Riding 'Surgical Strike' Wave, BJP Sets Sight on UP Elections

Despite no visible economic improvement in people's lives, the BJP is hoping that Narendra Modi will emerge as the pre-eminent leader in UP.


Now that BJP President Amit Shah has said that the party will “certainly” go to the people on the issue of surgical strikes, the big question is how will this play out in the poll bound states where state elections take place in February next year? More significantly, how will the war rhetoric be entangled with the poll rhetoric in Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP certainly has a chance to win power?

A quick look back to what happened in 1999 when another BJP prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was at the helm during the Kargil War will be helpful. Having lost the 1998 government by one vote, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by Vajpayee collectively fought the 1999 national elections in September, just months after the Kargil war that extended from May to July of the same year. The BJP got one seat more, but the NDA was cemented: from 1998 to 1999 the coalition went from being a post-election collective to a pre-election compact.

But beyond the modest electoral gains, the Kargil war did enhance Vajpayee’s image just as the 1971 war turned Indira Gandhi into something of a goddess. (It is also worth noting that by 1973 the halo had evaporated and by 1975 Indira had imposed the Emergency).

As for the surgical strikes, we can have little doubt that domestically they have enhanced the image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a decisive leader. This is also happening because the the traditional national opposition barely exists as Rahul Gandhi has not been convincing as an alternative leader. His fumbles in Hindi do not make him capable of putting out phrases such as “khoon ki dalali” with any credibility or force; the jumla has in fact been counter-productive.

There is meanwhile another process at work with the evolving prime ministership of Narendra Modi. Ever since he made the nuanced speech at the BJP national council in Kozhikode on September 24, we are possibly also seeing the evolution of the sort of dualism that was typical of the Vajpayee era: the leader sets himself apart from the din and controversial words of party leaders down the hierarchy. For instance, Modi has not tweeted about the surgical strikes and stories have appeared saying Modi has told Cabinet colleagues to avoid “chest thumping”. Yet in the season of Dussehra and Diwali, it’s unlikely that the PM will say nothing about the triumph of good versus evil.

What is also clear is that contrary to the ‘Nation First’ sloganeering by the media, the BJP absolutely and completely intends to own the surgical strikes. Anyone — the average citizen or a political leader — who asks questions about the specifications or efficacy of the strikes is quickly accused of helping the Pakistanis. Besides, the BJP president has now stated emphatically that there is a need to celebrate the achievements of the army and thereby “build their morale”. He has offered no apology for posters with soldiers appearing in Uttar Pradesh; one can only surmise that more such posters will be part of the BJP’s campaign material in the state.

It is often said that there are no new ideas; there are only new ways of making them felt and understood. For the BJP/RSS one of the greatest challenges has been to keep repackaging old-fashioned communalism. As the party heads towards the Uttar Pradesh polls, does not wish to appear as a disrupter of social order and yet the communal pot has been on the boil particularly in the western part of the state. War is therefore a useful metaphor in a region where BJP supporters and RSS campaigners routinely use the phrase “chotta Pakistan” to describe Muslim dominated localities. The BJP has a battery of MPs and MLAs in Uttar Pradesh who outdo each other in using the most communal language and symbolism. Western UP in particular is fertile ground for communal politics as it has some of the highest Muslim population figures in many districts: Saharanpur (31%), Muzaffarnagar (29%), Bijnor (39%) Moradabad (38%), Rampur (48%), Meerut (26%) and Ghaziabad (22%).

What is significant about this part of UP is that contrary to popular perception, this is not necessarily a bastion of the SP whose traditional vote-bank is built on Yadav foundations such as those found in the Etah, Etawah, Mainpuri belt where the Muslim population varies from 5 percent to 10 %. The BSP is actually a bigger force in western Uttar Pradesh and Mayawati’s party would be hoping to consolidate the Muslim vote on top of its Dalit base in this region. Calculations are now being based on the presumption that the BJP’s growth among Dalits (21% of the state’s population) has stopped following the suicide of Rohith Vemula and the thrashing of Dalits in Una, Gujarat.

But the BJP believes that the image of a muscular leadership would go down well in the section of society that would be the backbone of their attempt to conquer UP: non-Yadav OBCs besides the Thakurs (7.5 % of the population) whose influence always outweighs their numerical strength. An enhanced image of the prime minister could also work to woo the state’s Brahmins (10%) whose support is also sought by the BSP and Congress. The BJP expects the antipathy to a potential Dalit-Muslim compact to be the unifying factor for other sections of society.

But the national party is actually confronted with both a challenge and an opportunity if the SP bastions start crumbling after the slug-fest in ruling Yadav clan and the undermining of chief minister Akhilesh Yadav.

On the one hand the BJP would like to mop up Backward Caste and Thakur support that also went to the SP, a party with deep organisational roots. At the same time, the BJP would also like the SP to be strong enough to divide the Muslim community (19%). Traditionally, minority voters have shown a greater inclination for the SP over the BSP and contrary to the myth of a Muslim monolith, the community’s votes have been divided. The BJP would like to keep it that way.

The BJP got a huge 42% of the votes in UP during the 2014 national election. Even if we presume this will drop by 10%, they are still a big player in the state. There are arguments that the promised Achche Din of the 2014 polls have not materialised and hence people would be disillusioned with the BJP. To a point, yes, but the alternatives on show are hardly convincing either. Besides, the state government can also be blamed for the dismal state of affairs and the BJP would no doubt argue about the benefits of the same party ruling Delhi and Lucknow.

Besides, state elections in Uttar Pradesh are still mainly fought on issues of identity and managing the arithmetic of three-cornered contests. That is primarily the task that the BJP would be engaged in. The party will hope that the surgical strikes have catapulted Narendra Modi above other leaders in spite of the fact that in economic terms peoples’ lives have not improved.

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