Advantage Opposition as UP Voters Jettison Communal Issues, Focus on Livelihood Issues

There seems to be immense anger against Yogi Adityanath in particular for his high-handed ways.

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These past few weeks have brought home some new aspects of voter behaviour across Uttar Pradesh, which might have far-reaching implications for the 2024 general elections.

For one, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with its formidable election machine and the much touted ability to control the political narrative was totally at sea when voters across UP suddenly started seeing reality for what it is. In all of UP, unemployment and livelihood issues have taken centre stage. Majoritarian politics has been mostly jettisoned by the voter. The ordinary voter has led the agenda by telling the political parties what she cares about. The Modi-Shah-Yogi trio, so accustomed to playing to the Hindutva gallery, was not used to this role reversal. Someone else setting the tone was a new experience for them.

Voters are even seeing the embedded media (‘Godi Media’) for what it is. In west UP, farmers and the youth from all communities closed ranks and vowed to focus on livelihood issues like farm incomes, jobs and inflation. This was greatly facilitated by Rakesh Tikait, who used the Mahapanchayat platforms to drive the message of harmony among Hindu and Muslim peasants by urging them to forget past animosities. As part of the inter-community healing process, Tikait revived the twin slogans “Allah hu Akbar” and “Har Har Mahadev” at a Mahapanchayat. This slogan had special significance because Rakesh Tikait’s father, the late Mahendra Singh Tikait, used it extensively to keep unity among farmers in western UP back in the 1980s.

The BJP, on the other hand, tried to open past wounds caused by the Muzaffarnagar riots in 2013. But it didn’t work. Adityanath kept saying the opposition parties belonged to Jinnah and Aurangzeb, but the voters paid little heed.

For the first time in eight years, one saw opposition party leaders like Rashtriya Lok Dal chief Jayant Chaudhary publicly urging people to maintain Hindu-Muslim brotherhood and focus on jobs and livelihood issues. I witnessed farmers responding loudly and endorsing the call for harmony and brotherhood. This is making the BJP distinctly uncomfortable. The party is still having nightmares about large scale desertion of the Jat voters who vowed to teach BJP a lesson after the way the Union government treated the protesting farmers at Delhi’s borders.

Also read: In O.P. Rajbhar’s Zahoorabad, Caste and Religion Allegiances Have Turned on Their Head

Eastern UP too has followed in the same vein. My travels through the rural districts of Varanasi, Balia, Mirzapur and Sonbhadra made one thing clear – young voters cutting across castes are very, very angry and they want “badlav” (change). And they badly want jobs. In rural Varanasi, some residents insisted that we go and see a maidan where young men practice long distance running all the time, hoping to get recruited in the police and armed forces. But no jobs have come their way in two years. “Many have become over age,” said an elderly man.

Residents are also tired of the condescending way in which the BJP leadership talks about how Narendra Modi did not let 15 crore people starve, post COVID-19. While the elderly may feel obligated for free rations, the younger family members told this writer that they want jobs so they can buy their own ration. They do not want to depend on the government for free ration. There is a certain pride among the young which the ruling party seems to have misread. Welfarism works to some extent but cannot be a substitute for the dignity of working to provide for oneself and one’s family.

D.S. Chauhan, a minister in the UP cabinet who left the party to join Akhilesh Yadav’s alliance, put it succinctly when he suggested that the BJP confuses welfarism with real empowerment.

UP CM Yogi Adityanath caresses his pet dog during his visit to Gorakhnath Temple, in Gorakhpur, Monday, March 7, 2022. Photo: PTI

In general, people of east UP seem to have discounted the welfare measures taken by the Modi government. They want to go beyond that and improve their lives, not just survive on dole handed out by the government. Many talk about how their reserved jobs are in jeopardy because of indiscriminate privatisation or leasing out of services like railways, roads, airports etc. One was surprised to hear people in remote villages in Balia talk about potential job losses due to privatisation. Even a young party member of Apna Dal, which supports the BJP, told me that jobs in the railways and other PSUs are on the decline.

Additionally, there seems to be immense anger against Yogi Adityanath in particular for his high-handed ways. The local BJP cadres seem resentful that the UP administration paid no attention to their needs during the Yogi tenure. Yogi is being projected as a tough leader and named “bulldozer baba”. One saw two large bulldozers placed in a college football ground in the Pindra constituency where Yogi majestically descended in a helicopter to address a public meeting. “Bulldozer baba” is arriving soon to address the people, announced a BJP worker from the stage. But as Yogi began speaking, one saw people leaving in droves and there were barely a few hundred left in the audience towards the end of his speech. One wondered whether this is the popularity of a man touted as BJP’s future prime ministerial candidate. I asked a local BJP leader why even the regular Sangh workers seemed absent in Yogi’s meeting, and he said there is some demoralisation among the cadres. This is bad news for Adityanath. After all, the BJP prides itself on having the most competent booth-level workers.

Overall, it is very clear that the momentum is in favour of the opposition, mainly the Samajwadi Party alliance. Social scientist Badri Narayan, a professor at the Govind Vallabh Pant Social Science Institute at Allahabad, says the broader social alliance built by the BJP which helped it take its vote share to 40% in 2017 is somewhat splintering and going back to their original bases – Bahujan Samaj Party, SP as well as other outfits. Narayan describes this as “phata vote” or “torn vote”. So a significant decline in the BJP’s vote share is a certainty. How it converts into seats for the BJP and other parties is a tricky question. But overall, there is little doubt that it is advantage SP and its broader alliance with lower backward caste parties.

Also read: As Gorakhpur Goes to Polls, Adityanath Faces Stiff Competition in His ‘Bastion’

In the final analysis, the UP elections may become a precursor of a distinct shift in India’s politics from communal polarisation to livelihood issues. This will further intensify as India’s economy gets buffeted by the Ukraine crisis and overall negative effects of the sanctions against Russia. It is also true that going forward, there will be some fatigue with Modi-centric politics and real issues might come increasingly to the fore. This will again be advantage opposition.

It is a given that any setback for the BJP in the Uttar Pradesh elections will open up the opposition space in multiple ways. It is not for nothing that Amit Shah is reported to have said that winning UP is a must to help Modi get a third term as prime minister at the Centre.