Goodwill hunting: Can SP-Cong alliance capitalise Akhilesh’s vote base in the UP election
UP 2017 is a difficult election to read because there is no ‘hawa’, a uniquely Indian political term that does not lend itself to an easy translation.
At the end of December and the first three weeks of January, it appeared that Akhilesh Yadav was extraordinarily popular and would be able to generate a hawa in his favour.
People saw in him a young doer, a man willing to take on his father for his political values, a leader transcending identity and introducing a new secular political vocabulary of development in a state craving for change.
But in an election, goodwill and support is one element. Transforming it into a hawa is another. And translating the goodwill and hawa into votes is an entirely different challenge.
As Akhilesh and Rahul Gandhi jointly launch the alliance campaign in Lucknow on Sunday, the SP-Congress’ biggest test is whether they will be able to transfer the support for Akhilesh into electoral dividends.
Before an election, what every politician wants is a ‘hawa’ in his favour.
This can variously mean a buzz, a surge in support, a sense among the electorate that the victory of a particular candidate is inevitable - and this perception of inevitability of victory leads to votes his way. A hawa suggests that a politician has succeeded in setting the agenda and controlling the narrative, and opponents are left scrambling for responses. In north and west India, there was a Modi hawa in 2014.
A caveat is essential here. A hawa, even if it exists, is not always easy to pick. One of India’s most experienced politicians, a statesman who now occupies a constitutional position and thus cannot be named, told this writer, “You can only understand an election after it is over. When you are in the middle of a wave, sometimes you don’t even recognise it. Do you think Mrs Gandhi knew she would win so overwhelmingly in 1971? No she did not. You cannot know in a place as complex and diverse as India.”
But what is crucial here is that there may be nascent goodwill, there may be support for a candidate. But it dissipates without a strong campaign. The hawa, and the votes on polling day, do not happen on their own.
Modi won in 2014 because he was the most hardworking PM candidate India has seen in decades - he addressed multiple rallies every day, innovated with campaign instruments, learnt how to use social media and strategically used mainstream media platforms. He had a solid research team which was giving him ideas for his speeches, a parallel machinery that was breaking down constituency demographics and telling leaders where to campaign and how, the Sangh machinery investing its energy like never before in the election and he had organisational infrastructure to support a personalised campaign. And Modi had time - from the middle of 2013 to May 2014, he could phase his campaign systematically.
All of it came together to move the goodwill that Modi enjoyed in parts of the country into a buzz, then into a hawa, and finally into votes.
The campaign gap
The problem for the SP-Congress alliance is simple – they have no time left.
Even as the BSP formalised its candidate list (which it had narrowed down two years ago) and BJP finished one round of mass contact with its Parivartan Yatras and PM’s rallies, the SP was still fighting an internal battle.
This battle itself became a part of the campaign – in the sense that it boosted Akhilesh’s image. But precious time was lost. It also meant that the CM was stuck in Lucknow, managing party dynamics and could not launch his campaign.
The uncertainty and delay over the alliance also took a toll. Candidates - both of the SP and the Congress - did not know if they would be fighting alone or separately or even if they would get tickets. For the first phase of elections on February 11, candidates from the alliance barely got a fortnight to prepare. This is not adequate time to even visit all the villages of a constituency with over 300,000 voters. In west UP, an SP candidate agreed and ruminated, “Akhileshji will have do six rallies a day. We should also maybe get some Bollywood stars. We need to do something which brings attention.”
This confusion in SP ranks, the bruising battle, the delay in alliance, the haphazard ticket distribution and the absence of a campaign have all meant that the goodwill and momentum that Akhilesh had been able to generate was not immediately tapped. And this is what the opposition is banking on. As a BSP candidate told HT, “Akhilesh is well liked. He will come back to power sooner or later. But not this time. It is too late.”
The unsuitable calendar
The other problem for the alliance is that elections are starting from the area where they are weakest.
West UP has traditionally been SP’s weakest area. One of the reasons for this is that its core constituency of Yadavs is not present here in large numbers. This has meant that Muslims - its other base vote - have had to look for other alternatives to keep out the BJP. They have opted for RLD; they have also sometimes veered towards BSP; and a section came to SP.
The electoral dynamic of the region changed drastically in 2014 when it became the most communally polarised region in the entire country. Caste identities dissolved to a large extent, and BJP got the Hindu vote, including that of Jats who left their old party, RLD.
This election may well be different. BSP has put up a majority of its Muslim candidates in this belt, hoping to stitch a Dalit-Muslim coalition. BJP is still relying on the communal card. There are reports of divisions among Jats, with a section returning to RLD - with which the SP-Congress were in talks but did not ally finally.
Recent electoral trends have shown that the first few phases end up having disproportionate influence over the electoral mood. In Bihar, as the buzz grew that the Mahagatbandhan had done very well in the first two phases, the momentum shifted to Nitish and Lalu. In 2014 too, elections had moved from west to east in UP - and the sense that BJP had done well in the first phase helped generate enthusiasm for the party.
There is little the SP-Congress can do about the election calendar, except hoping that they fare reasonably enough to keep the motivation of the party machinery up. But if he wants to win UP again, Akhilesh has to make up with an unprecedented, energetic campaign. Otherwise, he may well be seen as the good guy who deserves a chance - but next time.