Is 'Hindu Consolidation' the Last Refuge for BJP in UP?

Narendra Modi and Amit Shah have raised the communal temperature in the state from the fourth phase onwards, but it remains to be seen whether the party will be able to get its critical mass of Hindu votes cutting across various castes.

A supporter of India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) waves the party's flag during a rally being addressed by Gujarat's Chief Minister and Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate for BJP, ahead of the 2014 general elections, at Meerut in the northern A supporter of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) waves the party’s flag during a rally. Credit: Reuters/Ahmad Masood

A supporter of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) waves the party’s flag during a rally. Credit: Reuters/Ahmad Masood

Uttar Pradesh: There are interesting similarities in the way ground level assessments by political parties were shaped during the long drawn assembly elections in Bihar in 2015 and in Uttar Pradesh now. Midway through both elections, the BJP had suddenly upped the communal temperature in a bid to consolidate the elusive ‘Hindu vote’. Many political commentators assert that the ground is more fertile in UP for the polarisation of votes on communal lines but there is still no certainty on if the so-called ‘Hindu consolidation’ happens on a large enough scale.

In Bihar, it didn’t happen at all as the caste combinations stitched up by Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar trumped the BJP. Narendra Modi and Amit Shah have raised the communal temperature quite sharply from the fourth phase onward, as the action now shifts to eastern UP. So will the BJP get its critical mass of Hindu votes cutting across various castes? This is indeed the key question most independent analysts, and even those within the political parties, are asking.

In Bihar, the BJP was clearly insecure about the backward caste base of the Yadav/Kumar combination supplemented by the Congress, which still had some upper caste voters backing it. Of course in Bihar, there was a “mahagatbandhan” (mega alliance), but in UP, there is only a “gatbandhan” (alliance) between the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Congress. Though this alliance looks far less threatening than Bihar’s mega alliance, it has made Modi insecure enough to go on a crude polarisation campaign quite unbecoming of a prime minister.

So what could Modi and Shah’s calculations in raising the communal temperature? Sudhir Panwar, member of the Planning Commission in the UP government and a SP candidate from Thana Bhawan in western UP, had an interesting explanation as to why Modi and Shah had suddenly upped the communal ante from the fourth phase onwards. He says, “In much of eastern UP, Mayawati is weak and the fight is directly between the BJP and SP alliance. And in this region, the SP also has a reasonably strong support base among the non-Yadav backward castes. And it is here that the BJP wants to attempt a Hindu consolidation by bringing the non-Yadav backwards into their fold”.

Of course, even in western UP, the Hindu card was played to assuage the angry Jats but it doesn’t seem to have succeeded all that much, especially in contrast to the Jat consolidation which occurred in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. But the BJP leadership had internalised the fact that the Jats were very angry and had moved away in significant numbers. So Modi and Shah did not expend their own personal polarising “capital ” for western UP. Besides, Jats are relatively less ideologically motivated than the OBCs of eastern UP who have been raised by the Sangh on a sustained Hindutva diet, starting from the Ram Temple movement.

The focus on eastern UP is because the BJP is confident of doing much better here. Overall, just as there was about 30% vote block of most backward castes fragmented into dozens of sub-castes of 0.5% to 2.5% each in Bihar, in UP, there is close to 30% vote share (largest block) of non-Yadav lower backward castes. This is the vote block that has allegiance across the BJP, SP, BSP and Congress in central and eastern UP. It is too scattered in its voting intent, unlike the Yadavs, Dalits, Brahmins, Rajputs or Muslims who seem to exhibit a clearer preference.

Whichever party takes the bulk of this 30 percentage points of the fragmented lower backward caste groups – Mauryas, Kashyaps, Saini, Patel, Prajapati, Mallahs – is expected to form the government in UP.

In Bihar too, the most backward caste votes seemed to have tilted the scales decisively in favour of the Kumar/Yadav alliance. In UP, the BJP is hoping that the majority of the non-Yadav, lower backward caste will stay with Modi as they did in 2014. According to a post-poll analysis by the CSDS, about 65% of all the non-Yadav backward castes in UP had gone with the BJP in 2014. Indeed, that was a huge strike rate which fetched the party 42% vote share and 90% of the seats in UP. If the BJP repeats that performance in the current elections, it will get a big majority.

Internally, however, the BJP is not confident of repeating that performance. Consequently, it is making a desperate attempt at polarisation on communal lines. The ingenious Modi is resorting to new ways of subtly signalling to the Hindu majority. His claim, yet to be firmly established by the investigating agencies, that there was an ISI plot behind the Kanpur train accident is a case in point. Any mention of ISI/Pakistan plot does help aggravate majoritarian anxieties.

The BJP knows it won’t repeat the 2014 performance of grabbing 42% of the total vote share. It is now trying to ensure the fall is arrested at a reasonable level of 30-35% of the total vote, which will keep the party in the game. The SP has about 25% as its core vote base (Yadav + Muslims + other backward classes). Its alliance with Congress will definitely add to this. With the alliance, the SP could easily cross a 30% vote share. Mayawati’s BSP also has 25% as its core vote share. It can potentially cross 30% vote with the help of Muslims who have tactically voted for her in some pockets and may even get some non-Yadav OBCs as an additional layer to supplement her Dalit base.

In 2012, the SP got 29% of the total votes and romped home with 226 seats in an assembly of 403 members. The BSP didn’t do badly at all and got 26% vote share but was limited to just 80 seats. Just note that Mayawati’s party was just 4 percentage points behind SP but the latter got 140 seats more than the BSP. In a four-cornered fight, just a two or three percentage points vote swing can fetch over 100 seats extra for the winner. This time the fight is three-cornered but still seems to be four-cornered in many places. This is what is causing so much uncertainty and anxiety. And this is what marks Modi’s return to whipping up majoritarian feelings.