How do you set an election agenda and take the lead in a state spread over 243,286 square kilometres with 403 constituencies, more than 1.4 lakh polling stations, and 20 crore plus people, including 14 crore voters divided on caste and religious lines? Ask Narendra Modi and Amit Shah.
Behind the stunning BJP win in Uttar Pradesh was a political strategy that the BJP president scripted and honed to perfection over 18 months. Weaving castes, communities and religious identity, he and his party set out on a campaign to capture the heartland state, relying chiefly on the weapons of Modi, Mandal and Kamandal.
Uttar Pradesh, Modi and Shah knew it was going to be a hard campaign. Much had changed since the 2014 Lok Sabha election when the party trounced the Opposition in the state to take 71 of the 80 seats. In the Assembly, the last time when the BJP secured a majority on its own was in 1991 at the height of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement when it won 221 seats in a House of 425 in undivided Uttar Pradesh. The last BJP government in the state, headed by Rajnath Singh, bowed out 15 years ago.
Lucknow continued to elude the party. Ram Mandir as an electoral issue was long gone. This was a state election, minus the 2014 anger against the Congress which catapulted Modi to power at the Centre. In the last Assembly election in 2012, the BJP vote share was only 15 per cent and to get to a majority, the BJP needed a minimum of 34 per cent votes. The 2014 Lok Sabha election vote share of 42 per cent was crucial, and Shah realised that any sharp drop there could be curtains for the party. Plus there was no party face in the state he could project. Barring the strong image of Modi, Shah did not have much to flaunt in a state so diverse, so divided.
In 2014, Modi had more than made up for the inherent weaknesses of the BJP in the state. This time, the challenge before Shah was to find a new bloc of UP voters. And for this, he knew he would have to arm the Cult of Modi with Mandal and Kamandal. So he applied caste and religious identity selectively, at times both.
In western UP which voted first and eastern UP which decided last, Shah used Kamandal while deftly weaving caste alliance across seats.
Targeting the Shakya, Rajbhar, Pasi, Maurya, Nishad, Pal voters, he invited them to the saffron tent. Modi too repeatedly spoke of the “Dalit-shoshit-vanchit-peedit samaj”, much like Indira Gandhi who used “Garibi Hatao” to wipe out her challengers.
Reaching out to a new bloc
For decades, the BJP in the state was described as the Brahmin-Baniya-Rajput party. The upper class represented its core voters. This election, Shah had to change that image. The party had to be connected directly and forcefully, more so after demonetisation, with the “poor class”. And for that, he had to reach out to non-Jatav Dalits and non-Yadav OBCs. These 38 caste blocs, with more than 200 groups under them, comprised largely of the poor, landless labour class.
As the results came in Saturday, one from Shah’s team of executives said: “Under Modi’s leadership, the economic identity of these non-Jatav Dalits and non-Yadav OBCs overcame their social identity.”
Modi’s 24 rallies directly addressed this new bloc of voters. This was unlike Gujarat where the rise of the BJP was powered in election after election by the middle class, support from gurus and heads of religious sects, and the “pro-business and development-oriented attitude” of Modi. In post-demonetisation UP, the OBC poor became the critical mass. While Shah’s teams reached out to hundreds of maths, sects and gurus, word also spread that “Modi will do something for the poor”.
“This is the first election victory that Modi has gifted his party on the sheer strength of the acknowledgement of his leadership by the poor,” a BJP leader said Saturday.
Confusing Muslims to hit rivals
In the party, there was also realisation of a strong Hindu sentiment in western UP and Purvanchal, a resentment of the “Yadav-Muslim jugalbandi” under SP rule that was seen as controlling state offices and police stations. Shah built on this “anti-Yadav consolidation” to change his party’s fortunes in these parts. In the first two phases, he kept in check party leaders notorious for their quotes and tweets. He ensured that “Muslims of western UP and the large number of Dalits are not provoked to such an extent that they throng the booths to vote for the BSP.”
The Hindutva campaign was kept on low burner in the initial phases of the election, a deliberate ploy to confuse the Muslims. The spotlight on Akhilesh Yadav, especially after the bitter tussle for power within the SP, hurt the BSP in the west. The opposite happened in Purvanchal where the BSP confused and divided Muslim voters to hit the SP.
Not one Muslim was handed a BJP ticket. While party leaders fumbled for explanations in public, no one objected in private. Because it was evident to all in the party that they had sent a clear message that theirs is a “party of Hindus”. No explanation was sought, no explanation given.
Shah’s Vyavastha Parivartan
But it was the mobilisation of OBCs, not seen on the scale since the days of Ram Manohar Lohia, that blunted the caste-politics of BSP and SP in one go. The party that voted out V P Singh on the issue of Mandal had embraced Mandal to rewrite history. The message was clear: all extremely backward classes and non-Jatav Dalits would get political representation. Shah handed 140 tickets to OBCs, and just eight to Yadavs. As many as 83 went to Dalits. The anti-Yadav consolidation saw many castes willing to take the plunge and 160 seats went to Thakurs, Brahmins, Bhumihars, Baniyas, Punjabis and Jains. This was Shah’s “vyavastha parivartan”, the game-changer as it turned out Saturday. One of the campaign managers said so: “Modi’s approach of stitching together exploited social segments was implemented on the ground by Shah.”
Ally Apna Dal of Anupriya Patel, who was made a central minister, was handed 11 tickets with an eye on the party’s Kurmi votebase while the Bharatiya Samaj Party of Rajbhars got eight tickets. The BJP contested the remaining 384 seats. R K Chaudhary, Pasi leader from Mohanlalganj, fought without the lotus symbol but attached to the NDA. For Shah, every candidate, every seat was important.
Akanksha Peti to Parivartan Rath
Targeting non-Yadav OBCs who account for 25 per cent of the voters — 18 per cent are poor, landless labourers — the BJP went to town: “Some 52 lakh UP women have got Ujjwala gas. In the last two years, Rs 20,000 crore loan has been given through Mudra bank. The Rs 2 lakh life insurance has created more than one crore beneficiaries. In UP, some 3 crore Jan Dhan accounts have been opened. After Modi became Prime Minister, 1,464 villages got electricity connections, helping create nine lakh new connections. UP has got 11,000 new toilets under a central government scheme.” Shah took these sarkari figures to the interiors of UP.
The Akanksha Peti also played a role. People were asked to pen their expectations and drop the letters in petis or boxes. More than 40 lakh people responded and petis were collected from across the state. Farm loan waiver, anti-Romeo squad, the strong stand against slaughter houses, all found their way into the party manifesto.
Booth-level management, the one skill Shah had mastered, was monitored like never before. Soon after the 2014 victory, BJP went all out to register as many new members it could. Missed calls turned into memberships. Lucknow BJP leader Dinesh Sharma supervised the massive exercise to register 1.80 crore new members. Of these, 1.3 crore names, addresses and contact numbers were available. Shah’s team selected and approached 67,000 and trained to become active members. In all, 1.05 lakh people at the mandal and district levels were selected for 1.4 lakh booth committees. It was hard work for the team, but Shah would give no quarter there. He sought details, he checked the numbers, ensured he was not fed incorrect information.
BJP parivartan raths thundered across UP long before others got into the act. The raths travelled 8,138 km, and the party organised 233 public meetings, connecting with an estimated 50 lakh people. Every single figure was “sent with evidence” Shah’s 11 Akbar Road home in New Delhi.
Taking hisaab of attendance
While reaching out to the poor and the backward, Shah kept the focus on upper castes and traders. More than 15 trader sammelans were organised in different parts of the state, and invitations were sent to 11,000 traders. This list too was sent to Shah. He would take “hisaab” of attendance at these meetings, and look at video footage and photographs.
And because Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi were leading the fight against the BJP, the party organised 88 yuva sammelans where it claimed 4.65 lakh youths participated. Shah joined these yuva gatherings via video conferencing and engaged the young voters. Similarly, 77 mahila meetings were held to connect with women, and an estimated 54,000 Dalits were invited to 18 swabhiman meetings to spread the BJP message.
But the most successful and important sammelans were those that involved the OBC. More than 200 meetings were organised to connect to 8.39 lakh OBCs. “Shah sote nahin, sone dete nahin (doesn’t sleep, doesn’t let us sleep),” said one from his team.
Senior party leaders call him Amit Bhai, the juniors Adhyakshji. He, on his part, addressed around 150 rallies. Team meetings stretched late into the night, usually ending around 2-3 am. “He never completely depends on anybody, he depends on himself.”
The 40 lakh Likes
From the campaign trail, he would would call core team members Debu Patel, Anil Jain, Sunil Bansal or Om Prakash Thakur to know what Akhilesh or Rahul had said at their rallies. And at the very next rally, he would respond to them. He was so involved in the election that he asked his office to make a list of disgruntled party leaders who had been sulking after the distribution of tickets. He called each one of them, and sent emissaries to cajole them. And in some cases, he met them personally.
“Beg, borrow, steal votes of rivals”. That became clear when an audio clip of his appeal to Jat leaders was leaked. Shah and his team kept up the pressure, constantly complaining about the “unfriendly” UP government and approaching the Election Commission every now and then. Modi and Shah’s messages, speeches, tweets were circulated continuously via 10,344 WhatsApp groups created for 15 lakh BJP supporters. Four Facebook pages were created for UP. These had 40 lakh ‘likes’.