In a much hyped visit to Uttar Pradesh’s capital Lucknow, home minister and chief poll strategist of BJP, Amit Shah, gave a sense of the party’s outlook, strategy and assessment for the upcoming Assembly elections in the state, to be held in February-March next year.
He launched a membership drive and addressed diverse meetings of activists and leaders. Some of the meetings were described as related to Awadh which sounds strange – it’s a region, not an administrative unit. But there’s a story behind it: the RSS is organised in UP in six regions: Gorakhpur, Braj, Awadha, Kanpur, Kashi, and Meerut. In 2016, in the run-up to the 2017 Assembly elections, BJP too had divided up the state into the same six regions, presumably to better harness the organisational structure of RSS. That is why Shah was holding meetings for the Awadh region.
Addressing the gathering in Lucknow, Shah came up with a remarkable formulation: if voters in UP want to see Modi become a prime minister in 2024, then they will have to vote and back Yogi Adityanath as the chief minister in the 2022 elections.
In one stroke he revealed both, the weakness of BJP in UP, and also their prescription of how to get over it. Only Yogi’s claimed achievements may not be able to get them the necessary votes. A host of problems have been dogging the chief minister’s footsteps in the past nearly five years. Farmers are discontented, and after the Lakhimpur massacre, very angry. Unemployment has always been a bug bear especially since Yogi had claimed after winning last time that his government would create 40 lakh jobs in the state. There has been widespread anger and shock at the way Covid-19 pandemic was handled in the state, with images of corpses floating in the holy Ganga or buried in its banks getting global attention. In the name of setting law and order right, police have been given free rein with encounters, custodial deaths and other oppressive actions repeatedly being reported. Journalists too have had to face the government’s ire for exposing the truth, like the sorry state of affairs in mid day meals for school kids. There have been several incidents of heinous attacks on women – Hathras, Unnao are examples – where the administration’s weak kneed response or even complicity was noted. Dalit communities have time and again felt targeted by upper castes and atrocities have increased against them. And communal poison has been widely propagated through the state, with terrorising of minorities, several communal outbursts and repeated instigation by political leaders. In short, a combination of disastrous economic policies, neglect of social oppression, and fanning of social divisions has marked Yogi’s rule.
It is in this context that Shah was telling the BJP/RSS activists and supporters that the election should be fought keeping PM Modi in the front. If BJP loses, then Modi’s return will be under a cloud. So – Shah is implying – forget about Yogi’s misrule, just vote for Modi.
Obviously, this is not just a jumla. It will be fleshed out into a full strategy as will be revealed in the months to come. Already, PM Modi has visited the state and addressed public functions six times, mostly in eastern UP. He has announced thousands of crores rupees worth of projects and programmes, something that has become a standard opening gambit in all the state elections in the past seven years.
But it is clear that the usual elan and confidence is missing in the BJP’s demeanor. Of course, it is early days – but it is a sign of the erosion of BJP’s support base. Remember that over the years, while Modi has managed to successfully lead the BJP to power at the central level, the story has been different in the states. Its vote share went down in Gujarat in 2017, it lost Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan in 2018, it lost power in Maharashtra in 2019 because in its arrogance it could not keep its staunchest ally, the Shiv Sena, with it, it barely managed to win again in Bihar in 2020, and it failed to grab power in West Bengal, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu as usual.
Shah also revived old and discredited tropes about Hindus fleeing Meerut due to Muslim threats, thus announcing another plank of the BJP’s campaign: Muslim bashing. He talked about J&K, he promised a ‘sky-high’ Ram temple in Ayodhya. With Yogi at the helm, he needn’t spell out anything else. The coming months might very well see another toxic, hatred laden campaign, just like the BJP unleashed in Delhi in early 2019.
War against Farmers
Another notable feature of Shah’s visit to Lucknow was that in the public meeting, none other than Ajay Mishra Teni, junior minister in the home ministry that Shah heads, was present on the dais. After the recent grisly mowing down of four farmers and a journalist by a cavalcade of SUVs allegedly driven by Teni’s son in Lakhimpur Kheri district of the state, Teni had come under the scanner. His speech a few days before the incident was much quoted where he allegedly threatened the agitating farmers that he would set them right in no time if allowed. The farmers' movement and practically all opposition political parties had demanded Teni’s resignation.
So – arranging that Teni stands next to him at his first election-related public function – Shah declared that Teni was under protection. It was a slap in the face of the farmers’ movement, and also yet another admission that the UP election is not a cake walk for the ruling BJP. Teni is a Brahmin and the BJP is fighting to keep together the caste coalition it had built in the past. With 11-12% Brahmins in UP, this factor weighs in more in the BJP’s electoral calculus than the farmers’ murders.
That the BJP is scared of the farmers’ protests going on for over 11 months demanding scrapping of the three farm laws has become even more clear from its emphasis on eastern and central UP, as of now. It appears that they are accepting that in West UP, with the crucible of farmers protests, BJP will come out badly at the hustings.
Cracking Caste Coalitions
Last time round, BJP had also benefited from a wide ranging caste coalition that it had cobbled together, which included the Apna Dal (Sone Lal) (representing Kurmi community), Suheldev Bhartiya Samaj Party (SBSP) (representing Rajbhars) and NISHAD (a party representing kewats and mallahs, the boat people), all claiming to represent various backward castes. This time one of these – SBSP – has finally quit the alliance with BJP and tied up with the opposition Samajwadi Party. The NISHAD party is alleged to be sitting on the fence, but may ultimately go with the BJP. Apna Dal (SL) continues with BJP but its rival faction is now with SP.
In west UP, another major shift has been the disillusionment of Jats with BJP. This is primarily a product of farmers' movement and not of caste equations. In fact, other agrarian castes too in the region, like the Gujars, are angry with BJP’s anti-farmer stance.
What has happened is that the leaders of diverse castes that were propped up by the BJP could not deliver much to their following except garnering personal gains for the top brass. Meanwhile the pressure from below forces them to drift away from BJP. Caught in this trap, they are indulging in some adroit tight rope walking. However, their supposed hold over their fellow caste folk is increasingly eroding.
A similar process might be happening with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which has been marginalised since the 2019 general election. Its supremo, Mayawati, has been trying to keep its base among the Dalits intact, but she will definitely lose out to other more aggressive Dalit outfits. BSP’s other constituency – the Muslims – in all likelihood will solidify with SP.
While all these electoral intrigues play out across the vast state, one thing is clear: if the opposition gets its act together, BJP will face an enormous challenge to retain its hold over Lucknow.