Just a month ago, the UP Assembly poll seemed like the BJP's to win. On the back of its 2014 success, a divided Opposition and infighting within the Samajwadi Party, the BJP was the hands-on favourite for victory.
A month hence, the BJP seems to have squandered its lead and is working to catch up to the combined might of the Congress-Akhilesh Yadav alliance. The BJP's gamble of shooting from wily SP patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav's shoulder seems to have come undone, with the father-son clash only helping Akhilesh remain in the news and strengthening his leadership credentials, along with freeing himself of any anti-incumbency by shifting the blame to his rival fraction. Also, in the end Akhilesh managed to stop Mulayam from fielding rival candidates.
Moreover, Akhilesh has stolen the march in garnering media limelight. He has continuously managed to be the centre of public discourse and projected himself as the person to beat in this election.
Slowly but steadily, the vitally important election seems to be slipping out of BJP's hand and the party has no one but itself to blame for its troubles. It has committed a number of follies that have seriously undermined its campaign and pushed it off the top position.
A party without a coherent message
Voters look for a convincing narrative from the party they are voting for. In UP, the BJP seems lost about what its message actually is.
Is its focus improving law and order? Then why has it given tickets to the maximum number of criminals in the first phase? And why should a voter choose it over Mayawati's BSP, whose tight grip over law and order is acknowledged across party lines?
Is its focus providing development? But what about Akhilesh, who has carefully cultivated a development image by admirable deliveries on development works such as the Agra expressway and Lucknow Metro, which have been implemented in record time.
|Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi have stolen the march in garnering media limelight. (Photo: India Today)|
And if the BJP seems sure of it development pitch, why does it keep raising communal issues such as the Ram Mandir and Kairana exodus? Moreover, how does making rioters like Suresh Rana and Sangeet Som its face in crucial western UP regions help the party highlight its development message?
The BJP seems to be falling between the two stools of development and communal polarisation. Its act of running with the hare and hunting with the hound has allowed Akhilesh to play protector to the Muslims who feel vulnerable under the BJP, and also steal the development agenda by harping on the BJP's communal intent.
A ship without a captain
The BJP has kept its supporters in suspense about who is leading its ship in UP. While voters loyal to the party's rivals are clear that Akhilesh and Mayawati will be CM (in case they win), BJP's votebank has been left guessing as to who will be CM if it pulls off a win. This has made the BJP lose out on voters looking for strong leadership.
It has also prevented any local party leader from having unity of command and the ability to take decisions and run a coherent campaign, as well as presented the opposition a chance to play the local-versus-outsider card. As the campaign is heating up, the absence of a CM face is proving costly and a fatal mistake for the BJP.
Infighting woes - poor management of dissent
The BJP in UP is a house hopelessly divided. Its topmost eastern UP leader Yogi Adityanath has fielded six rebel candidates through the Hindu Yuva Vahini, of which he is president. Another popular local face Varun Gandhi has held back from campaigning for the BJP; his name was missing from the list of star campaigners and his protegees have been singing tunes of dissent.
Besides that, various local units of the BJP are revolting against tickets being given to outsiders and turncoats. Such is the discontent over the questionable ticket distribution that many senior officerbearers of the party, including its state president, have faced angry workers.
In fact, angry workers held hostage local BJP MP Lallu Singh in the local party office. Tickets have also been given to the sons and daughters of leaders (Rajnath Singh, Hukum Singh and Kalyan Singh are just some of the leaders who have managed to get tickets for their kin). No wonder the list of long-time BJP leaders contesting as rebel candidates has gone up.
BJP's Achilles' heel - reservation
It is said that once bitten is twice shy. Instead, the BJP seems to be in the mood to commit harakiri again and again. It has always had a difficult relationship with reservation. Its upper caste base would like to see the end of it, while the social reality of India makes it hard for the BJP to win elections on an anti-reservation plank.
So after initially opposing reservation, the BJP has come around to supporting it for political expediency. But from time to time, its aversion to reservation gets revealed with catastrophic political impact.
|Perhaps, the party is afraid that a very active campaign by Modi may strengthen the emerging backlash against demonetisation.|
This happened in Bihar, where RSS's anti-reservation remarks led to strong voter backlash, and now the same folly is being committed in UP. RSS publicity chief Vaidya has sparked a controversy by raising questions over reservation.
The opposition, especially Mayawati, has lashed out at the BJP for stealing the rights of the lower castes and the BJP will have a hard time convincing the hurt and suspicious lower castes now that it means no harm.
Not playing its strongest hand fully
For good or bad, the BJP today revolves around Narendra Modi. He is the biggest crowd-puller that the party has and still carries a lot of credibility. But it seems to strangely be in no mood to play its strongest hand fully in UP.
After the announcement of the UP polls, the BJP's plans include only 14 rallies of Modi (compared to 31 in Bihar which has around half of UP's population). This reluctance of Modi to campaign in UP has seriously impeded the BJP because, in comparison, Akhilesh is holding multiple rallies every day.
Also, the BJP doesn't have anyone in UP who can match Akhilesh or Mayawati's crowd-pulling ability. Perhaps, the party is afraid that a very active campaign by Modi may strengthen the emerging backlash against demonetisation.
Modi may also be reluctant to associate too strongly with an effort in a losing cause. Whatever the reason, his not campaigning actively has further weakened the BJP's chances of winning the election and added to the list of follies that may in the final reading be responsible for the party snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.