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Golden oldies

The BJP’s campaign in UP may be floundering

Asim Ali Published 30.12.21, 01:59 AM
Representational image.

Representational image. PTI

How do political campaigns capture the popular imagination? One common feature of successful political campaigns is that they are all imbued with the palpable quality of being timely. The issues of the campaign are articulated in a way that feels urgent and responsive to the needs of the present political moment.

In this respect, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s current campaign in Uttar Pradesh appears to be floundering. As Ayodhya, Kashi, and Mathura take centre stage, the BJP is back to replaying its greatest hits. The party is skirting the biting issues of the day and taking refuge in rehashing the battles of centuries long past. In the last three elections (two Lok Sabha and one assembly) in the state that the BJP swept, these issues represented little more than background noise.


It is not that previous BJP campaigns were less communal. But even the communal messaging was attuned more to contemporary threats than to historical grievances — the Muzaffarnagar riots, the Kairana and so on. The prime minister spoke of ‘shamshaan and kabristan’, the alleged discrimination Hindus were suffering under the Samajwadi Party regime. Now he speaks of ‘Aurangzeb and Shivaji’, the alleged persecution Hindus suffered under Mughal emperors. As the social power of Muslims under Yogi Adityanath has all but evaporated, the ghosts of medieval Muslims are being vigorously exorcized to invent the Muslim threat.

As with communal messaging, the BJP’s messaging on caste also gives the impression of being stale. It is hard to overstate the energy the BJP campaign generated in 2017 among non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav Dalits by promising a new era of socio-political equity. In the absence of any concrete achievement on that front, the BJP’s caste messaging seems to have lost some of its emotional resonance with time. This cannot be ascribed to the natural weight of incumbency only. The BJP had a historic opportunity to capture the Mandal space by implementing the sub-categorization of reservation. Instead, the UP government sat on the recommendations of the Raghavendra Kumar Committee report, which had recommended slicing the OBC category into three parts, thus providing non-dominant backward castes a larger share of the reservation pie. One part of this failure to appropriate the OBC space by levelling the hierarchies among the backward communities can be put down to the BJP’s fear of provoking a backlash from the dominant castes. The party has been chastened by its previous experiences in Haryana and Maharashtra, where it was battered by the exodus of Jats and Marathas who felt that they were being sidelined as the BJP’s new social coalition revolved around non-dominant communities. A similar backlash from tribals ousted the BJP from Jharkhand, where it had installed the first non-tribal chief minister. Moreover, except Yadavs, the dominant OBC castes in UP — Kurmis and Jats — have also heavily backed the BJP and its allies in the Modi era.

Another part of the failure stems from the party’s deeply-held ideological aversion to divide the Hindu vote-bank by promoting inter-caste competition. The thumping victory of 2019, where it blew away the combined forces of the SP and the Bahujan Samaj Party, also lulled the party into believing that it did not require any big and disruptive policy to cement its base among the backward castes. Ideologies tend to become the least flexible when they are not under any immediate threat.

Having failed in its promise of sub-categorization, the BJP’s caste pitch towards the non-dominant backward castes seems to have become more localized and carefully calibrated towards individual castes in place of the high-pitched and sweeping narrative of the last election. The emboldening of Thakurs under the Yogi Adityanath regime has also not helped the BJP’s backward caste appeal. Thus, the aggressive caste strategy of the previous campaign has given way to defensive manoeuvres tacked in favour of the status quo.

The BJP’s struggle to ground its campaign in the present political moment is revealed not just by its dash to history, but also by its anchoring of this election to the next general elections. “If you want to make Modi Prime Minister again in 2024, make Yogi Adityanath the Chief Minister again in 2022,” in the words of Amit Shah. One didn’t hear a similar pitch in 2017.

Of course, the BJP is confident that Modi’s charisma will ultimately help it sail through. The problem is that even Modi’s appeal seems a little worn out in recent times. In the 2017 campaign, Modi was riding high on his transformative image having unleashed demonetization (at the time still popular) and the Uri surgical strikes. The year leading up to this election has seen him bungle during the second Covid wave and beat a humiliating retreat on the farm laws.

The BJP’s reluctance to stay in the present political moment also stems from multiple failures on governance. Its own MLAs had flayed the state government’s mishandling of the second wave of the coronavirus. A recent Niti Aayog report dubbed Uttar Pradesh as the worst state in health indicators. The speeches of party leaders don’t linger on governance achievements because there really isn’t much to trumpet. Sure, there is some high-octane rhetoric on law and order and on expressways, along with vague mentions of ‘double-engine’ development. But the overwhelming impression of the thrust of the campaign is that the BJP is uncomfortable about making the election about its record in governance. There’s not much mention of government achievements over the last five years on health, education, jobs, industries and agriculture. Around 75 per cent of the respondents in CVoter election surveys say that they are angry with the Adityanath regime. Even though these surveys show that the BJP is still leading the pack, the message is clear: there is widespread resentment regarding the performance of the government.

In contrast, the campaign of the main challenger, the SP, seems to capture a spirit of timeliness. It has grounded its campaign around an important issue — the caste census and the expansion of reservation — which is being seen as the contemporary avatar of Mandal politics. The ‘Vijay Yatras’ of Akhilesh Yadav also emphasize the most pressing material issues in UP: unemployment, inflation, farmer distress and the collapse of healthcare amidst the pandemic.

If the BJP’s ideological flexibility has been repressed by its electoral comfort, the opposite is true for the SP. Having been trounced in the last two elections, the SP has been attempting an ideological renewal. This not only involves returning to its Lohiaite origins, symbolized by Akhilesh Yadav’s promise of a social ‘revolution of the backwards’ and the surfeit of red caps at party rallies. It also means fashioning a “New SP” (in Akhilesh Yadav’s words) where other OBCs would get equal space in the party as Yadavs. There is already evidence of this strategic shift in the SP’s rejigging of its state executive committee as well as local party leadership, both of which have seen a large infusion of the most backward castes.

No incumbent has returned to power in Uttar Pradesh in the last three decades. This not only reflects the impatience of the electorate but also indicates that different issues have lost and gained salience over successive elections. Hence, the importance of a campaign that feels timely, that responds to the urgent needs of this moment. Simply turning back the clock to the Hindutva of the early 1990s and pouring bile on the Mughals might not be sufficient for the BJP to romp back to power in Uttar Pradesh.

Asim Ali is a political columnist and research associate with the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi

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