Assembly Elections 2017: How Narendra Modi won Uttar Pradesh

Hindustan Times | By
Mar 12, 2017 07:20 PM IST

A mix of the Modi magic, careful caste management and social engineering, a risky but smart ticket distribution strategy, the use of the Hindu card, and errors by the opposition has catapulted the BJP to power in Lucknow

Make no mistake. The BJP win in Uttar Pradesh is a defining moment in Indian democracy.

UP BJP president Keshav Prasad Maurya with workers at party office in Lucknow.(Arvind Yadav/HT Photo)
UP BJP president Keshav Prasad Maurya with workers at party office in Lucknow.(Arvind Yadav/HT Photo)

In the past 25 years, never has a party so decisively controlled the levers of power in both Delhi and UP, home to 200 million and the heart of Indian politics. Rarely has a party been able to expand its social base, in such quick time, in such an unprecedented manner, across Hindu castes.

And not since the 1960s has a party exercised such dominance in national politics. The BJP was strong in the west, it was expanding in the east, but it did not have a state in the core heartland, from Delhi all the way to West Bengal, even though it was seen as a cow-belt party. That has now been addressed — and how.

And that is really the big question.

How did the BJP win UP?

Modi ki sarkar

Travelling on the ground, it is astonishing to see the admiration Narendra Modi evokes. We travelled in the aftermath of the decision on demonetisation, expecting to find anger, but saw people — in some of the poorest districts of UP — hailing him. Voters said he had delivered on what he promised, that he had taken on the rich and corrupt, that the gains accrued from the exercise would be eventually transferred to the poor.

The enthusiasm for demonetisation in itself subsided in subsequent months, but the faith in Modi did not. From Bareilly to Balia, from Meerut to Gorakhpur, from Shravasti to Jhansi, we found voters who gave a definite answer to who would they vote for.


Why? Some said he was a decisive leader. Others said he had increased India’s image abroad. Some said he was rooted — “zameen ke neta hain”, he has emerged from the ground. Many pointed to tangible schemes like Jan Dhan Yojana or Ujwala. Some said he would bring “vikas”.

But the majority did not even have specific answers. It was an emotional connect they had with Modi, it was just deep and abiding faith that the man meant well, and the man would transform India and UP.

And when Modi made this his election, campaigning intensively, promising to the people that if the government at the Centre and the state was the same, this faith only seems to have doubled. In January, we had heard even Modi supporters make a distinction between a “bada” and “chhota” election, a national and a state election, and how winning the latter may not be easy.

But it is now clear that the distinction collapsed. Modi ran Delhi, but UP voters believed he could — sitting in Delhi — also run Lucknow, and run Lucknow better than the local contenders in the race.

And that is why there is no doubt that what we will see in Lucknow now on will not just be a BJP sarkar, but Modiji’s sarkar.

The 60% formula

“Bhai saheb, the 60% formula is working,” said a key BJP leader, sitting in Varanasi, in the final lap of the elections. He had explained to us, four months ago, what this formula entailed.

The BJP assumed that Muslims, and a majority of Yadavs and Jatavs would not vote for the party. This would leave 55-60% of the electorate for the BJP to target. And in order to do this, the party had to expand its social base.

The BJP has always been most successful in UP when it has constructed a coalition of upper castes and non-Yadav OBCs. Kalyan Singh was a product of this alliance, within the broader Hindutva umbrella. And it is no surprise that the last time the BJP won an outright majority in the state was on the basis of this alliance. That collapsed in the mid- to late-90s.

In 2014, it reappeared. Modi’s OBC identity, besides other factors, struck a chord with the state’s backward communities. The party’s upper caste base stayed with it. And Dalit sub communities too drifted to the BJP.

This is what the party had to replicate in the state.

And to do this, it embarked on a three-pronged strategy — appoint someone from a non-Yadav OBC community (Keshav Prasad Maurya) as state president; appoint office bearers in districts from these communities; and give them the highest number of tickets that the party has yet awarded to provide representation. This was ambitious social engineering, for it ran the risk of alienating the party’s older supporters. Amit Shah and the party’s organisation man in UP, Sunil Bansal, took the risk. It paid off.

The party also expanded in rural areas. It put up candidates in panchayat elections last year. Out of 3,100 seats, it contested in 2,800 and won only 300. But in the process, it created a pool of active leaders at the rural level across districts.

They also had the most risky ticket distribution exercise in the party’s history in UP so far.

A leader had explained to us that in 60 seats, the BJP had never won an election — for these seats, it happily imported leaders from other outfits even at the cost of ideological dilution. In another 20 seats, it was vulnerable — it was willing to look elsewhere for these seats too. And when leaders come from other parties, they bring in associates who have to be accommodated too. So in 100 seats, by the BJP’s own admission, tickets were given to people who did not have a history with the organisation. Many of these leaders were from communities beyond the BJP’s core base.

The party also gave tickets keeping the future in mind — and so younger leaders from all communities, Brahmins, Banias, Thakurs, OBCs, Dalits — were picked. This generated resentment among the older lot as well those in the same generation who had lost out, running the risk of internal sabotage. The Varanasi South constituency was an example of this. The popular Bengali MLA, Shyam Dev Rai Chaudhary “Dada”, was denied a ticket — because the party wanted to promote an alternative, younger local Brahman face. There was anger, but it took the risk.

With this ambitious but extremely careful and meticulously planned strategy, the BJP has not only won this election. It has transformed its own party’s character, and has created a generation of leaders who will stand the party in good stead for years to come.

The Hindu card

But Modi’s brand and the careful construction of multi-caste alliances would probably not have been enough. The party also carefully played the Hindu card.

It is difficult for the BJP to win an election in states with a substantial Muslim presence — for the simple reason that it starts from a minus 20 disadvantage. It has to rely on the rest of the electorate. To do this, it has to be internally inclusive of Hindu castes and since it did not give any tickets to Muslims, it had room to do so in UP.

It also has to inevitably infuse its campaign with a flavour of communal polarisation.

We saw this in west UP, where candidates proudly declared themselves to be the epitome of Hindu pride. We saw this when Modi himself, couched under the framework of non-discrimination, brought up Diwali and Ramzan, kabristan and shamshanghat. We saw this in rally after rally where Amit Shah directly accused the SP government of dispensing development benefits based on religious and caste identity.

There was latent resentment among many Hindu communities at what they perceived as the administration’s pro-Muslim tilt. There was also a degree of annoyance at both the alliance and the BSP’s efforts to woo Muslims and make that the centre piece of their respective campaigns. This provided enough room to the BJP to construct the image of other parties as pandering to the minorities.

Ironically, the Muslim vote itself — these results indicate — appears to have split between the alliance and the BSP. Or even if it has gone largely to the alliance, it was not able to supplement it with other parties. This holds a lesson for “secular parties” who peg their electoral prospects only on Muslim consolidation.

You do not win an election only with your strategy. You win it with the mistakes the other side makes. In retrospect, the family feud in the SP took a toll on its organisation. Akhilesh Yadav was unable to wash off anti-incumbency. The delay in ticket distribution and campaigning cost him. The alliance itself with the Congress seems to have yielded little benefit.

Mayawati seems to have been left with little besides her core vote. The fact that she sits in Delhi and Lucknow, and barely travels to the districts when in opposition, has come back to haunt her. Her feudal style of functioning is clearly not helping either.

And so mix of the Modi magic, careful caste management and social engineering, a risky but smart ticket distribution strategy, the use of the Hindu card, and errors by the opposition has catapulted the BJP to power in Lucknow. The verdict will redefine Indian politics.


Follow Karnataka election news, exit polls, election schedule and results on Hindustan Times

    Prashant Jha is the Washington DC-based US correspondent of Hindustan Times. He is also the editor of HT Premium. Jha has earlier served as editor-views and national political editor/bureau chief of the paper. He is the author of How the BJP Wins: Inside India's Greatest Election Machine and Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal.

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