With 312 seats for the BJP in the Uttar Pradesh assembly of 403, it is easy to argue that anybody picked to head the state by those MLAs has electoral, and therefore, public legitimacy. But that argument reveals more than it conceals, especially when the BJP fought the UP elections — as it did Bihar in 2015 — on only Narendra Modi’s name, without announcing a chief ministerial candidate. Fully cognisant of the state’s 80 Lok Sabha seats, and its importance for the 2019 parliamentary polls, the prime minister spent a lot of time and energy in his regional campaign, to the extent of spending three full days in Varanasi itself.
In the post-2014 scenario, the BJP had displayed an easy to predict pattern of selecting a CM after winning state elections. A virtual non-entity, a low-key pracharak, known to be close to Modi in his earlier days, belonging to a caste group neither dominant, nor significant in that particular state, was handpicked. So, you had M.L. Khattar in Haryana, who was not a Jat, Devendra Fadnavis in Maharashtra, who was not a Maratha, Raghubar Das in Jharkhand, who was not a tribal, all rumoured to run a “WhatsApp sarkar”, operated centrally through the BJP office in Delhi, where ministers were apparently instructed via WhatsApp on the course of action to take.
The selection of Yogi Adityanath, mahant of the Gorakhnath peeth, is a firm break in this three-year tradition. Adityanath has an independent political base and his speeches and actions are bound to have pleased the RSS, but were not run by it. A member of the dominant upper caste in UP, Adityanath’s selection is a clear interpretation of the mandate that Modi wants to give to the UP assembly polls. It is not what the people voted for — in any case, a speculative exercise when no one saw the extent of BJP’s win coming — but it is the interpretation of that result by the BJP’s high command that is significant.
To anyone who followed the early 1990s’ BJP in the heartland, that the campaign was run as “Hindutva Redux” was as clear as day. This time, an interesting twist to the usual “Hindutva plus development” campaign was given, where it metamorphosed into a “Hindutva as development” theme. All the things usually used to signal “development” — talk of welfare schemes, laptops, housing, jobs — were now directly connected with Hindutva. The supposed inability of people to access government schemes, laptops or scholarship money was linked to caste and religious identity. Even electricity, a huge plus of Akhilesh Yadav’s regime, was given a Hindu-Muslim colour, with Modi himself talking of power supply on Diwali and Ramzan. BJP President Amit Shah regularly spoke of one caste (read Yadavs) getting all the benefits during Akhilesh’s rule. As part of that campaign, the last roadshow that Amit Shah conducted was with Adityanath next to him, getting pride of place.
Essentially, the fine crafting of the Hindu as victim, unable to access resources, was at the heart of the campaign. This is not to say that all those who voted for the BJP only did so for this reason. There was significant anti-incumbency that the Samajwadi Party regime was unable to brush aside, for all its sophisticated campaigning and Akhilesh Yadav kissing his father and uncles goodbye. There were caste combinations and, as in every election, there were local factors. But the BJP knows the real winning card. In choosing three non-MLAs for the top three posts in UP, and especially the controversial mahant from Gorakhpur, the PM has moved away from the anonymous button-pushers picked for CM-ship so far. This reveals Modi’s choice of the person who most mirrors himself, as the vote was clearly sought in his name in all the stages of the campaign.
In India’s largest state, with two years left for the 2019 polls, this choice by Modi effectively answers the question raised about the BJP leadership being equivocal about those members of the cabinet speaking of “Ramzade vs haramzade”, urging people to “Go to Pakistan” or its MPs asking for selective contraception, “ghar wapasi”, and pointing to inter-community marriages as campaigns to convert Hindus.
There are strategic reasons why this would further other causes of the BJP in the state. With a record number of upper castes entering the assembly, this would be the best way to appease that base, and yet hope that Adityanath and his Hindu Yuva Vahini credentials “de-caste” him. Also, whatever may be the state of “development” in the region, with a sure guarantee of other things being on the front-burner, this decision clarifies that the Centre is one for keeping its flock together, and keeping the message “straight”. Also, UP’s proximity to Bihar and Nepal keeps this area in sync with other aspects in the heartland that have been niggling at the BJP.
Elections should be seen a vote for a spectrum of issues. But in the choice of chief ministers and priorities, parties clarify their vision and aims. In that context, this is a moment when the BJP has offered clarity, which one must be grateful for. A statistical assessment of the results adding the seat-wise votes of the SP, BSP and the Congress, in case of a Bihar-like Mahagathbandhan, indicates that the BJP would have got 90 seats and the mythical MGB 313. This is also a response to that possibility. It is an insurance against — after all the noise— not being able to offer laptops, schemes, or even shamshans and kabristans to all.
Speaking of the dead, post-2002, the-then Gujarat CM made a serious attempt at his reinvention as a “development” man. At the time, Adityanath’s organisation, the Hindu Yuva Vahini, made it clear that “UP would be the new Gujarat, and the start would be from Gorakhpur”. The need to not even reinvent is what is central to this choice for UP’s top job. That interpretation of the mandate, needs to worry us all.