Bite Soldier

12 key things I learnt on the campaign trail in Uttar Pradesh

PM Modi's charisma remains unsullied despite demonetisation, but Akhilesh-mania is real.

 |  Bite Soldier  |  15-minute read |   21-02-2017
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There's very little about the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections campaign that has not been written or said already. No Assembly election in recent memory has had as many journalists poring over every twist and turn with a political microscope as UP's.

During the last fortnight, I spent a good deal of time travelling through different parts of western Uttar Pradesh, Bundelkhand and Awadh. During these travels, I had the opportunity to spend quality time with the likes of Amit Shah, Rajnath Singh, Akhilesh Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Prashant Kishore and some of the other principal players in the 2017 UP polls.

I also heard speeches of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi and quizzed almost every person I came across about what they thought of the key contenders and what they intended to do in the elections. On the basis of what I picked up, I am putting down what I think may have happened so far and also what may change in the last four phases.

As always, I have no intention of putting my neck on a chopping block and hence will refrain from predicting who I think is winning. In the points below, I restrict myself to what seemed fairly obvious to a non-partisan observer.

1. Hindu consolidation holds the key to BJP's fate in UP

The prime minister may have sparked the "kabaristan vs shamshan ghat" debate in his Fatehpur address on Sunday, but the speeches of all other BJP leaders too have had strong communal overtones since the beginning. The BJP's principal pitch is that the Samajwadi Party government has spent the last five years "appeasing the minority community" and it is time to undo that wrong.

The key lesson the BJP seems to have learnt from the debacle in Bihar is that while it mostly pitched development, the stronger caste arithmetic of Lalu and Nitish sank the saffron party's chances. Mohan Bhagwat's comments on reservation undid whatever hopes Amit Shah had of stitching a 2014-like non-Yadav OBC and MBC alliance in Bihar.

During a full day spent travelling with Amit Shah in various parts of Bundelkhand, the loudest cheers were reserved for whenever Shah spoke of banning slaughterhouses in the state. His charge is that under Akhilesh Yadav, slaughterhouses have proliferated and that what was earlier a phenomenon restricted to western UP, has now spread to other parts of the state as well. Shah alleges that cows are being clandestinely culled along with other livestock in these abattoirs.

rahul-kanwal---up-po_022017095525.jpg BJP national president Amit Shah speaks to Rahul Kanwal during his UP campaign trail. [Photo: Rahul Kanwal/Twitter] 

Apart from promising to shut down slaughterhouses, the BJP is also taking up the issue of triple talaq in a big way and alleging that Akhilesh has been partial to his supporters in the distribution of laptops.

The BJP leadership is not in the least coy about the communal undertones in the party's campaign. Getting Hindus to vote keeping their religious identity uppermost in mind is key to the BJP winning UP. According to the feedback the BJP has received from the first three phases, the party believes it has done enough to stitch a broad coalition of Hindu forces, which will be able to trounce the minority-backed opposition.

2. Aggressive minority exhibitionism has a counter-reaction

From some pockets of western UP came reports of Muslim youngsters taking out motorcycle rallies through cities and towns in support of the SP-Congress gathbandan. This set in a huge bout of panic among the ranks of alliance managers, who wanted the minority community not to be very vocal in their support for the Samajwadi Party and the Congress. Strategists want Muslims to stay silent, not make an open show of their support, but go and cast their vote for the gathbandan on the polling day.

Initially, there were doubts about where the minority vote would go. But trends from the first three phases suggest that the minorities have largely backed the gathbandan, except on seats where the BSP has put up a strong minority candidate. In the words of a top alliance strategist, the level of minority support for the "secular" alliance is not quite as strong as in Bihar but the Muslims have largely been voting for the alliance.

The BJP has been spreading the word that the minorities are voting for the alliance in large numbers and that the Hindus must unite to prevent the alliance from winning. Aggressive minority exhibitionism has had an impact on the psyche of the majority community and is influencing some of the voters.

The level of polarisation is nowhere close to what was seen after the Muzaffarnagar riots, but Hindu consolidation is certainly one of the big factors in these Assembly elections. If the BJP were to cross the finishing line first, majority consolidation would have been the primary driver behind its victory.

3. Bhayiamania

In a state that is often described as "ungovernable", massive anti-incumbency usually builds up by the end of a chief minister's term. This has been the case for CMs from every party for more than two decades now.

The fact that so many pundits are confused about what may happen is largely because of the positive image of Akhilesh Yadav, affectionately called "Bhayia" by his supporters. Even those voters who have no intention of voting for Akhilesh do not have nasty things to say about him.

rahul-kanwal---up-po_022017095505.jpg Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav and wife Dimple Yadav during a conversation with Rahul Kanwal. [Photo: Rahul Kanwal/Twitter]

Droves of charged-up youth flock to Akhilesh's rallies across UP. "Bhayiamania" has seeped deep among the youth, especially the Yadavs and Muslims. Among his supporters, Akhilesh has the image of a political rockstar. He's the first Yadav leader who has built a positive image for himself among people beyond his party's core vote-bank.

Win or lose, Akhilesh Yadav is likely to remain a factor in the politics of Uttar Pradesh for a long time to come. Like PM Modi, Akhilesh seems to have taken a masterclass in marketing. Throughout the campaign, Akhilesh has kept his message positive, staying away from the negativity that has been flung in his direction by his opponents.

Akhilesh has transformed the face of Lucknow. The Agra-Lucknow Expressway aside, road condition is better than what it used to be, though the state of roads in UP as a whole still remains among the worst in the country. Job creation in UP remains a big problem, with the ever-burgeoning population getting desperate in their search for employment.

4. Modi's star shines the brightest

Almost three years into his term, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's charisma is undiminished. This correspondent had covered several Modi rallies during the 2014 Lok Sabha election campaign. The level of fervour may have come down slightly when compared to the frenzied peak of 2014, but the enthusiasm for Modi still remains incredibly high.

rahul-kanwal---up-po_022017095441.jpg Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks at a rally in Uttar Pradesh. [Photo: Rahul Kanwal/Twitter]

For a prime minister who is mid-way into his term, this is a remarkable achievement, because it is precisely at this point that anti-incumbency begins to set in. However, there is no sign of the anti-incumbency virus biting PM Modi so far.

While "achche din" may not have arrived yet, people still have enormous faith in the prime minister and believe that he has the solutions to the problems facing India. Regardless of who ultimately wins the battle for UP, beating Modi in the general elections of 2019 is going to be a nigh impossible task for the Opposition.

5. BJP wants to play down demonetisation

During interviews, BJP leaders may claim that they don't mind the 2017 election being considered a "referendum on demonetisation". But on the ground, the BJP leadership is trying its best not to remind people of the pain of demonetisation. In the entire day I spent with BJP national president Amit Shah, he addressed four rallies. Not once was there any mention of demonetisation.

Union home minister Rajnath Singh did speak of demonetisation right at the end of his rally, but that was just in passing. Instead of trying to convince the electorate of the benefits of demonetisation, the BJP wants people to move on. The BJP want voters to think that they suffered pain in the pursuance of a larger national goal and that the gain will flow into the economy in time to come.

6. Demonetisation won't turn the elections

Modi's opponents, Rahul Gandhi in particular, spent a lot of time reminding people of the pain of demonetisation. They want demonetisation to be the main issue in this election. However, that is not really the case.

The trader community may be upset with the BJP for foisting demonetisation on them, but they are unlikely to vote for Modi's opponents. There are reports of banias either staying on the sidelines in these elections and not voting because they are upset with the BJP or cribbing loudly, but ultimately voting for the BJP on the polling day.

The BJP calculates that the one thing the traders dislike more than demonetisation is the law and order situation under the Samajwadis. As it stands, the number of people who will vote against the BJP because of demonetisation is not enough to turn the results of this election.

7. Rahul Gandhi has upped his game

I made this point earlier in Punjab and I will make it again. Rahul Gandhi has improved his public speaking skills. His messaging is sharper than at any time in the past.

People at RG rallies in this election are actually listening to what he has to say. This may sound fairly basic, but this correspondent had actually seen people walking out the moment Rahul Gandhi started speaking at public rallies in the 2014 campaign.

That's no longer the case.

rahul-kanwal---up-po_022017095317.jpg Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi addresses a rally in Uttar Pradesh. [Photo: Rahul Kanwal/Twitter]

But Rahul starts to pale the moment you listen to Narendra Modi. We heard Rahul and Modi two hours apart from each other in the Hardoi district of UP. There is simply no comparison.

Rahul's father Rajiv too was not a brilliant orator in Hindi. But Rajiv Gandhi did not have a Modi-like figure as an opponent. Try as he might, Rahul Gandhi still can't hold a candle to the formidable oratory of Narendra Modi.

8. Rajnath never said no to being BJP's CM face

The buzz in BJP circles has been that Rajnath Singh was asked to go to UP as the BJP's CM face but the Union home minister said no to leaving Delhi. Turns out, this may not be true.

This correspondent has reasons to believe that Rajnath Singh was not asked by either Modi or Shah to go to UP as the party's CM face. Sources close to the Union home minister say if he had been made a formal offer, he would have been positively inclined.

The BJP's logic seems to be that upper castes like the Thakurs, the community that Rajnath belongs to, were supporting the BJP in any case. One of the principal attempts of the Modi-Shah team has been to expand the BJP's appeal among the non-Yadav OBCs and MBCs. The party's calculation is that by projecting someone like a Keshav Prasad Maurya, the party could increase its support among backward communities like the Kushwahas.

The counter to this logic is that many voters who support Modi at the centre have been asking who is the BJP's face in UP. Projecting a tall leader like Rajnath could have helped answer that question. If the BJP wins, strategists can claim that their strategy worked. But if the BJP falls short, questions will be asked about whether it was insecurity that stymied the projection of arguably the tallest leader in UP as the party's CM face in the state.

9. BJP has major problem with Jats

Despite BJP national president Amit Shah's last moment appeal to Jats in western Uttar Pradesh, it is very clear that Jats are seething in rage against the BJP. After the crackdown on the Jat agitation in Haryana, Jats have been feeling let down by the party they backed in the 2014 polls. Teaching the BJP a lesson was one of the key triggers determining voting behaviour of Jats in the crucial first phase.

Even BJP leaders admit that many Jats did not vote for the party, unlike in the 2014 elections. A lot of the Jat anger seems to have spread from the embers of the Haryana stir.

The BJP realises it has a real problem with assuaging Jat concerns in a state where Jat vote is crucial to a party's chances. If tempers among the Jat community are not brought under control, a mid-way change of guard in Haryana cannot be ruled out.

10. Mulayam Singh has certainly not lost it

While commenting on the now "sidelined" Samajwadi Party patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav's actions over the past few months, many analysts have been wondering whether he has turned senile and totally lost the plot. A team from India Today spent more than two hours with Netaji, even managing to convince him for an interview towards the end.

rahul-kanwal---up-po_022017095558.jpg Samajwadi Party patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav with Team India Today, including Editor-in-Chief Aroon Purie. [Photo: Rahul Kanwal/Twitter]

While he rambled about the past on some occasions, most of his answers were sharp. He was very much in his senses. He definitely didn't seem to suffer from any form of acute dementia, which is what his naysayers would have one believe.

What's most interesting is that some of his answers during our on-the-record interview were different from what he had said in off-the-record conversation. Many a banana peel was laid out for him, but Mulayam deftly evaded them all. He remains to this date, the wily old Netaji.

11. Mayawati is struggling to find a top-up

Mayawati was the first leader to get her party's campaign off the block. The BSP was also the first to distribute tickets and has faced the least backlash post ticket distribution. Conceptually, the BSP has a potent idea - of bringing Dalits and Muslims under one umbrella. If this combination clicks, no force can stop Mayawati from winning UP.

But despite giving tickets to 97 Muslim candidates, Mayawati has not been able to swing the large majority of Muslims towards the BSP. Muslims, largely, are favouring the Congress and SP alliance. In 2007, Mayawati won because she was able to bring the upper castes on her side. This time Behenji is not getting her top-up vote. While she may do better than what some of the opinion polls predicted, she is unlikely to set the hustings on fire.

12. The die is 'caste'

During interviews, netas like to say that India has moved beyond caste and that their support base is much larger than the castes that have traditionally supported their party. But the moment the cameras go off, the focus is squarely on caste arithmetic.

A top BJP strategist believes that a whopping 95 per cent of voters cast their vote depending on the caste of the candidates and the caste coalitions that are favouring different parties.

So much for the new generation moving towards a "post-caste politics".

Also read: Modi's graveyard barb in UP's Fatehpur shows he's unworthy to be India's leader



Rahul Kanwal Rahul Kanwal @rahulkanwal

Managing Editor, India Today TV.

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