The massive victory of the BJP in the Uttar Pradesh election has come as a surprise. While it was expected that it would be the single-largest party, there was also a perception that there could be a hung assembly due to the aggressive fight by opposition parties. As in 2014, it is a Modi rather than a BJP victory. The lack of strong BJP leaders in UP and a CM candidate did not matter as Narendra Modi took over the role of the chief campaigner. Also, the BJP has evolved into a disciplined, cadre-based party under its president Amit Shah, who has run a well-organised campaign.
While much has been said about Modi’s charisma, a fundamental reason for the success of the BJP is the lack of mass leaders in the Samajwadi Party, and more particularly the Congress. The emergence of Akhilesh Yadav as a young, development-oriented leader came too late and he could not shed the baggage of the SP as a feudal, corrupt party that tolerated riots in 2013 and has links with mafia dons. Also, the absence of Mulayam Singh Yadav, a senior, backward caste leader, worked against the party. For the Congress, dynasty has clearly not worked; Rahul Gandhi has not delivered over a number of elections. Many capable, second-line leaders in the party have been sidelined; where local leaders get space the party has performed well, as in Punjab.
The SP-Congress alliance, therefore, proved to be a disaster. It was hoped the former would attract the Yadav and Muslim votes; the latter upper caste votes. But, the upper castes moved towards the BJP while the Muslim vote got divided between the alliance and the BSP, giving the BJP an advantage. Moreover, the alliance leaders calculated narrowly on the basis of caste/community; they spent their time attacking Modi offering no alternative agenda to the electorate.
The BSP has performed poorly. While the 2000s have witnessed a decline in identity politics, it would be wrong to write off the BSP or Mayawati. Caste-based inequality remains a reality; but identity alone no longer appeals to the Dalits or Muslims. A young, post-Independence, educated, lower middle-class generation is demanding quality education, jobs and rapid development in UP. In 2007, Mayawati introduced a broad-based developmental agenda, but her reaching out to the Brahmins disappointed the Dalits. Clearly, she has the complex task of bringing together identity and development, to remain politically relevant.
In contrast, the BJP cast it net wider. Since the late 1990s, the BJP has been mobilising to create a more inclusive, “non-Brahminical Hindutva” through the RSS and local leaders such as Yogi Adityanath. Modi’s communal remarks were not so much against Muslims, but to consolidate this new Hindutva vote-bank. They paid rich dividends: The Jats in western UP, the OBCs in eastern UP and non-Jatav Dalits have supported the BJP. Added to this, Modi’s promise of development and clever twisting of demonetisation into a class issue, which would extract black-money from the rich, has made him the messiah of the poor.
The results suggest a tectonic shift in UP and national politics; the BJP has made a big breakthrough after 15 years. We are witnessing the emergence of a post-identity, post- globalisation polity where an aspirational and consumerist Hindu middle-class focused on development does not seem bothered by the rise of a majoritarian democracy. The collapse of the Congress and the “social justice” parties in UP — a key state — has perhaps opened the door for consolidation of Right-wing forces in the country and the possibility of victory in 2019.
Sudha Pai is national fellow, Indian Council of Social Sciences, and former professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University
The views expressed are personal