The BJP has changed the old rules of politics

Published on Mar 10, 2022 10:14 PM IST

The sweeping win shows the social coalition that powered the party to victories in 2014 and 2019 is not only intact but now stronger and deeper. This is due to the appeal of PM Modi and CM Yogi

This election has seen the making of a Yogi constituency. By winning a mandate of incumbency in India’s most politically significant state, he has carved out a unique place for himself among the BJP’s regional satraps. (HT) PREMIUM
This election has seen the making of a Yogi constituency. By winning a mandate of incumbency in India’s most politically significant state, he has carved out a unique place for himself among the BJP’s regional satraps. (HT)

Yogi Adityanath is the first sitting chief minister (CM) of Uttar Pradesh (UP) to be returned to power since Independence. In the days of the Congress dominance of yore, the party won successive state elections, but always with a different CM. And the last time an incumbent party returned to power in UP was at least 37 years ago: Almost a decade more than the median age of the average Indian. Such a political triumph would be staggering in itself. That the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) pulled it off after two years of economic strife (the Gross Domestic Product has just returned to its pre-lockdown size), the deprivations of the coronavirus lockdowns, and a vociferous farmers’ agitation — and with a landslide — makes it even more stunning.

Far from contracting, the party increased its vote-share from 2017, despite the pressures of five years of incumbency. The BJP’s sweeping victory reflects the fact that the wide social coalition that powered its UP triumphs in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the 2017 assembly election, and the 2019 Lok Sabha election is not only intact, but stronger and deeper. Specifically, while the BJP retained the support of upper caste voters, non-Yadav Other Backward Classes (OBC) and non-Jatav Dalits who entered its social tent after 2014 have stayed on. The inclusion of these castes in the BJP’s social matrix made the party the most representative by caste in UP, barring the Muslims. The 2022 result demonstrates that this was not a transient trend, but a more deep-rooted development.

The slow death of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) exacerbated this shift. Many Dalits who left the BSP’s embrace (its vote-share dropped by over nine percentage points) chose mostly to switch to the BJP.

This is because, in many villages, it is the Yadav who is seen as the oppressor by Dalits, not upper castes. The BJP, for instance, swept UP’s reserved Scheduled Caste (SC) seats by a wide margin. Even though Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (SP) grew its vote-share substantially to its highest ever, it ended up a poor second as it hit a social glass ceiling. The SP, which had once been UP’s party of OBCs, lost because it has now become a party only of Ahirs (Yadavs) and Muslims. It failed to widen its social base.

For example, a significant number of Jats, believed by many to have defected from the BJP before the election, did not switch. Further, the support of other OBC groups allowed the BJP to easily decimate its challengers in the regions of western UP that were most affected by the farmer agitation, and went to polls in phases 1 and 2.

Second, the election demonstrates once again that the BJP is now the default party of the village in the Hindi heartland. In UP, it won 177 rural seats (compared to 95 by SP), and 45 semi-rural seats (compared to 14 by SP), according to CNN-IBN’s Analytics Centre. The old stereotype of the BJP as an urban, upper caste Brahmin-Bania party has been outdated since 2014.

Data that I put together, with the psephologist Jai Mrug and the data scientist Rishabh Srivastava showed that the BJP registered over 40% vote-share in as many 82.6% of UP’s 46 rural Lok Sabha seats in 2019, compared to 52.1% of rural seats in 2014. It was already the primary pole of politics in rural UP.

The result of 2022 reflects that the BJP’s rural roots have only deepened since. From Awadh to Bundelkhand to Doab to Purvanchal, this deepening of the BJP’s rural roots is uniform across UP’s regions.

Third, this election has seen the making of a Yogi constituency, along with Prime Minister (PM) Modi’s unquestionable endurance as India’s most popular national political leader. In 2017, Yogi Adityanath was picked as CM after the BJP won. This time, by winning a mandate of incumbency in India’s most politically significant state, he has carved out a unique place for himself among the BJP’s regional satraps. This has huge implications for national politics.

Fourth, the BJP’s model of social welfarism, built on direct-benefit-transfers and schemes such as PM Awaas Yojana-Grameen (17.5 million houses built nationwide, 1.6 million in UP between 2014-19) and Swachh Bharat (17.1 million personal toilets built in UP between 2014-19) allowed it to overcome the stresses of anti-incumbency. This focus on development, combined with an unapologetic Hinduness, drove its political gains.

Hindutva is crucial to the BJP’s positioning but only a part of why it is winning. As a senior official working closely with Yogi Adiyanath said to me in 2021: “Hindutva gives you speed if you are going in a particular direction, but welfare is the wheel that makes it all run.”

The digital dividend, assertive women voters and a new generation of youth are driving fundamental permanent shifts in the old rules that governed Indian politics. The 2022 results accrue from these deep-seated structural changes in India’s polity.

The AAP’s historic landslide victory in Punjab also draws from its adroit harnessing of this national shift. Arvind Kejriwal’s party is now poised to replace the Congress, which remains in harakiri mode, in key states precisely because the Grand Old Party’s leadership remains so out of touch with the wider Zeitgeist.

Nalin Mehta is the author of The New BJP: Modi and the Making of the World’s Largest Political Party 

The views expressed are personal

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