In a conversation on the day of India’s ‘surgical strikes’, a top BJP leader recounted how the entire party leadership had been under tremendous public pressure — since the attack in Uri — to respond to Pakistan. “Our Facebook pages were full of criticism for not doing anything.”
Irrespective of whether domestic opinion was the trigger for the decision, there is little doubt that the strikes will have an impact on national politics. Narendra Modi’s reputation as a strong leader has got reinforced. He is seen to have delivered on a key campaign promise by inflicting costs on Pakistan. The move has enthused the party base and ideological affiliates. And the fact that no opposition party has dared to ask questions is a sign of the power of the current narrative.
But whether the BJP will succeed in capitalising on this national narrative, and brushing away local factors, in state elections is yet to be seen. This will be first put to the test in the heartland state of Uttar Pradesh.
Here is what we know of the dynamics in UP so far.
There is no wave for any party. There is no over-arching narrative around which parties are framing their campaigns. There is a fragmented polity, and multiple social fault-lines persist. And each force is playing with a set of four cards — personality, caste, religion, and governance. Let us examine their strengths and vulnerabilities on each of these counts.
First, personality. Indian elections have long been centred around leaders. But the BJP refined this further, when they converted the 2014 elections into a presidential contest. A similar trend has been visible in states. From Mamata Banerjee, Naveen Patnaik and Nitish Kumar in the east to Vasundhara Raje in the west, from Arvind Kejriwal in the north to Jayalalithaa in the south, the question of who becomes CM is important to the voter.
Both the SP and BSP have an edge here. There is enormous goodwill for CM Akhilesh Yadav. He is seen as sincere, but weak. The recent internal family feud showed he wanted to break old patterns, but also exposed the limits of his power. The SP family is Akhilesh’s strength and the reason he is CM, but also his liability.
Mayawati is India’s tallest Dalit leader, who evokes admiration in many quarters. From a village sarpanch in west UP’s Amroha to a boatman on the Varanasi ghats, we have heard people say, “Mayawati was a strong leader. Administration was tight under her.” What goes against her is the image of high-handedness, corruption and inaccessibility.
This is where the BJP is at its weakest. It does not have a CM face. Its tallest leader in UP, home minister Rajnath Singh, is unlikely to return to state politics. Other leaders are either too rabid and polarising, or not trusted by Modi-Amit Shah, or past their peak, or merely leaders of their own micro caste groups. Modi remains popular, but as a voter in east UP said, “He won’t shift to Lucknow. What’s the point?”
The Congress has put forward the well-regarded Sheila Dikshit as CM candidate. It has sought to capitalise on her identity as a Brahman daughter-in-law of the state. But UP’s younger demographic cannot quite relate to her. Dikshit has not been in UP politics for decades. The game would have been entirely different if Priyanka Gandhi had agreed to be the party face — but Dikshit cannot compensate for the organisational weaknesses of the party. Rahul Gandhi’s yatra has drawn crowds, but like 2012, the challenge of converting it into votes is probably too big for the Congress to overcome.
Second, caste. Caste is not the only factor that determines electoral outcomes. But it remains a significant tool of voter mobilisation in a political context where caste networks determine access to state services.
Two caste groups have fixed loyalties. Jatavs (the biggest Dalit group) will stay with Mayawati, come what may. Yadavs (the dominant OBCs) will overwhelmingly vote for the SP.
The Brahmins have shifted camps in the past, but are moving towards the BJP this time, despite the Congress’ efforts to woo them. As a Brahmin journalist in Allahabad told us, “The community’s natural party is the BJP. It is only when the BJP is not in the race that they move elsewhere.”
The swing factor will be the Thakurs (who are divided between the BJP and SP), the non-Yadav OBC communities (into which the BJP has made inroads but who have also been with both the BSP and SP in the past), and the non-Jatav Dalits.
Third, religion. Each party seeks to mobilise votes on religion. Some do it overtly, some do it covertly. Some do it through engineering riots and aggression, others do it by stoking victimhood and fear.
The BJP knows its ticket to success lies in Hindu consolidation, across castes. The 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots helped the party sweep west UP. The development narrative and Modi’s appeal too had united young Hindus of different castes. That is not the case in this election and caste divisions seem to matter more -- unless the nationalism discourse changes the mood entirely.
For its part, the SP, BSP and Congress are eyeing Muslim consolidation in their favour, while the BJP is hoping that the Muslim vote fragments.
For the community, a key factor would be who is in the best position to defeat the BJP. Mayawati has given tickets to over 100 Muslim candidates and is trying hard to forge a Dalit-Muslim unity. If she succeeds, it is possibly a winning combination. But Muslims are not yet sure if she has other Hindu votes besides her own caste. They are also suspicious of her past alliances with the BJP, and so many are sticking to the SP for now. But they will keep their options open — if anti-incumbency becomes the defining mood, and the SP is losing, they may desert it. Besides scattered constituencies with a strong Congress candidate, Muslims feel a vote for the party would be futile. The big picture that emerges about minority vote is of fluidity.
And finally, governance. Law and order is a big issue in UP, and so is the yearning for ‘vikas’ — development. Identity matters, but so do aspirations for a better life in elections.
The SP government has become synonymous with ‘goondagardi’ — and this remains its biggest weakness. It has sought to compensate for this in the past two years by focusing on infrastructure achievements.
In contrast, Mayawati is hailed as a good administrator precisely because she kept law and order under control. She is also trying to undo the perception that she is obsessed with politics of symbolism by promising that she will not build any more statues but focus on development.
The BJP wants to capitalise on the development card by arguing that with power at the Centre, it can do more for the state. And the Congress wants to play the ‘anti establishment’ card — by pointing out that it has been out of power for 27 years and this has coincided with UP’s misgovernance.
UP’s elections are still some time away. Ticket distribution is not yet complete. Campaigning has not yet started in full swing. As the political temperature rises, it will become clear if a single national narrative will prevail, or a complex set of local factors will matter, or whether it will be a mix of both. The stakes are high for UP’s 200 million people, and for the future of Indian politics.