The crux of the election is that Narendra Modi’s opponents could not match him in weaving a broader political narrative around development.
New Delhi: If there is one message that comes out of the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections, it is that the BJP is the only party that currently represents all streams of politics. Evidently, it is being perceived as a development-oriented, nationalist party, in addition to being a peculiarly inclusive party that does not “appease minorities”.
As the massive mandate for the BJP shows in UP, it was also successful in projecting itself as the only party that can address the concerns of all caste groups. The fact that it won nearly 75% of the seats means that people from across all castes may have voted for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s combined strategy of development and communal polarisation. This marks a clear departure from the way UP politics has been practiced by different groups following the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and Mandal agitation in the early 1990s, which had divided the “forward” castes and others politically.
In this context, what is clear from the UP results is that the BJP, under the leadership of Modi, was stunningly successful in consolidating Hindus within its own rhetoric of nationalism and development. BJP national president Amit Shah termed the outcome a vote for “BJP’s ideology” and Modi’s growth policies.
Indeed, it will be misleading to pitch one factor against the other. The undercurrent of the Sangh parivar’s Hindutva remained the only constant in the BJP’s campaign, which ostensibly hinged on vikas. In a state like UP, where inequality levels are starkly high and public infrastructure has completely decayed, the BJP’s message of sabka saath, sabka vikaas resonated with a broad section of Hindus – even as it alienated Muslims – marking a success, not only for the BJP, but also for communal majoritarianism.
Many of the BJP’s critics had pointed out that the saffron party did not field a single Muslim candidate – confirmation of the communal polarisation it practices. Midway through the polls, Modi provocatively said that the SP government discriminated between Hindus and Muslims even at the level of providing basic facilities like electricity.
Such was the intensity of the campaign that despite the Samajwadi Party government releasing detailed data of electricity provisions during Eid and Diwali, it did not cut much ice with a large section of voters. The subtlety of the communal campaign was successful in giving the impression that the BJP is the only party to challenge the status quo of the patronage system practiced by the SP and Congress.
Vijay Shankar Upadhyaya, a political analyst in Mau, had previously termed this phenomenon as “communalising development”. In this politics of development, Modi has created a constituency and vote bank called “Hindus” out of the various castes and groups of the state.
In contrast to the BJP, both the SP and the BSP offered neither a new language nor a new paradigm of development. As a result, their ideas did not gain much ground, with almost 40% of the people in UP voting for the BJP – a minority, but large enough to win any party an election.
It is noteworthy that Modi’s leadership successfully broke the backbone of identity-driven caste politics in UP. Historically, UP politics has always panned out in terms of caste vote blocks. While the SP was successful in consolidating Muslims and Yadavs, the BSP’s penetration among Dalits and tactful social engineering with ‘forward’ castes have won it elections in the past. However, these social fault lines, which were so significant and dictated previous results, had negligible importance in the face of a resurgent BJP under Modi and his larger message of Hindu consolidation and development.
Some BJP leaders The Wire spoke to said that the victory is beyond what they could have imagined. Indeed, while the party relied largely on the broad agenda of consolidation and development, it had made efforts to stitch a social coalition of “forward caste” and “non-Yadav OBCs”. With the BJP winning this way, the people of UP have indicated their exhaustion with caste coalitions, which have failed to have any long-term impact on people’s lives.
For the last month-and-a-half, Modi campaigned from the front and invoked the failures of such coalitions and called for parivartan (change). While doing so, he continually questioned extensive patronage networks developed by different parties, conveniently omitting the BJP’s own place within them.
While the BJP has benefitted to a great extent from its non-Yadav OBC-forward caste formula of alliance, the results cannot be understood by asking which caste coalition worked better. A look at the seats indicates the BJP winning in fierce Yadav strongholds like Etah, Etawah, Mainpuri and so on. Similarly, in many seats like Agra and Bundelkhand, which are Jatav-dominated and BSP bastions, the BJP has won with massive margins.
On the other hand, Muslim votes stood divided. The trends in various seats of Muslim-dominated districts like Muzaffarnagar, Moradabad, Aligarh and so on show that both the BSP and the SP got almost equal number of votes, ceding advantage to the BJP.
In Bihar, two traditional opponents – Rashtirya Janata Dal and Janata Dal (United) – came together against the BJP. In UP, while the BJP got around 40% of the votes, the BSP and SP each had a 22% vote share at the time of writing, while the Congress hovered around 6%. This shows that a larger alliance on the lines of Bihar would have been a better challenge to the BJP. Such is the power of Modi that it needs a united opposition to defeat the BJP.
“He was seen as a politician out there to challenge the status quo, bring in real impact in people’s lives and take harsh steps for long-term gains. These are important political messages in a poor state like UP. In contrast, both Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati banked on old-style politics and promised sops like smartphones or pressure cookers (SP’s promise) or a separate state of Poorvanchal (Mayawati’s promise). Basic systems of governance have failed in UP. Everything depends on the level of access to the regional politician. Modi symbolises that radical change which the people of UP wanted. He has a new language to address people,” said a Leftist political thinker in Varanasi, who did not wish to be named.
He added that while people are smitten with Modi’s ways at present, they will definitely weigh his performance in the years to come and see whether his rhetoric matches his action.
As the BJP romps home with more than 300 seats in a 403-member UP assembly after two decades, the crux of the UP election is that Modi’s opponents could not match him in weaving a broader political narrative around development. While Modi communalised his development narrative, there was no secular alternative. The SP, Congress and BSP displayed a conspicuous lack of imagination and creativity in challenging Modi’s message and this finally led to their downfall. In this context, the BJP was seen by a major section of the state’s Hindu voters as the only viable option.