The results of the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections mark a significant moment in Indian politics. Though there were elections to four other state assemblies, it is the Uttar Pradesh elections which have a major and immediate bearing on the direction of Indian politics.
Firstly, what the sweeping victory of the BJP in the biggest state of the country means in political terms, is that the right-wing offensive, which began with the Lok Sabha elections of May 2014, continues undiminished. The BJP victory was not surprising, but the scale of the success was unexpected. The BJP had polled an unprecedented 42.3 per cent of the vote in the Lok Sabha election, winning 71 out of the 80 seats in the state. Even if there was a four to five per cent swing away from the BJP, it would still have won a majority in the assembly. But what was unexpected was the BJP maintaining the momentum gained in 2014. There has been only a fractional drop from the percentage polled then.
Consolidation of the BJP’s political influence in the biggest and most populated state in India along with its big victory in Uttarakhand, and notwithstanding the setback for the Akali-BJP alliance in Punjab, have underlined the fact that there has been a basic shift in the political balance of forces since the Lok Sabha elections. The BJP has displaced the Congress as the largest national party, though it has not achieved the one-party dominance that the Congress had till the early 1970s.
There is widespread disappointment amongst the secular and democratic forces in the country at this stunning result. But what is required is to have a hard look at the various assumptions which led to expectations that the BJP would be defeated in the UP elections.
There was the facile assumption that all that is required to defeat the BJP is for the major secular parties to come together, like it happened in Bihar. That such an aggregation of all the non-BJP parties is not feasible everywhere has been underlined by the UP experience and the fiasco of the SP-Congress alliance. Just as it was unrealistic to have expected the SP and the BSP to come together since there are irreconcilable differences between various non-BJP parties. Alliances based on a common platform and policies are what can be striven for.
At a basic level, there has been a failure to understand the nature of the appeal that Narendra Modi had for the UP electorate. It is obvious that Modi indulged in communal rhetoric during the election campaign. The more blatant references to kabristan and shamshan and targeting of Muslims as beneficiaries of appeasement were all part of the Modi-Shah campaign. But this communal pitch was couched within a “nationalist” appeal which has influenced large parts of the UP electorate. The “nationalism” projected by the BJP-RSS combine was permeated by Hindutva communalism and national chauvinism but it nevertheless was able to rouse nationalist feelings amongst significant sections of the people cutting across caste lines. The secular opposition parties were unable to offer any counter-narrative to this nationalist offensive.
In Uttar Pradesh, there was no real alternative to counter the BJP’s communal-nationalism or Modi’s economic policies. Take, for instance, demonetisation, which for three months before the elections was a major issue that had a direct impact on the lives of the people. The worst affected in terms of loss of livelihoods, jobs, and incomes were the urban poor, unorganised workers, small farmers and agricultural workers. Modi was able to project demonetisation as a nationalist measure to flush out black money – which is mainly in the hands of the rich. There was no counter-narrative which was taken to the people or protests organised.
In Uttar Pradesh, both the major parties, the SP and the BSP, confined themselves to making statements and protests in Parliament. No popular mobilisation or mass protests were even attempted by these parties. This was in sharp contrast to how the Left parties mobilised people to protest this onslaught on the livelihoods of the people in states where they are strong, like in Kerala.
What is required is a clear cut alternative political and ideological platform to the BJP and the RSS. This requires both a political alternative to Hindutva communalism and an alternative policy platform to neo-liberal policies. Muscular Hindu nationalism has to be countered by a firm secular, anti-imperialist nationalism.
The victory in Uttar Pradesh will encourage the aggressive activities of the RSS and its outfits. The fusion of neo-liberalism and Hindutva will be cemented with more support from big business. This presages more attacks on secular values, freedom of expression and democratic rights. The growing authoritarianism, reinforced by electoral success, will have to be resisted and fought back through united movements in all spheres.
But this, by itself, is insufficient. There has to be an alternative economic, social and political programme which has to be based on a Left and democratic vision. Such a programme will be the springboard for mass mobilisation and people’s movements. That alone will throw up an effective political alternative to Modi and the BJP.