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As Uttar Pradesh Election Moves East, BJP’s Perplexities Intensify

S.N. Sahu |
Has BJP belatedly realised it needs more backward section support and less of Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, who played up his caste identity?
As Uttar Pradesh Election Moves East, BJP’s Perplexities Intensify

Representational Image. Image Courtesy: Zee News

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 50 of the 61 seats polled in the fifth phase of the 2017 election, but as the fifth phase of the ongoing Assembly election ends, it looks like a party visibly perplexed. Its troubles began in the very first phase, and deepened in every subsequent stage. Now it seems the decline will continue in the remaining three phases.

Two weeks ago, referring to Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “Aayega to Yogi hi—Only Yogi will win the election”. But in Gorakhpur, the constituency of Adityanath, the hoardings are giving prominence to Modi, not the Chief Minister. There is also a paradox behind the sudden appearance of the posters of Uma Bharti, BJP leader and former Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, in the state. Bharti belongs to the backward Lodh community and has some influence in the Bundelkhand region and around, where the polls are over. She campaigned for the BJP in the initial stage of this election, but now it seems she is standing down, and her party is making do with just her posters.

Commentators are puzzled why the party is sending such contradictory signals. Some say Adityanath’s declaration a few days back that he is a Kshatriya which is the Varna of avatars, affirmed his regime’s pro-Rajput/Kshatriya stance. Writ large in Adityanath’s statement is Dr BR Ambedkar’s description of caste as “a system with ascending order of reverence and descending order of contempt”. It is believed Bharti’s presence can mollify the backward communities, who feel resentful over the Adityanath regime’s pro-Kshtatriya image and deeds.

It is increasingly said of this election that the BJP has lost backward class leaders and failed to polarise the electorate along religious lines, as a consequence of which voters have reverted to their primordial identities. It is a truism that religious polarisation helps the BJP subsume caste distinctions under the Hindutva umbrella by isolating Muslim voters. When this strategy fails, the BJP cannot command the kind of bruising majorities it got in the 2014, 2017 and 2019 polls.

The last three phases of the ongoing Assembly election, which begins on 27 February, will test this proposition. Caste plays a crucial role in determining electoral outcomes, but if the charms of Hindutva fade among the backward sections, it means the troubles of the BJP will intensify and the Samajwadi Party (SP) will fortify its position.

In the 2017 election, the BJP forged alliances with political formations with a considerable support base among the Other Backward Classes (OBC). Even a section of Dalits voted for it, though it is the dominant and elite castes who gave it “one-sided” support.

Now, the OBCs, who provided the numbers the BJP needed, have reportedly joined hands with the Samajwadi Party, whose chief Akhilesh Yadav has fielded a relatively diverse section of backward leaders across castes. This has enhanced its appeal and projected it as invested in the social justice agenda. That said, how far Mandal can push back the proponents of Kamandal will be evident on 10 March, the day the election results are out.

The BJP has also likely upset its traditional voters, the Bhumihars in the Purvanchal region of Uttar Pradesh, where elections are due in the last phase on 7 March. Members of this caste have stood by the BJP traditionally, but now there are rumours they are miffed, in particular since the party has not fielded candidates from their community. They are now said to be mobilising in favour of the Samajwadi Party and the BJP is in damage-control mode. Similarly, the Passi or Paswans, a Dalit community with scattered numerical strength in central Uttar Pradesh and more concentrated presence in Purvanchal, is drifting towards the Samajwadi Party.

These are extraordinary developments, considering the BJP, by all accounts, has witched from gaining to losing voters from a cross-section of Uttar Pradesh residents.

Suppose backward sections and Dalits rally behind the Samajwadi Party. In that case, the reasons will be easy to guess: The 10% reservation announced for the Economically Weaker Section (EWS) has disturbed the disadvantaged sections of Uttar Pradesh society. This reservation is widely recognised as a sweetener for the elite castes, while the members of non-elite social groups await proper implementation of their constitutionally-guaranteed reservation. From their perspective, the EWS quota turns social justice on its head and rebels against those historically excluded and deprived due to their caste. The apprehensions of the backward sections are exacerbated by the discrimination inherent in the claim, made by institutions in the Adityanath-led regime, that “no eligible candidates” can be found among the OBCs and Dalits. The regime’s refusal to conduct a caste census is also ironical, considering the Prime Minister harped on his OBC identity in the 2014, 2017 and 2019 polls, and reaped substantial electoral dividends from backward sections.

This brings us back to the electoral salience of OBC leaders such as Uma Bharti in this election. Her appearance in campaign posters in Uttar Pradesh looks like a last-minute effort to appear inclusive to the backward sections, among whom she has resonance since the days of the Babri masjid agitation. Her appeal in Uttar Pradesh, however, has limits. It is, in some senses, comparable to the attractiveness of Mulayam Singh Yadav in the electoral field of Bihar. The Yadavs are over 10% of the population of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, and, while they have a cross-border affinity, it is no guarantee of electoral success. Put another way, former Bihar chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav is a towering political figure in his home state, but his attractiveness is not replicated in the electoral field of neighbouring Uttar Pradesh. Perhaps the BJP is caught in a web of its “ayega to Yogi hi” slogan, then belatedly realised it needs greater outreach to the backward sections, and less visibility for Adityanath, who plays up his Kshatriya identity.

The BJP would now want nothing more than for the Muslims to vote for the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Dalits, especially the Jatavs, to vote for the Samajwadi Party. Its top leaders have made some of this clear in recent speeches, but the subtext is a desire to see the Muslim consolidation behind the Samajwadi Party break, and the BSP to fade away. It is a frantic wish of the BJP to divide Muslim votes while demonising them before Hindu voters to lure them. The Muslims constitute 18% of the electorate in Uttar Pradesh and have consolidated behind the Samajwadi Party-led alliance. BSP supremo Mayawati has called Home Minister Amit Shah magnanimous for proposing that Muslims vote for her party—and little can stop political watchers from claiming they share an implicit understanding.

The BJP’s strategies are likely to be tested, and there are obvious reasons why. The historic farmer movement bridged the gulf between the Jats and the Muslims and arrested the polarisation plank of the BJP. The Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 (CAA) united Muslims across sects and classes. Prompted by their fear of losing their status as citizens, Sunni and Shia Muslims appear to have united behind the Samajwadi Party, as have poor and rich, urban and rural. The three farm laws angered the rural population, which is setting the narrative for these polls as opposed to the urban voters who typically lean towards the BJP. The stray cattle menace, which has destroyed fields belonging to every caste and faith, belatedly prompted the Prime Minister to assure a policy to undo the damage. Adityanath’s five-year tenure caused this catastrophe, while the Centre contributed to rising prices, massive unemployment and loss of livelihood on an alarming scale, especially during the sudden and haphazard Covid-19 lockdowns. All these are adding fuel to the anger against the ruling party. Sure, from the BJP’s point of view, the beneficiaries of government schemes such as rations and direct benefit transfers will help it ride into Lucknow. But, to commentators and observers, the question now is to what extent—not if—the burning issues will neutralise the BJP’s juggernaut.

Electoral history demonstrates that the party which establishes a lead in western Uttar Pradesh continues the trend in the rest of the state. There are enough indications that the westerly electoral winds will once again reshape electoral politics in Uttar Pradesh—and the country.

The author was Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary to President KR Narayanan. The views are personal.

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