In 2014, BJP won 42% of the vote in Uttar Pradesh. This was a remarkable jump from the 15% vote share it had during the 2012 elections. And that is why the upcoming election in UP is for the BJP to lose.
When it started out, the BJP narrowed on a three-course campaign menu.
In terms of issues, a top BJP strategist told Hindustan Times in November, it would target the Samajwadi Party (SP) government on law and order and corruption, and promise development.
In terms of leadership, it would project PM Narendra Modi and local leaders.
And in terms of arithmetic, it would rely on 50-60% of the electorate – the upper castes, the non-Yadav OBCs, and the non-Jatav Dalits. “For too long, we have been confined to 20% upper castes. We have to expand our party among OBCs, among women and youth, and in rural areas,” said the strategist then.
To boost the campaign, it added two additional elements – the ‘surgical strikes’ to portray a strong government which had taught Pakistan a lesson; and demonetisation as an exercise which had ‘taught the rich a lesson’, in the process transforming the party into a ‘pro-poor force’.
“We are now a party of the poor. In one stroke, the suit boot ki sarkar tag has gone,” a BJP UP spokesperson had declared in November.
A fortnight before the first phase of elections in UP, the elaborate spread has not worked out: the party is instead relying on one-and-a-half dishes. It is not just deprived of local leaders, it is also now working without an agenda. All it has going for it is Modi, and careful caste arithmetic.
This may still be enough to get the 30% or so votes required to scrape through, but clearly it cannot conceal the crisis underway.
Losing the narrative
So what has gone wrong?
The problem is that the BJP today is fighting the election without a grand narrative. None of its campaign issues are resonating on the ground, or even being articulated forcefully.
Take it one by one.
The BJP had thought law and order would be its big plank this election. But then it encountered a problem. The voter often remembers the final year or two of a government’s tenure. While the SP regime undoubtedly had a poor record in maintaining order, controlling riots in the first two to three years, Akhilesh Yadav eventually got a grip on the law and order situation. Schemes like Dial 100 – where people can directly call a centralised police control room in Lucknow – have helped in creating an impression that the government is serious about cracking down on crime. And so the anti-incumbency factor that used to exist against, say a Mulayam-led SP government at the end of his tenure on the law and order question has diminished considerably. Akhilesh was also able to shed the goonda image of the SP’s old guard in the recent family feud. The bruising feud also help shape a public perception that Akhilesh was not averse to taking on the goons.
But for those for whom law and order is a pressing concern, it is BSP chief Mayawati who seems a better alternative, notwithstanding the entry of the Ansari family. In west UP pockets, as this reporter travelled with BSP candidates, the repeated refrain was there was ‘peace’ under Behenji, that she knew how to control the administration, that under her both a lion and goat could drink water from the same well - denoting how the law was equal for all. If law and order becomes a big issue, BSP - at least in west UP, and not the BJP, is best positioned to take advantage of it.
And while the issue of corruption may have benefited the BJP, it has got linked to demonetisation. In the first month after the note ban, there was euphoria as the poor, the rural affluent, as well as the professional middle classes saw it as a move against the country’s corrupt elements. By the end of the second month, the enthusiasm had evaporated. The benefits remained elusive although the pain was tangible, but there was no hostility either. Almost three months down the road, there is visible dissatisfaction among the most poor segments - daily wage labourers, construction workers, farm labour - and certain communities - Muslims and Dalits in particular, and traders.
Counter intuitive as it may sound, despite its disruptive implications, voting may not necessarily happen on the issue of the note ban but other local factors. But if at all there is voting on this, it may work against BJP. Three BJP MLA candidates - from different parts of the state - told HT that they expect a drop in turnout of a section of their core supporters because of this issue. Many of these candidates are thus hoping that people would forget about demonetisation; and they don’t seem to raise it vocally in their campaign. The profiles of the candidates also do not help. It is one thing for Modi - with his clean image and austere background – to raise it. But from candidates who come from prosperous backgrounds, and are involved in multiple businesses, sermons on how the rich have lost does not quite strike a chord. So for most part, they prefer not to raise it except a casual reference.
“Till four months ago, we were attacking SP for corruption. Now we have to defend our own economic record,” one candidate told HT.
The third issue the BJP had thought it would be able to monopolise was development. But this is where Akhilesh Yadav - irrespective of whether he wins or not – has wrested an advantage over the party. Today, across communities and regions, there is an acknowledgment – even if it is grudging among non-supporters – that Akhilesh has worked. “Kaam to kiya hai’. He has cleverly combined infrastructure (expressway, metro, roads), welfare (pensions, ambulances) and modern aspirations (laptops, smartphones) while carving out a development image for himself. The BJP has not yet been able to offer specifics to counter it.
And no one in UP, not even the BJP anymore, is talking about the ‘surgical strikes’ anymore. Only three months ago seemed like the big game-changer in the elections. Constituents, when pressed, will say the government did well in responding to Pakistan; it has boosted Modi’s image but it is not something that is a potential determinant of local voting patterns.
All of this has meant that the BJP is left, in west UP particularly, with only one issue – Hindu pride, and need for revenge against SP for its Muslim ‘appeasement’. But from a pan-UP perspective, the party and its candidates on the ground are struggling to deliver a coherent, focused, new message that appeals to the diverse electorate.
Leadership and arithmetic
Early on, the BJP’s crisis of local leadership became apparent. It was not able to project a CM face.
This was either because Modi-Amit Shah did not want any other leader to grow in stature in the Hindi heartland; or because there was no such leader who had the stature to take on the established faces of the state; or because the tallest leader from the state – Rajnath Singh – was unwilling to go or was not deployed; or because it would have upset the fragile caste coalition - an upper caste CM face would alienate the OBCs and vice versa; or because of all the above reasons.
Instead, the BJP put up four faces on the poster – Singh as the Thakur face, Uma Bharti as the Lodh face, Kalraj Mishra as the Brahmin face, and state president Keshav Maurya as the OBC face. The problem is that when there is no certified CM face, then no leader is accountable – and no leader’s support base puts in all its might. That is what has happened; except Maurya, none of the other leaders are really invested in the campaign, and Maurya himself is the weakest link of the four. The fact that many other district level leaders feel alienated over ticket distribution has not helped.
And this means that on the leadership question, BJP is left just with half a dish – PM Modi’s face. He is still enormously popular; few doubt his intentions and work ethic; and he is still seem as the best leader India can have. But the contribution of the local leadership to the battle is minimal.
What BJP still has going for it is arithmetic.
A substantial section of the upper castes – except maybe Bania traders directly hit by demonetisation, and community members of upper caste candidates of other parties in particular candidates – are likely to vote for the BJP. A large element of the Jat, Pal, Saini, Prajapati, Kuswaha, Kashyap, Maurya, Lodh, Kurmi vote may also go to the party. And the Muslim vote could well get fragmented between SP-Congress and BSP – an essential pre-requisite for a BJP win.
What this means is that if BJP wins, it will have Modi’s image and careful caste management to thank. It will not be because of a story it has told UP’s 200 million people, a promise it has made or delivered on, the local leadership it has groomed, or the dreams it has offered. From an election that should have been a walkover, UP 2017 has become a real battle for the BJP.
(The views expressed are personal. The author tweets as @prashantktm)