7 reasons BJP is not winning UP polls (as media would like you to believe)

At the end of the day, elections in India are about social coalitions.

 |  14-minute read |   19-01-2017
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India's largest state UP is heading to the polls, and analysts of all kinds are making hay while the sun shines. Though not many are ready to place their bets just yet, it is believed that the BJP is the dominant force in this Assembly election.

The memories of Bihar, when the BJP lost despite being the favourite with analysts, are making people take such predictions with a pinch of salt. But are their more substantial reasons to discount the BJP than just one miss in the past?

I delve deeply into seven reasons why I believe BJP is not the dominant force in UP - something that the media would rather have us believe.

BJP - A house divided

While the infighting within Samajwadi Party has got a lot of press coverage, what has not been adequately reported is how deeply besieged BJP is by infighting.

Firstly, Varun Gandhi, who is among the most popular faces of BJP in the state, is conspicuous by his absence from the campaign trail outside his constituency. Varun is said to be angry because of the way the party refused to come his defence when he was embroiled in a sex scandal last year. Otherwise too, he doesn't get along too well with PM Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah.

Secondly, the maverick Yogi Adityanath, BJP's eastern UP face, is also involved in a struggle with Shah on seats distribution in eastern UP. Adityanath wants to accommodate his aides from Hindu Yuva Vahani (a parallel organisation created by him), but Shah is reluctant.

He is also resentful about not being made the CM face. He is threatening to play spoiler and has refused to put his full weight behind BJP's campaign. The perceived slight to Adityanath can affect BJP's prospect amongst Thakurs, an important constituent of BJP's core upper caste votebank (8.5 per cent of UP's population) while giving in to Adityanath may not be taken kindly by Brahmins because of Brahmin- Thakur rivalry.

Thirdly, BJP's state president Swami Prasad Maurya has also adopted a rebellious tone. He has been insisting on tickets for his kin and followers and the resultant tussle even delayed BJP's announcement of candidates' list. The disgruntlement of Maurya can significantly affect its plan relating to non-Yadav OBCs as he was being banked on to pull in the Mauryas (which include Mauryas, Sainis, Kushwaha, Shakya, etc) who, with 8 per cent of the population, constitute the fourth largest OBC grouping after the Kumris, Yadavs and Lodhs.

shah-embed_011917020202.jpg Narendra Modi and Amit Shah appear to be in a fix. (Photo: India Today) 

Fourthly, the BJP also has a tough task handling the flying ambitions at the level of constituencies. Unlike the SP and BSP, which have had a very large number of loyal local supporters for decades, the BJP had been diminishing in UP in Assembly polls. So in most seats, its present strength is constituted by opportunist ticket seekers who will desert it if they are denied tickets.

Also unlike the SP and BSP, which have a couple of tall leaders and well settled hierarchy in every seat, the BJP has many smaller rivals, each of whom fancy his/her chances as there is no long settled hierarchy in most constituencies. This is the reason why while the SP and BSP have more or less decided their candidates, the BJP is moving ahead slowly due to fear of local revolts.

In comparison, surveys show that even if the divide in the SP was to persist, a very large majority of party supporters would opt for CM Akhilesh Yadav. Akhilesh has secured the backing of nearly all of his party organisation and his section has been recognised as the official SP by the Election Commission and granted the SP's election symbol of the cycle (thus negating all the difficulties that had been predicted on account of speculated freezing of the SP's symbol).

And the trend in Indian polity has been that voters don't go for vote-cutters - whether it was AIMMM and Mulayam Singh Yadav in Bihar or Manpreet Badal in Punjab. So going forward one can expect even more consolidation behind Akhilesh. Moreover, a rapprochement seems to be on the cards, with Mulayam not contesting the EC's order.

No CM face

In the past decade, Indian state elections have become more presidential. Whenever there are popular local leaders who are projected as CM, voters gravitate towards them quite decisively. BJP's rout in Bihar and Delhi was in no small measure due to its failure to provide a CM face of similar standing and popularity to that of Nitish Kumar and Arvind Kejriwal.

In Assam, one of the reasons for its success was transparently presenting the CM face. Only when there are no popular local faces by rival parties, or local leaders of rivals are bogged down by anti-incumbency, does a party get away without declaring its CM face.

But in UP, the BJP is faced with a very popular CM. Across all surveys, one fact that has been common is the high popularity of Akhilesh across age groups, castes and religions. In fact, Akhilesh's popularity is also above that of BJP's trump card - Modi.

So unless BJP presents an equally strong CM candidate, it's likely that as the campaign reaches its crescendo, the BJP will have to pay a heavy price. A popular CM face is also able to benefit from the sentiments of regionalism as they can target BJP for bringing in outsiders.

So it's essential for the BJP to present a CM face. But this looks improbable. Firstly, it does not have any leader of the same standing as Akhilesh or Mayawati. All its leaders have their bases within sub-regions of UP and within their castes, none of them have a pan UP, pan caste appeal. Secondly, BJP is apprehensive that projecting any one leader as CM will make the others sulk and undermine its campaign.

Misplaced projection by extrapolating from the Lok Sabha poll

Underlying the BJP-centric analysis of the UP poll, where the BJP is seen as the strongest option in UP, is the misplaced extrapolating from the state election. It's believed that since BJP swept UP in the Lok Sabha election, it's naturally a frontrunner for the Assembly election too. This is problematic for many reasons.

Firstly, Assembly elections and Lok Sabha elections are a different ballgame all together. Voters have proven to be astute enough to understand the difference between the two. In the general election, national parties often get preferred over regional parties while it's the converse in Assembly elections, especially when there are strong local alternatives available.

This is why while Bihar and Delhi voters showed strong preference for the BJP in the 2014 election, (BJP won seven of seven seats in Delhi and 31 of 40 seats in Bihar), the states went decisively against the party in the Assembly elections (BJP was reduced to three of 70 seats in Delhi and 53 of 243 seats in Bihar).

The thing to note is that not only did BJP perform far worse in comparison to the Lok Sabha election, it also did poorly with respect to its performance in the previous Assembly election (it had won 31 of 70 seats in Delhi and 94 of 243 Assembly seats in Bihar then).

Secondly, to base the analysis of future elections on a wave election like 2014 is in itself erroneous. BJP's performance has been considerably poorer in recent state Assembly elections vis-a-vis the 2014 election. Wave elections are characterised by some special factors which are pertinent to only those elections.

Like, the wave for BJP in 2014 was because of the extreme unpopularity of the UPA, which was tainted by scams and the perception of policy paralysis. Also 2014 was peculiar in Modi being distinctly more popular than the only other national contender, Rahul Gandhi. These factors are not applicable to the UP polls where there are tall local leaders who are rivals; also after two-and-a-half years of being out of power, anger against the UPA is nowhere as potent.

Thirdly, in 2014, the BJP also benefited in UP as Akhilesh was being seen as weak and non-performing. Since then, as discussed above, his image has undergone a change, to the extent of him being almost universally hailed today.

A formidable social coalition

At the end of the day, elections in India are about social coalitions. And with the grand alliance of SP and Congress being announced, the BJP faces a formidable social coalition that is much larger than its own. The alliance will be the hands-on favourite of Muslims (19.3 per cent of UP's population).

Firstly, the SP has always been the preferred choice for Muslims. Secondly, with Congress, another favoured choice of the community has joined hands with the SP, and hence the alliance will likely see strong consolidation of the Muslim vote.At the end of the day, elections in India are about social coalitions.

maya-embed_011917020525.jpg Dalits are expected to consolidate behind the BSP of Mayawati. (Photo: India Today)

Thirdly, Muslims often strategically vote for parties that can defeat the BJP. So, with the fight increasingly being seen as between SP and BJP, they are still more likely to gravitate towards the SP.

The alliance will also be a strong choice for OBCs, especially the Yadavs and Kurmis (over 3 per cent of UP population) because of the pull of the Yadavs to the SP and Kurmis towards Nitish Kumar, who may campaign in the state for the alliance.

On the other hand, Dalits (21.1 per cent) are expected to consolidate behind the BSP of Mayawati, unlike 2014 when non-Jatav Dalits (9 per cent) opted for the BJP. This is because in the light of the beef ban, Rohith Vemula's suicide, Dayashankar's attack on Mayawati, and weaker communalisation this time compared to 2014 (when the Muzaffarnagar riots had polarised the electorate), their Dalit identity has gained greater significance over their other identities, like Hindu and non-Jatav.

So the BJP currently is left with only the upper caste (22 per cent) as a reliable votebank. But even here, as discussed above, it is beset by Thakur-Brahmin rivalry. Also historically, upper castes have been favourable to the Congress too, but abandoned it when voting for it looked like wasting their ballot.

But who knows, with the Congress looking more robust as part of the grand alliance, a significant section of upper castes may renew their old bonds with the party.

Weak party structure of BJP in UP

Compared to SP and BSP, the BJP does not have a very uniformly spread out robust organisation. It has been out of power in UP for over two decades and its organisation has grown weaker over the years. While it's true that after the wave of 2014 the decline has been reversed, yet years of local patronage network inculcated by SP and BSP can't be matched by an organisation resurrected overnight and staffed by turncoats.

In the Assembly elections, local factors like robust local organisation play a significant role in voter mobilisation and propaganda. Thus, this weak structure will be a significant disadvantage the BJP will have to negotiate. The national media (often more charitable to national parties, especially the one ruling at the Centre) often fails to adequately realise the importance of local structure.

Even in the 2012 UP polls, the national media kept believing till the very last (some pre-poll surveys gave the Congress over 100 seats) that Congress will score big in UP because of its strong performance in 2009. But in the absence of a strong local organisation, the media hype came to a naught. This time BJP must be weary of being carried away by media hype as well.

Akhilesh has stolen the development and governance plank from Modi

State after state, for Modi's magic to work, the local CM's failure to ensure development is essential. Only when there is a perception of the rival failing to deliver on development do people buy into Modi's pitch. But when there are leaders like Nitish or Arvind Kejriwal with an equally strong development pitch and credential, then the BJP loses it's most potent weapon.

Over the past two years, Akhilesh has through some really admirable work and equally enviable perception management, managed to create the impression of being the best bet for development in UP. Firstly, he ensured that the Agra-Lucknow highway, India's longest expressway, was built in a record time of two years.

The project's transformative potential on UP's economy can hardly be overstated. Also, the swift construction of the highway is a landmark for a nation struggling with projects in a limbo. Akhilesh is bound to press this point even more as the election campaign gains momentum.

Secondly, the completion of the Lucknow Metro in record time has again boosted the CM's pro-development image and strengthened his prospects in urban UP.

Thirdly, Akhilesh's dial 100 for quick and reliable response by police has significantly addressed the most major complaint with his government - its weakness on law and order. With 3,200 police Innovas and Boleros attending emergency calls within 20 minutes, Akhilesh's showpiece policing scheme has made a significant difference to policing in UP. The effect is more pronounced in rural areas where most voters reside.

Fourthly, the different welfare schemes, like the pension scheme, have earned Akhilesh a lot of goodwill that will come in handy in the polls.

Demonetisation pain has pushed everything else (like the Centre's surgical strikes) to the backstage

After the high of the surgical strike across the border, it seemed that the BJP had changed the game all together. The Opposition seemed clueless about how to counter what surely seemed like a masterstroke that catapulted Modi into a league of his own. It was a perfect culmination of the nationalistic fervour that BJP had been stoking. All was going well and Modi was sure to benefit immeasurable from it in the polls.

Then demonetisation happened. Initially it seemed like another masterstroke like the surgical strike. But as the pain caused by the move became widespread and persistent, while the gains appeared illusionary, it is now only a matter of time before the BJP faces a backlash.

rupee-embed_011917020315.jpg The Centre and Modi have been busy firefighting the demonetisation chaos, so they have not been able to give much attention to campaigning in UP. 

The whole of December people tolerated the pain patiently, believing the PM that everything will become normal from January onwards. But with the problem persisting, the noteban drive may become an electoral nightmare for the BJP.

Firstly, many of the migrant labourers who lost their jobs and earnings in the aftermath of the exercise belong to UP. Secondly, UP is the state where the transformation to a cashless economy will be most disruptive and painful because it has an erratic mobile network, weak electricity supply, low literacy and a greater prevalence of tax evaders who will be loath to go cashless.

Thirdly, with the central government's discourse being reduced only to demonetisation, the surgical strike has long lost its potency and is unlikely to help the BJP much now.

Fourthly, with the Centre and Modi busy firefighting the demonetisation chaos, they have not been able to give much attention to campaigning in UP.

No commensurate polarisation

In a state like UP, with its unfavourable social maths for BJP, the only way for BJP to perform well in the election has been communal polarisation. This allows it to consolidate the bulk of the Hindu vote, irrespective of caste divisions. But unlike 2014, UP today has no commensurate polarisation.

The BJP did try to keep the pot boiling with the Dadri lynching and Kairana episode, but did not have the same effect as the Muzaffarnagar riots.

A case in point is how Jats, who had backed BJP in 2014 due to the Jat-Muslim animosity that arose post the riots, have now decided to vote against it due to non-religious considerations.

Thus, without any significant polarisation, the polls are going to be decided by the factors discussed above, which are not to BJP's advantage.

So as things stand today, the BJP has a lot of ground to cover in UP. It clearly is not the leader some sections of the media are claiming it to be. Though it is advantage Akhilesh based on the present situation, with a long campaign season ahead of us, the game is still on.

Also read: 11 advantages Akhilesh-Rahul alliance has over BJP in UP

Also read: Can Akhilesh-Rahul alliance trump Modi-fied BJP in UP elections?

Writer

Apoorva Pathak Apoorva Pathak

The author is alumni, IIT Roorkee and writes on politics, economy, policy.

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