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Inside the BJP machine: The UP design

BJP is working to set the agenda; transform itself from an urban, upper caste to rural, backward-focused party; bolster its organisational might and expand its public outreach for the 2017 elections.

india Updated: Dec 11, 2016 20:36 IST
Prashant Jha
Prashant Jha
Hindustan Times
UP elections,BJP,Lucknow
Lucknow: BJP national president flags off 'UP Ke Mann Ki Baat' rath in Lucknow on Saturday. PTI Photo by Nand Kumar(PTI11_12_2016_000151A)(PTI)

On Saturday afternoon, from the complex of Saraswati Vidya Mandir School in Lucknow’s Nirala Nagar, BJP president Amit Shah flagged off 75 ‘high-tech video raths’. It had, along with the party’s lotus symbol, a sign which read ‘UP ki Mann ki Baat’.

The stated objective was simple. Get people to contribute ideas, articulate local grievances and problems, express aspirations. This could be done by giving a missed call to a number and recording one’s message; or by accessing free Wi-Fi when the rath is near and making submissions online; or by filling in physical forms and depositing it in 15,000 ‘Aspiration Boxes’ to be placed all across the state.

This would then be used to frame a vision document for the state, explained Shah.

The real objective, as a BJP official explained, is two-fold. “It will enhance our visibility and connect us with millions of people. And it will give people ownership of the party and its agenda.” The fact that the rath would have a life-size cut out of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and the campaign’s slogan was a take-off on the PM’s radio show, was done to cash in on his popularity.

Read | BJP to kick-start campaign for change in UP, to cover all 403 assembly segments

The innovative campaign tool is just one element of the larger BJP campaign strategy in UP. The party has decided to invest all its energy in the state which catapulted Modi to prime ministership, with an absolute majority, in 2014. At the state level, however, the BJP has not been in power for over a decade. And despite being called a Hindi-heartland party, never has it completed a term in office in UP (nor, for that matter, has it ever won Bihar on its own).

The election of 2017, BJP has decided, is its best chance to correct that gap. Success will be a vindication of the Modi government’s record. And a setback will erode the PM’s capital and make things tougher for 2019.

HT tracked Amit Shah in Lucknow on Saturday, and spoke to a range of party leaders and strategists to piece together its plan—which hinges on setting the agenda, getting the social combination right with focus on 60% of the demographics, making a rural push, building a robust booth-level organisational network, and massive public outreach.

Setting the Agenda

Shah’s day began at an event organised by HT’s sister publication, Hindustan, in Lucknow. He was addressing a national audience on television, but also the city’s influential political, business and opinion-making elite.

His message had four key threads.

The first was: Try us out. “The country has seen governments run by Congress, Communists, and regional, family- and caste-based parties, and us. Compare and judge,” he declared, citing BJP’s governance achievements in MP, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Gujarat. UP itself had seen the Congress, BSP and SP, and the BJP, he appealed, deserved a chance.

The second thread of the speech hinged on how everyone else was bad. “It is time for politics of performance rather than politics on caste, dynasties, appeasement and vote-banks.” In one sentence, Shah targeted multiple rivals—SP and Congress on the dynasty question, of particular relevance in the backdrop of the family feud in SP; SP and BSP on ‘caste politics’; and all three parties for ‘appeasement’—which is a code, in the BJP lexicon, for appealing to the Muslim vote.

Read | For BJP, Cong, Uttar Pradesh election a dress rehearsal for Lok Sabha polls

The third thread was governance. When asked for his priority if elected to power, Shah said law and order. This would result in investment, infrastructure and employment. BJP is convinced that law and order is the single most important issue in both urban and rural UP, given SP’s image as having provided patronage to goons. But here it faces tough competition from BSP, where Mayawati’s term has been marked by law and order. To burnish BJP’s credentials on this count, Shah often recalls the term of Kalyan Singh. But whether the younger generation can relate to it is questionable.

And the fourth was how BJP had provided a strong anti-terror and anti-corrupt government at the Centre. Shah claimed the move to ban Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes had been a setback for terrorists, Naxalites, fake currency networks, those in arms and narcotics businesses. A party official subsequently told us, “In one stroke, it has ended the perception that we are a pro-rich, suit boot ki sarkar. We are aware of the suffering, but it is ten days of pain, and this inconvenience will dissipate and people will praise us for both the surgicals we have done—against Pakistan and black money.”

Getting the 60%

But while the narrative and agenda constitute an important element in determining elections, the key in India is often getting the social combination right.

A key party strategist told HT, “In the last two years, our entire focus in UP has been expanding the social base. UP has, very broadly speaking, 20% general castes, 40% backwards, 20% Dalits, and 20% Muslims. Our politics was confined to 20% general castes: the Brahmans, Thakurs, Banias.”

A section of the OBCs were with the BJP under Kalyan Singh, but they drifted away. This was reflected in the 2012 election, when the party won just over 15% of the vote. (In 2014, by contrast, it went on to win 42%).

But now, he argued, the BJP had systematically expanded into other constituencies. “Ideally, we would like to do politics of the 100%, but for now, we are focusing on 60% of the demographic.” This would be all communities besides 20% Muslims, 10% Yadavs with SP and 10% or so Jatavs with BSP. “This 60% is bothered about crime, corruption and existing caste politics of SP and BSP; we speak their language.”

And this focus has manifested itself in concrete ways. The official pointed out that BJP has won all the 17 reserved constituencies in 2014, including two Jatavs, Mayawati’s core caste base. 26 out of the 28 OBC candidates who contested on the party ticket won. Recognising that many won because there was a Modi wave, the party decided to make these changes more institutionalised.

Read | Yadav feud SP’s fixed match to divert attention from Akhilesh’s failures: BJP

The state president, Keshav Prasad Maurya, is an OBC. The official said, “37 out of 75 district chiefs are OBCs or Dalits. 30% of all our state units now consist of these groups. These communities will come to us when they see their faces reflected.” The main party hoarding now has four faces: Rajnath Singh (Thakur), Kalraj Mishra (Brahman), Uma Bharati (Lodh), and Maurya (Kuswaha).

And in ticket distribution, this balance will be maintained. The party will have to give Dalits tickets in 85 reserved constituencies in any case – the bulk would be to communities besides Jatavs. Given the old loyalty of upper castes, they would get more than their share of population. But a conscious effort would be made to give non-Yadav OBCs more tickets. (In Bihar, the party gave over two dozen tickets to Yadavs hoping for a split in Lalu Prasad’s vote, which did not happen. It is unlikely in UP.) The party is also organising 200 backward gatherings, where representatives from two constituencies would merge into one meeting.

“The Kuswaha-Saini-Maurya-Sakya vote is 12% and they are solidly with us. The Lodh vote, which got disturbed in 2012, is back. We also have more Kurmi leaders than any other party – from Santosh Gangawar to Vinay Katiyar to our ally Anupriya Patel,” said another party official.

In west UP, anecdotal evidence suggests that Jats are unhappy with BJP on a range of issues, from reservations and Haryana agitation to cane prices for which they blame the Centre as much as the state. But the party leadership feels that despite disillusionment, Jats will vote for the party in the polarised post-Muzaffarnagar landscape. Issues like the alleged migration from Kairana, which was rebutted by independent reports, are proof that BJP would be happy to stoke this.

No caste group votes homogeneously, as CSDS data and political scientist Gilles Verniers work on UP has shown. But getting even half or two-thirds of the voters of a caste group on one’s side boosts the fortunes of a party. BJP hopes to achieve precisely this with Brahmans, Thakurs, Banias, Lodh, Kurmi, Kuswaha, Jats, Valmiki and Pasi voters of UP.

BJP national president Amit Shah with UP state BJP president K P Maurya during 'UP Ke Mann Ki Baat' function in Lucknow on Saturday. (PTI)

The Rural Push

The party strategist quoted above admitted that BJP’s other weakness was its strong urban focus. There have been efforts to correct this structural legacy too.

The BJP decided to put up candidates close to the party for district panchayat elections. Out of 3,100 seats, he said, BJP contested in about 2,800 seats. “We won 347 seats, lost 324 by 100 votes or less, and came second in another 300 seats.”

This, BJP feels, has achieved multiple objectives. For one, the party registered a presence in the rural political landscape. Two, it has created a pool of 2,800 rural leaders who are willing to carry the party flag, out of which close to 1,000 are significant power players in their respective areas.

“Given UP’s significantly rural population, this is the beginning. The idea is to create leadership of the future and expand our base.”

Two other groups have been identified as potentially separate vote-banks who need to be wooed with a different set of promises. The fact that women voted in large numbers for Modi in 2014, and Nitish Kumar in 2015, is making BJP realise they increasingly exercise independent agency. The party hopes to woo them with the law and order plank, since lawlessness affects their security almost immediately.

The second such group is the youth. BJP has a handicap here—it does not have a youth face like Akhilesh Yadav, and is seeking to address this gap through separate youth-centric meetings, the promise of delivery on development and Modi’s image.

Organisation and Outreach

The BJP has been enhancing its presence at the booth level. Out of 147,000 booths in the state, it claims to have set up 121,000 units. Six events, at the regional level, with approximately 20,000-25,000 booth-level chairmen, have already been held, each addressed by Amit Shah. A second round of meeting was held at the constituency level, with 70-97% of booth unit workers present on an average. A third round of meetings, at the mandal level which has about 100 booths, is to be held. And a final round at the sector level, which is home to 10 booths, will be held in close to 12,500 sectors.

“The booth level worker is the key on polling day. He mobilises voters, ensures smooth polling, organises transport if necessary, and gives instant feedback. By the time election approaches, we would have set up, checked, cross-checked and institutionalised these mechanisms at the most micro level,” says the party strategist who has a key role in the UP elections.

And amidst all this, the party has launched four Parivartan Yatras to cover all 403 assembly constituencies, over 160 days. When asked about reports that these yatras had not drawn sufficient crowds, a leader explained, “These yatras are stopping in multiple places, everyday. Instead of getting a huge crowd at one place, the idea is to go directly to the people. Every day, if you add it all up, they are connecting thousands of people.” Modi would address six sabhas in the course of these yatras.

“This plan is only till the end of December. We would have – through Mann ki Baat, yatras, big and small mass meetings, youth, women and backward centric gatherings – reached out to a crore voters.” And then, depending on how politics evolves and the response, the party will chalk out its plan for the final two months of the campaign.

Crowds gathered during BJP rally at Ramabai Ambedkar rally in Lucknow on September 21, 2016. (Deepak Gupta/ Hindustan Times)

The Leadership Challenge

The key question BJP has had to confront in the UP election is about its CM face. This is quite ironical, for the party is a victim of its own success. It “presidentialised” campaigns, and now is facing a challenge when it does not have a face. The official explanation is they would go with ‘collective leadership’. And that the party had not declared a candidate in Haryana and Maharashtra, yet won.

But the whisper in the BJP corridor is that declaring a CM face would upset the careful plans of building a wider social alliance. If an upper caste face is projected, the OBC outreach may dissipate; if an OBC is picked, upper castes may get alienated and even backwards of other communities may not be as energised. The problem is compounded by the fact that there is no obvious, acceptable face in the state with the stature to compete against an Akhilesh Yadav or a Mayawati.

The other challenge for the party will be Muslim consolidation in favour of one particular party. In Bihar, this tilted the scales and BJP would be hoping that the Muslims split between SP and BSP. “Our reading is that in the west, Muslims may go with BSP and in the centre and east, they may prefer SP,” a party official said. A strong Dalit-Muslim alliance is the party’s nightmare since in a triangular contest, it could give Mayawati a strong 30% plus vote share. But BJP feels that this is unlikely: SP remains in the fray, and there are contradictions between Dalits and Muslims and votes would not get transferred easily.

There is another difference from Bihar. Because there were no other competitors for the minority vote, their concerns were deliberately downplayed to avoid counter Hindu mobilisation. The clamour for Muslim votes in UP opens up this door in UP. UP has also generally been more ripe for communally polarisation than Bihar. Would the BJP sharpen it further? “No, we would not have to do much. As SP, BSP and Congress do more to win the Muslim vote. Hindus will get naturally irritated and consolidate,” argued one of the leaders HT spoke to.

But the most important challenge for the BJP would be operationalising the grand plan it has designed for UP 2017. From setting the agenda to carving out the wide social coalition of the 60%, from selling sudden moves like demonetisation to becoming attractive for the young, from sustaining the organisational momentum to tackling unanticipated events, its real test starts now, as the campaign heats up.

Read | BJP firms up poll strategy in UP, to focus on non-Yadav OBCs

First Published: Nov 14, 2016 07:14 IST