In the annals of Indian politics, it is often said that the road to Delhi passes through the state of Uttar Pradesh. With 80 MPs, UP accounts for a lion share in the Lok Sabha. And it doesn’t end there, the state also sends 31 members to Rajya Sabha, thus, winning is important in UP, in case you desire to rule India.
Not surprisingly then, UP also accounts for the maximum Prime Ministers who fought from a constituency in the state, namely, Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Choudhary Charan Singh, Vishwanath Pratap Singh, Chandra Shekhar, Atal Behari Vajpayee and now even Narendra Modi. In a sense of terms, UP is like the steering-wheel of Indian politics, he (or she) who controls UP, can steer the politics of this nation in his/her wake.
Little wonder then, winning the election in UP was extremely critical for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Coming bang in the middle of his term, he could not afford to be lax about it. Over the past two years, the aura around PM Modi had waned a bit, with his hands tied up in Rajya Sabha; the NDA government was unable to push its reform agenda as it would have wished. The constant chitter-chatter of intolerance was also taking a toll; he was being pulled for all promises. Even allies like Shiv Sena were not missing an opportunity to jibe at him.
In the past, two state elections had exposed BJP’s Achilles Heel. The first one was in Delhi, where an overconfident BJP received a severe drubbing and stoked the ambitions of Arvind Kejriwal. The second one was Bihar elections, where a Nitish-Lalu Mahagatbandhan was able to stall the Modi juggernaut. The losses in Bihar and Delhi emboldened the opposition, and PM Modi was seemingly much weaker than the ‘loh purush‘ image that he projects.
In the midst of this melee came a must-win UP elections. For PM Modi it was almost a battle of survival and of relevance. A loss in UP, would not only give a boost to the opposition but would also have the demurred party-wallahs start questioning the “my way or the highway” approach of the PM. Modi had little option, but to win UP and win it big.
This is the reason, why Amit Shah and his team shifted bag, baggage and bunker to UP, and worked tirelessly for months and months before the elections. The blueprint for UP was constructed on numerous pegs, right from caste arithmetic to development politics; the whole campaign was mounted on a grand scale. Here’s a primer to how story of lotus-blossom unfolded in UP:
The great gamble of demonetization
One of the biggest rallying points for the opposition parties, including Congress and rest was the black money issue. In the run-up to the general election in 2014, the BJP in many ways had overplayed the black-money bogey promising impossible things like 15 lakhs in each person’s account to give a size of the problem. Yet, while the figure was notional, it was used a baton to whack BJP and especially PM Modi every now and then. “Where’s the black money in my account?” had become a common jibe by the opposition party leaders like Rahul Gandhi, Arvind Kejriwal, Mamta Banerjee and so on.
Even though the government had put in measures to deal with black money, the public perception was building against them. PM Modi had to do something big and monumental to truly shift this impression. This was especially more critical as in the UP elections, there was nothing significant to showcase to the populace. It was in this regards that the PM brought in the demonetization on November 8, 2016. By presenting the exercise as a war on black money and corruption, the PM was able to create a narrative that worked with the common populace. While the whole nation was troubled by the sudden annulment of 86% of existing currency, the fact that a leader was doing something seemed to have mattered more for the layman. The fact that PM’s personal integrity is rated quite high, helped shaped the narrative well. The opposition were in disarray, knowing not how to react or whom to attack. By turning the demonetization debate personal, politicians like Mamta Banerjee, Arvind Kejriwal and Rahul Gandhi played into the hands of Modi. No more, were we discussing the logic, rationale or economics, but using exaggerated adjectives to debunk it. This turned the whole discussion into a “Us” versus “Them”, in which the public sympathy was with the man who was taking on all the rich and powerful.
Without an iota of doubt, the gamble by PM Modi was one of the biggest one that we have seen in modern times. It could have easily gone either way; pedestal or grave. Even members of BJP were taken aback by the audacity of the move. By putting in his personal reputation on line, Modi only increased the stakes. With the opposition floundering to build a counter narrative, Modi has won this game of Russian roulette. The 325 in UP are a proof of that.
Taming the Elephant
Last October, were you to walk around UP and ask anyone who’d be the next CM, pat would come the reply “Behenji”. For the past many months, Mayawati had occupied the pole position in UP’s CM race. With relentless groundwork, the BSP machinery was ready to deliver the ultimate prize in India to Behenji. But the plans were laid to rest on the night of November 8th. The demonetization drive stuck BSP much more adversely than it did anyone else in Indian politics. The core trouble issue was in the manner in which BSP functioned. The party largely dealt with things in cash, all the prospective candidates also had to apparently “pay up” a few crores (in cash again) to party coffers. Given, the fact that BSP was nowhere in government, it lacked the administrative resources to convert its black into white.
So, through the crucial months of November, December and January, the party was still trying to manage the huge stash of cancelled currency bills, rather than campaigning on the streets of UP. Add to the fact, the manner in which Behenji opposed demonetization in Rajya Sabha, the stigma of corruption further tainted the elephant party. And then came the media reports of how Rs 104 crores were added into bank account of Mayawati’s brother, only added to the negative perception. Devoid of resources and under the glare, the elephant floundered and finally collapsed. In a matter of speaking, demonetization was the biggest undoing for Behenji. Till a few months back, she was all set to be the next CM of UP, and now, she is on the brink of irrelevance.
Puncturing the cycle
While Samajwadi Party was confronted by the prospects of anti-incumbency, it still had the wily Mulayam at the helm who could be banked on to strategise an escape plan. The Yadavs from Etawah, though, were down but were certainly not out. By careful calculations and machinations, SP would have undoubtedly become the second-largest force in UP, if not the first. Strangely, like the Yadavs in the ancient Dwarka myth, the modern clan committed hara-kiri. The rebellion by Akhilesh, the ruling CM, against his father and uncle could not have come at a more inopportune time. Just when the party should have been untidily strategizing to win the elections by tackling the anti-incumbency factor, the whole party was caught in a death spiral.
The public spat of the family bewildered not only the electorate but even the most battle-hardened supporter. The bitter power struggle did take a toll on the prospects, the patriarch Mulayam Singh did not campaign for the party and was also openly critical of the alliance with Congress. A grumpy father, a sullen uncle, did Akhilesh in. Even the alliance with Congress and all that bromance with Rahul Gandhi over “UP ke ladke” could not save the day.
The genesis of the family trouble has an unlikely script. According to Akhilesh the problems within the family precipitated after the arrival of Amar Singh on the scene. There are many whispers floating in Lucknow that allege that Amar Singh was working to a plan set in motion by Amit Shah. Though the veracity of the claim isn’t possible, the fact is that BJP did capitalise quite well on the family feud. The messaging was clear, the UP ke Ladke was a cobbled together coalition, with no plan or vision, and thus not worthy anyways. Akhilesh, to be fair, rebelled too late and also erred on the Jai-Veeru bit with RaGa.
Managing the Sangh
It will be a misnomer to say that Sangh is a cog in the BJP’s wheel, it almost seems like the centre around which the wheel rotates. In 2014, RSS had played a significant role in installing Modi as India’s 15th Prime Minister. It was a symbiotic relationship, where the Sangh, labelled as a do-all-evil group was desiring acceptance and credence, while BJP wanted the reigns of the power. In Modi, they found the perfect foil, a former Sanghi who made no bones about his cultural and religious lineage and yet was modern and popular with the electorate.
Nonetheless, it’s an open secret that Modi and RSS share a bit uneasy relationship. In all the years that Modi was the CM of Gujarat, the Sangh was steadily relegated to the sidelines. While Modi acknowledges Savarkar and Golwalkar, he is fashioning a different kind of Hindutva altogether. Hinduism is more of an identifier cultural bit, not necessary a religious bit. This is the reason for the unease between Nagpur and Delhi.
Post 2014, the RSS had worked in the background for many of BJP elections, including the one in Haryana. But somehow, this relationship underwent much strain during the Bihar elections. The duo of Modi-Shah were a bit high-handed in their approach, making deals, finalising candidates, etc., without much consultation. And then, bang in the middle of the election season came the reservation comment by Mohan Bhagwat creating a great controversy. No one still knows, why RSS would talk about reservations in the election time, but what one knows for sure is that BJP did pay a hefty price for it.
This time too, Mohan Vaidya at the Jaipur Literature Festival spoke something about reservations and set the cat among the pigeons. Having been burnt once, the BJP quickly got into a damage mode and worked along with RSS to put a lid on the issue. The party even nominated Keshavprasad Maurya, a sanghi, to head the state BJP unit. This was a master-stroke as the RSS was a stake-holder in the UP elections. By including, Ram Mandir in the manifesto, BJP seem to have mended its relationship with the mentor. The vast network of Sangh in UP was put into overdrive to ensure the turnout of faithful, and conversion of the doubtful. There’s little doubt, that the massive win for BJP would not have been possible without the Sangh in the background.
Busting the Muslim Bank
Uttar Pradesh is a highly fragmented society. Even in the 21st Century, caste and religious identities still play a significant role. Literate and educated souls would still inquire the caste identities of the contestants before casting their votes. Apparently, the Muslims in UP vote enblock. Considering the sheer numbers, the Muslim votebank is like a cake that every party wants to eat. Post Babri Masjid issue in 1992, the consolidation of the Muslim votebank has always been against the BJP. And then, the consolidation is also strategic, namely, the vote goes to the party or the person who is most likely to stall the BJP.
This is the reason, why BSP and SP both were both rolling out a red carpet to the Muslim community, under the assumption that whosoever earns the support, would ascend to the very top. Simple arithmetic, after all.
But the strategic votebank can be confounded and yes divided too. The Muslims in UP were caught in a bind as to who to support since both SP and BSP were wooing it. Secondly, there were a lot of claimants as well, like the Itehad Front of Muslims and of course the Owaisi’s (AIMIM) from Hyderabad. Also, the BJP government’s stance on Triple Talak seemed to have got it many votes from the Muslim women. After all, such a victory cannot be possible with significant cross-voting of Muslims to BJP
The wooing of Muslims was much played up by the BJP, bringing about a counter consolidation of Hindu votes. The fact that it did not give a single ticket to any Muslim in UP, enhanced its appeal on the Hindu side. The result was a spectacular repeat of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, in which the saffron party had swept the state.
Managing with a Microscope
One of the definitive trends of the UP elections is the sheer size and scale of technology usage and data-crunching. The BJP tech team was hands down in this approach, fanning out every town, every polling booth connecting with the electorate. In many ways, the victory in UP is as much a victory of poll strategy, as it is of Big Data Analytics. There was a complete war room set up with constant inputs from the field being updated into a digital heat map.
Also, over the years social media has become a very important arm of an election campaign. Among the social media universe in India, WhatsApp has become the primary vehicle for the campaign. Away from prying eyes and largely under the surface, the most absurd things can be circulated on the network, without any glitch or sneeze. While all parties have adopted WhatsApp, BJP has done so with gusto. It is said that there are a slew of dedicated agencies hired just to create customised content that can be seeded on the network.
While, Congress deployed Prashant Kishor as its core strategist, Amit Shah has a whole team working with him, people like Sushil Bansal and Om Mathur are much accredited for the turnaround in the fortunes of the party. In the months leading up to the elections, BJP went into a member -making overdrive and enlisted close to 20 million party workers. Over a lakh of polling, committees were formed, surveys were conducted and so on. Also, the leaders very astutely were managing the caste combinations of the Jat-Upper Castes-OBC combine. With their ears on the ground, they were constantly adapting the messaging. For instance, when in the initial phases, when the murmurs of a Jat rebellion emerged, Amit Shah immediately set up a series of meetings with the Jat leaders, getting them on board. The machinery of BJP was running like a well-managed MNC versus the rag-tag fighting units of SP, BSP or even Congress. This was the core difference between the party and the rest
Har har Modi
When the results from UP were out, Congress leader PC Chidambaram tweeted that, there’s no taller leader than Modi in India today. Only he is capable of fighting from any region, and yet winning. Many people liken the rise of Modi to that of Indira Gandhi, harking back to the times when ‘Indira was India and India was Indira”. Yet, Modi’s rise is much greater than that of Indira, because he had to strive hard for his laurels and did not receive them as an entitlement. Ever since 2002, when Narendra Modi burst into the national scene, the man has continually been fighting for legitimacy. Every victory, every success of Modi has either been belittled or browbeaten. Suffice to say that there is hardly any leader in India who has been so much reviled and attacked.
Yet, Modi has managed to soar to the top despite all the odds. He singlehandedly has changed the politics in India. Under siege of intellectuals and so-called secularists and under the glare of media, Modi continues to chart his course with deftness and precision. Using his own personal instances of class and caste, Modi has weaved a compelling narrative that touches the chord of millions of Indians, who were economically marginalised. He has smartly played (or rather underplayed) the Hindu-card, using his silence (on issues) and his actions (temple visits and aartis) to underscore his allegiance to the saffron agenda. For very many years, scores of Indian politicians and parties have indulged in minority-ism (appeasing a particular segment through policies and freebies), Modi has turned the tables on them by unhindered use of majority-ism. In many ways like the communist, he is weaving a class -based structure, uniting the fragmented Hindus under one banner. In an electoral system, where cornering a 40% is fabulous victory, Modi has decided to focus more sharply on the 85%. In a country that has seen the pandering of linguistic parochialism, sticking of Bhindrawale, dismissal of majority government, Shahbano, Shilanyas, Mandal politics, and so on, it would be truly unfair to target Modi for his brand of politics. By directly connecting to masses through riveting speeches or online tweets, the Prime Minister has been able to connect with masses and convey his ‘mann ki baat‘. Little wonder, the BJP’s fortunes are intricately tied to the charisma of Modi, if it works the party wins, if it fails the party flounders.
Yet, Modi did take a huge calculated risk on UP. By running the campaign as a mini-referendum, he was risking the stability of his government and the scales of his reforms. Had BJP failed in UP, the knives would have been out not only from outside, but even inside.
A massive win in UP means more for Modi than even the Lok Sabha elections in 2014. He now has the opposition in a disarray, from Arvind Kejriwal to Mamta Banerjee, from Mayawati to Udhav Thackeray, everyone will now be wary of a powerful BJP. In a Congress-mukt Bharat, there’s hardly any party that they can align with on a national scale. Till date, BJP was the ‘communal untouchable’, now it is the desirable ally. The shift can be witnessed as to how the party is set to form governments in Goa and Manipur despite being the second-largest group, simply as all smaller parties and independents are getting attracted like bees to honey.
In the end, the definitive win in UP will have much impact on the polity in India. Many naysayers will be silenced, the reform process may be fast-tracked, Parliament may start functioning, et al. PM Modi is now emboldened to take many measures, and we could witness many of them in the coming days. Omar Abdullah, the former CM of Jammu & Kashmir, aptly summed up the scenario in India in a matter of two tweets. In a nutshell there is no leader today with a pan India acceptability who can take on Modi & the BJP in 2019.
If no plausible alternative (and I don’t mean a wily-mahagatbandhan or anything) emerges in the next year or two, Modi’s second term is more or less in the bag. With UP painted saffron, it won’t be long before much else in India is also painted in the same color.