Saffron storm in Uttar Pradesh
U.P. has been the epicentre of identity politics, but this election exposed the limits of the politics of social justice
The big verdict in the big State is out. It highlights several important trends, which though specific to Uttar Pradesh, have implications far beyond it. The spectacular political triumph of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the strongest evidence yet of the tectonic shift in progress since the 2014 Lok Sabha election; to all intents and purposes, the BJP’s resurgence in U.P. consolidates the rightward shift in Indian politics and alters the balance of power to its advantage ahead of the 2019 general election.
Nationalisation of electionsAt a broader level, the historic outcome represents the nationalisation of State elections which is a key element of the BJP’s strategy to establish its electoral dominance across the country. The similarity in the national and State election outcomes indicates the re-nationalisation of elections. What underpins nationalisation? Mr. Modi was front and centre in the campaign; thanks to him, the party won a massive majority in a State election without a local face. People voted for Mr. Modi in the State election as though they were voting in a general election. This knocked out the earlier trend of regionalisation when people voted in the general election as though they were voting in State elections.
As in 2014, it was not overt communalism or straightforward development rhetoric; it was a heady cocktail of both elements couched within a discourse of ‘communalised development’. This mix was dressed up in the political language of ‘nationalism’ which appeals to large parts of U.P.’s electorate. The secular parties were unable to offer an effective counter-narrative to this discourse.
In a surcharged political climate, the critical issue is not the project of ‘development for all’, but the prospect of development for certain groups cleverly articulated in the rhetoric of discrimination against none. The odious communal reference to graveyards and crematoriums in Mr. Modi’s Fatehpur speech repeated by BJP president Amit Shah immediately afterwards and laced with ‘KASAB’ left no scope for misunderstanding which way the politics of development was going. The mordant discourse split U.P., which was once defined by cultural syncretism and Ganga-Jumni culture, along Hindu-Muslim lines.
Rewriting the U.P. equation
Marginalising MuslimsIn the event, many voters were willing to buy into the BJP’s charges of minority appeasement. Muslims, on the other hand, were expected to vote en masse for the Samajwadi Party (SP)-Congress alliance in order to check the BJP’s advance but it seems this didn’t quite happen because many Muslims reportedly voted for the Bahujan Samaj Party. Nonetheless, the prospect of Muslim consolidation behind the SP was used as a rallying cry for the polarisation of Hindu votes.
While the BJP leadership was propagating its mantra of ‘development for all’, it lost no opportunity to indulge in ‘community-oriented developmentalism’ of its own. It repeatedly attacked the SP government for discriminating between Hindus and Muslims even at the level of providing basic facilities like electricity. The SP government released detailed data of electricity provisions during Eid and Diwali festivals, but it certainly didn’t stop the BJP from continuing to make wild charges of discrimination and giving the impression that it is the only party to challenge the patronage system practised by the SP and Congress. Undeterred by facts, it went on to complain that Muslims were the only ones to benefit from the Kanya Vidya Dhan Yojana, under which the U.P. government provides assistance of ₹30,000 to each girl student who has passed the 12th board examinations with distinction. It is evident that post-truth is having a field day in U.P. A blithe disregard for facts characterised the political campaign of the BJP in this election.
U.P. has been the epicentre of identity politics for over two decades but this election exposed the limits of the politics of social justice. The OBC and Dalit movement, which started off as a political voice of the marginalised social groups giving them a sense of participation in political affairs, had been reduced to the politics of reservations with benefits cornered by particular segments of these castes which alienated sub-groups within the wider category. The BJP was quick to take advantage of the discontent of large social segments with old style identity politics. Turning the politics of social justice on its head, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)/BJP crafted a broad-based identity politics on the ruins of the old political order which had outlived its utility for a critical mass of OBCs. It mobilised a new bloc of voters by showering attention on the most backward among them — the non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav Dalits — that blunted the politics of BSP and SP in one stroke. The terms of engagement were unmistakably driven by identity and motivated by resentment towards Yadav-Muslim domination under SP rule. The BJP’s idea of community politics gained new traction as a large number of Hindu voters saw it as a more capacious identity which aligns them to a larger narrative than the fragmentation inherent in caste politics.
The strategy of reverse social engineering that Mr. Shah scripted was clearly aimed at mobilising the most backward castes, notably non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav Dalits, to capture the heartland State. In pursuit of this agenda, he distributed tickets copiously to non-Yadav OBCs and to non-Jatavs in reserved seats. Mr. Modi’s assiduous wooing of non-Yadav OBCs and Dalits convinced large sections of them to desert the SP and BSP in the 2014 Lok Sabha election and again in the 2017 Assembly elections.
The power of propagandaFinally, the stunning victory emphasises the importance of propaganda and messaging. No one can match up to the appeal and the energy of Mr. Modi when it comes to non-stop election campaigning, and the organisational capacity of the RSS when it comes to relentless propaganda and booth management executed in this election by 1.4 lakh booth samitis. Demonetisation is a good illustration of the power of propaganda. Voters in U.P. seem to connect to Mr. Modi’s political messaging and were more than willing to forgive the hardships inflicted on them by notebandi.
In the end, a fractured opposition too helped the BJP. In a three-cornered contest, the BJP had a strong advantage. The party’s vote share jumped from just 15% in 2012 to 39.6% in 2017, which was large enough to win more than a three-fourths majority against a divided opposition. The combined vote share of the BSP (22.2%) and the SP-Congress alliance (28.2%) adds up to over 50%. The Opposition’s only hope of taking on Mr. Modi and the ruling party is to unite on a common platform and ensure that the vote is not split since 50% of voters have not been swayed by BJP’s ideology of ‘communalised development’, which is an essential part of its growth strategy.
Zoya Hasan is Professor Emerita, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University and Distinguished Professor, Council for Social Development, New Delhi