Yes, I was wrong about BJP not winning Uttar Pradesh elections

Anand Kochukudy
Anand KochukudyMar 11, 2017 | 20:37

Yes, I was wrong about BJP not winning Uttar Pradesh elections

At the outset, let me admit my miserable failure in reading the signals correctly on the ground in Uttar Pradesh while predicting that the Samajwadi party-Congress combine was ahead in the election.

The absence of a wave was visible compared to a very clear Modi wave that had swept the state in 2014. My analysis was as much a result of factoring in the election arithmetic as the observations from the ground in the initial phases where I had extensively travelled around.

Most analysts still agree with me that there was no visible wave in favour of the BJP in the state despite the evident popularity of Prime Minister Modi. 

So, what explains the huge margin of victory in this assembly election?

While it can be argued that the mandate is comparable to the landslide 73/80 in the Lok Sabha elections in Uttar Pradesh in 2014, the BJP had many clear disadvantages as it faced the electorate once again three years later.

The BJP's groundwork had begun immediately after the Lok Sabha victory and been assiduously followed up till a few months back all the way up to the ticket distribution stage.

The biggest change was the fact that unlike in 2014, when Uttar Pradesh was an essential but a part of the national jigsaw, in 2017, the fight was to win the state and Modi wasn’t available as the Chief Ministerial candidate. If the collective opposition had no obvious candidate to take on Modi in 2014, the state had not one but two alternatives in Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati, with proven track records, to choose from. Despite the growing personality driven contests in the last few years, the BJP had no clear face to project to challenge the incumbent Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, whose popularity has only grown despite this defeat at the hustings.

Moreover, in the absence of a visible wave, the X-factor of demonetisation made the election trickier.

We need to rewind back to the '90s to really make sense of this win. The BJP had never crossed 34 per cent votes in assembly polls even in the height of the Ramjanma bhoomi movement in Uttar Pradesh. The previous best was the 33.4 per cent in 1993 when it failed to reach a simple majority with just 177 seats letting the Samajwadi party-Bahujan Samaj party alliance to form the government with the outside support of Congress and Janata Dal.

The only time the BJP formed a majority government with a clear mandate in Uttar Pradesh was in 1991 with a 33.1 vote share and 221 seats against a fragmented opposition (unlike 1993).

After the BJP failed to form a government yet again in 1996 with 33.3 per cent votes and 174 seats, the then all-powerful BJP general secretary KN Govindacharya chaired five-member committee studied the election results and gave a report which laid emphasis on “social engineering” as the vote share was seen to have plateaued around 33 per cent in five consecutive elections in Uttar Pradesh (including the Lok Sabha elections in 1991 and 1996) for the party.

While many in the saffron party failed to understand the significance of the term at that time, the leadership took it seriously in the next few years and brought about some changes.

Like getting more backward and Dalit candidates to occupy top positions and fielding more such candidates in assembly elections. Bangaru Laxman, who made it to the party president’s chair and Uma Bharti, who was chosen as the Madhya Pradesh chief minister are high profile examples. The other part was expanding the party profile through service extended through the 70-odd assorted organisations loosely making up the Sangh Parivar. The obvious target was to consolidate the Dalit and OBC votes that make up the majority in most Indian states including Uttar Pradesh. The Dalits make up 21 per cent and OBCs 39 per cent in Uttar Pradesh.

Later, at the turn of the century, Govindacharya’s stature had grown so huge that he dared to make the “Mukhuata” (Mask) comment about the then Prime Minister AB Vajpayee, claiming that Advani was actually calling the shots in the BJP and the government. Vajpayee saw to it that Govindacharya was summarily thrown out of the party in the wake of the ensuing controversy.

Cut to 2014, the key to sweeping the elections in Uttar Pradesh was the communal passions ignited by Muzaffarnagar riots in September 2013 and Narendra Modi’s candidature in Eastern UP to fully take advantage of the Modi wave.

The tactician in Amit Shah realised that it would be nigh impossible to repeat the 42 per cent vote share of 2014 in Uttar Pradesh again without using more gambits. That is how Govindacharya’s social engineering was dusted up a couple of years back and deployed in Uttar Pradesh (and unsuccessfully in Bihar as the Index of opposition unity made up for it).

A source close to the BJP president tells me that the groundwork had begun immediately after the Lok Sabha victory and been assiduously followed up till a few months back all the way up to the ticket distribution stage. This also meant making smaller groups among OBCs like Kurmis, Koeris, Rajbhars, Nishads et al part of the party’s social, cultural and political coalition by getting them to share the dais and to making them candidates in the polls. The alliances with the Kurmi party Apna Dal and another smaller ally in Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj party of Rajbhars were also part of the broad strategy.

Though the OBCs make up 39 per cent in Uttar Pradesh, the biggest chunk of that is made up of the Yadavs who act as the captive vote bank of the Samajwadi party.  So, the BJP concentrated on the rest 30 per cent. The BJP’s traditional support base of Upper Castes (20 per cent) was also convinced about the need to carry everyone along. An effort was also made to attract some of the non-Jatavs (11 per cent) among the Dalits to further shore up the base.

It can be seen that this "social engineering" played a major part of the BJP victory in Uttar Pradesh thereby augmenting the traditional base of the party pushing it upwards of 40 per cent vote share in the absence of a chief ministerial face.

This essay cannot end without lamenting the debacle of the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), founded way back in 1984 by Kanshi Ram to unite the "Bahujans" (Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, OBCs) of India under a single umbrella. While her party has delivered their worst ever performance since 1991, it would do well for them to introspect why they couldn’t get the OBCs to back their party even as they made explicit appeals to the Muslims to vote for them. A desperate charge of tampering of the electronic voting machines (EVMs) was Behenji’s response to the drubbing.

As for what went wrong with the Samajwadi party-Congress combine, that is too elaborate an analysis to fit into this piece. Suffice to say, Amit Shah’s strategy of social engineering won them this election in the absence of a massive wave and against all odds.

Last updated: March 11, 2017 | 20:42
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