lok Sabha election. Is there any chance it can manage the caste equation and challenge the BJP’s strategy of total domination? Certainly, Akhilesh has tried to regain the SP’s former non-Yadav OBC voter base by distributing tickets to these castes in good numbers. However, in the process, as we observed in the field, he ended up annoying a number of local leaders from his own caste who had given their sweat and blood to the party for decades and were hopeful of getting tickets in this election. It is obvious they are feeling left out. In fact, the SP has rubbed salt in these disgruntled core supporters’ wounds by giving tickets to only five Yadav candidates in UP, all of them going to Akhilesh’s family members including himself, his wife, and his nephews.

The BJP, sensing the SP’s weakness, has strategically deployed its Yadav Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, who traces his family roots to UP and Bihar (Mohan Yadav’s family were ‘originally’ from Bihar and they later migrated to Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh and he has married into a Yadav family from Amethi district in UP). Mohan Yadav has become a poster boy for the BJP in UP and Bihar as the BJP seeks to lure Yadav votes away from the SP and RJD. This is a classic dilemma for the parties like the SP, Mayawati, and the RJD (Lalu’s party in Bihar). If they continue to serve the interests of their core caste- and religion-based vote bank they lose the majority of other communities who might vote for them. If they try to broaden their vote base, they end up disappointing their core constituency. In the 2022 assembly elections, the SP gave tickets to a good number of Muslim candidates. The BJP exploited this and immediately labelled the SP as anti-Hindu. Offering tickets to Muslims helped the SP to win a few more seats in western UP and in a few pockets of eastern UP, but they ended up losing the narrative in UP as a whole.

Congress, with an all-time low of 6% vote share in the 2022 assembly elections, is contesting just 17 seats in UP (another all-time low). It is fighting for its existence and identity. In a kind of psychological warfare, the BJP has deliberately spread the message that the SP and the Congress are having difficulty getting candidates willing to come forward and contest the election.

With voters and supporters of the opposition parties in UP realising that a win for their respective candidates is not the likely outcome, apathy has begun to set in. As one respondent summed it up: thanks to Yogi ji, the situation of Muslim and Yadav voters in UP is similar to that of Brahmins and Kshatriyas in Bihar and UP in the 1990s. They do not have any incentive to go out and vote as it will not lead to any gain for them. In the 1990s the decline of Congress and the rise of the SP, BSP, and RJD (Lalu), led to a huge mobilisation of non-upper caste voters voting aggressively for caste-based parties. In the face of this, the upper castes preferred not to come out of the comfort of their homes. According to this respondent, the situation has reversed since then. In fact, the numbers of upper castes and women coming out to vote started to go up again following the end of Lalu’s regime in Bihar and the rise of Nitish’s ‘good governance’ agenda.

Another respondent in Bulandshahar, during the second phase of voting, argued that Modi had brought up the issue of Hindu-Muslim conflict deliberately to counter the INDIA alliance attack on Modi’s slogan of ‘abki baar 400 paar’ (this time, let’s go beyond 400 seats), accusing him of seeking so many seats so that he would be able to change the constitution. It is certainly likely that the INDIA bloc’s charge of wanting to change the Constitution rattled Modi and that is why he went on the offensive. Another plausible explanation is that the BJP’s move was always planned as a strategy to ensure that it gets a higher vote share than last time.

Two challenges are troubling the BJP organisation in UP. First, voting turnout seems to be almost five percent down in the first two phases in UP, roughly translating into 8.9 lakhs fewer votes in little more than a dozen constituencies. This is alarming for a party that counts every single vote at every booth and always tries to do better at each and every election. Second, Modi’s clarion calls for ‘ab ki baar, 400 paar’ has backfired. The party was momentarily pushed onto the backfoot. However, with the subsequent phases, it is expected that the voting percentage will go up and the gap with the 2019 figures has in fact narrowed by the 4th phase. Faced with the highly plausible charge that the BJP was seeking such a huge majority in order to reduce or end reservations (which was highly effective against them in the Bihar state elections of 2015), the party has mobilized all available arsenals, including the longstanding Hindu-Muslim trope, to mitigate the crisis.

Shashank Chaturvedi is at Nirma, Ahmedabad; Sanjay Kumar Pandey is with Jawaharlal Nehru University; and David N. Gellner is with the University of Oxford. The views expressed are personal

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