IN the five state elections in this round, Narendra Modi’s BJP has swept two, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, propelled itself into the game for government-formation for the first time in Manipur and may even have another shot at Goa. In Punjab, it was the junior partner to the Akali Dal in the ruling alliance that was routed. With its performance, it has all but sealed the Presidential election in July, assured itself of a more favourable Rajya Sabha math later and reworked the balance of power to its advantage ahead of the next Parliamentary contest in 2019.
But it is the BJP’s historic victory in Uttar Pradesh — almost 80% of its 403 seats — that will resonate the most. For, UP is not just another state. It is the state that has seen the rise of regional parties, yet not witnessed the politics of regionalism.
UP is seen as — and it sees itself as — India’s heartland. All the main faultlines of India’s politics, along the axes of caste, class and community, are etched here. It has been the staging ground for all the large national movements and trends: Congress dominance upto the mid 1960s; the rise of opposition forces, including the Socialists, and the emergence of non-Congress governments; the return of the Congress to power in the 1980s, this time in a far more competitive space, in which kisan politics was yielding to caste-based mobilisations.
In the 1990s, UP became the primary site for the unfolding of three national projects — Mandal, Mandir and Market. These were essentially homogenising programmes, but through the ‘90s, they confronted, and collided with, each other in ways that caused intense political fragmentation — of the electorate and of the state’s party system: In 10 years, UP saw four elections, eight governments were formed and there was president’s rule on three occasions.
The first intimations that the period of instability was coming to an end, or that the UP voter was now preparing to trust one party with a decisive verdict, across the several faultlines, came in 2007 when the BSP won a single-party majority, the first since 1985. It came again when the SP won a large mandate in 2012.
Now the Modi-Amit Shah BJP’s sweep confirms that what UP is seeing is a new phase of politics that builds on Mandal and Mandir but cannot be fully explained by them. And that under Modi and his trusted lieutenant, the BJP is adapting to it most deftly and successfully — it is setting the agenda, certainly, but, more than that, it is becoming what the people want it to be.
Travelling in UP to track Campaign 2017 was to sense the clamour of caste and community loyalties and discontents, but also the voter’s disillusion and exasperation with the narrower agenda and the older antagonism. And her striving to climb out of her corner, to participate in a larger canvas or idea, and indeed, to take a selfie while doing so. It was also to see the BJP respond to this yearning by framing a more vivid and more layered appeal than any of its rivals could come up with.
At the local level, the BJP pitched its tent wider by playing an older, hard-nosed caste game — astutely picking a large number of its candidates from the large scatter of non-Yadav OBC castes, for instance, to add them to its traditional upper caste Brahmin-Thakur mix.
It also, and as before, bid for Hindu consolidation — just like in 2014, it did not give a single ticket to Muslims. It allowed free play to those like Yogi Adityanath, and especially to him (the MP from Gorakhpur, most known for his talk of “anti-romeo squads” and “love jihad” and for working up a state of permanent religious polarisation in his bastion in eastern UP, addressed many more rallies for his party across the state than in any previous election), party president Amit Shah labelled his rivals KASAB and promised to shut down all slaughter houses and Modi himself spoke of “kabristan” vs “shamshan.”
But that was not all there was to the strategy of the Modi-BJP. In the campaign for UP in 2017, the BJP, or rather Modi, also successfully propelled himself into a space that rose above the divisions on the ground. He had done it earlier in 2014 by projecting himself as an agent of change against the jaded UPA regime in the Centre, relegating the memories and ghosts of Gujarat 2002. In this election in UP, his feat was even more remarkable than in 2014 — on two counts.
Even after heading a government at the Centre for nearly three years, Modi was able to, helped by imaginative schemes like the opening of Jan Dhan accounts for the poor, and free gas connections for those in the BPL list under the Ujjwala scheme, capture the plank of “parivartan” or change in UP, at a time when new communication technologies are opening up larger worlds, making voters more impatient, and quickening their aspirations.
And, second, he was able to project demonetisation, or notebandi, a disruptive decision, as a big overarching idea that they must support for the greater good. Across the state, voters said that despite the evident economic distress it had caused, demonetisation was “desh ke hit mein”, or in the national interest. They saw it as something that affected everyone, as a leveller that had brought about “barabari”, placing on an equal footing the poor and the rich.
It did not matter that there was little evidence to back those claims. What was evident was that the BJP had successfully framed something that was causing economic discomfort as an anti-corruption and pro-poor programme, and also a patriotic-nationalist one. For those who still did not drop their disbelief vis a vis notebandi, it had simply become politically incorrect to say so.
In the end, Modi and Shah crafted the most multi-tonal agenda in the state that was able to rise above the appeals to caste and religion, even as it folded them in. On the other hand, his rivals’ broader planks, be it Akhilesh Yadav’s “vikas” or Mayawati’s image of being a good administrator, were unable to lift much above their narrower appeals to their respective caste and community bases.
Why did Modi succeed where his rivals failed? That is the question that the SP and the BSP must now ask themselves in UP. Why did the politics of “social justice” and “secularism” that both the SP and BSP, and the Congress, have made into their calling card over the years, mutate into progressively shrinking platforms lacking in conviction? Modi was successfully able to label “social justice” as “casteism”, even as his party made a more pronounced bid for backward caste support. He was also able to deride “secularism” as “appeasement”, while inviting the voter to participate in an idea and project ostensibly more encompassing.
Modi’s UP success is made up of the remarkable inventiveness of a leader in his political prime, tirelessly upping his game. It is also made up of the inability of his political opponents to keep pace — either with him or with the people. As one voter in eastern UP put it, “Rahul ji tez kam hain (Rahul is not quick enough)”. She could as well have been speaking of Akhilesh Yadav or Mayawati.
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