Could Uttar Pradesh, the political womb of 9 of India’s 15 prime ministers, be incubating another dramatic turn of fortunes? Will it halt the soaring ascendancy of Narendra Modi and throw up a new national challenger? Has the alliance between Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi taken away the advantage that a four-cornered contest would have given to the BJP? (The “Apne Ladke”—“Our own boys”—poll slogan was unpacked by spinmeister Prashant Kishor while the ink on the alliance agreement was still drying.)
The ‘gatbandhan’ is not quite a ‘maha’ coming together of friends-turned-foes-turned-friends-again like Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav in Bihar. While the major regional parties joined forces there, in Uttar Pradesh, the Mayawati factor, diminished though it is, still makes it a triangular contest where the Bahujan Samaj Party can potentially play spoiler by splitting the anti-BJP votes.
Those running the campaign for the Samajwadi Party-Congress camp will now focus on making this a bipolar fight with the BJP, pushing out Mayawati to the margins of the political perimeter.
In BJP circles, there are anxious whispers about the arithmetic having changed because of the alliance. What is most befuddling and could already be the costliest mistake of the BJP campaign in Uttar Pradesh is the absence of a chief ministerial candidate. This vacuum will elevate the state election into a direct confrontation between Modi and Akhilesh, and thus raise the stakes for the prime minister’s prestige.
With no local face to lead it, the BJP has repeated the mistakes of how it fought (and lost) polls in Bihar and Delhi—overexposing Modi and elevating a state election to the level of a national face-off.
If you look closely at all the assembly elections since Modi won in 2014, it is evident that the BJP does spectacularly well when it takes on the Congress—Maharashtra, Haryana and Assam were instructive victories. But when a strong regional party or group is the contending force, the BJP has been unable to breach the high wall of resistance.
Combine that with highly personality-centric politics patented by the BJP, and now very much the norm, and you have to ask yourself why the BJP would make this fatal error again. The word is that that the obvious candidate—Rajnath Singh, a Thakur, who would play naturally to the upper caste Hindu consolidation the party would seek—has been disinclined to return to state politics.
When asked recently by reporters on running for chief minister, he quipped, half-jokingly, “Why, have I done something wrong?”
The BJP also has to contend with other disgruntled leaders who may have dreamt of running for the post. Varun Gandhi’s name has been kept out of the list of star campaigners and eastern Uttar Pradesh’s hindutva strongman Yogi Adityanath has clashed with the party on the choice of candidates.
In July last year, the controversial Gorakhpur MP’s supporters raised slogans in the presence of party president Amit Shah, demanding that their leader be considered as the next chief ministerial contender.
While a public meltdown and bitter family divisions plagued the Samajwadi Party, too, the eventual ability of Akhilesh Yadav to claim the party as his own—leaving his father, Mulayam Singh Yadav, on the periphery—has made his campaign much more cohesive than that of the BJP.
The other critical error made by the BJP is linking victories in recent local elections to Modi’s contentious demonetisation move. A sweep in Chandigarh, for instance, prompted the top leadership and spokespersons alike to claim a popular thumbs up for the cash clean-up.
While it can certainly be argued that winning civic elections is proof that there is no visible outrage—and so far no political backlash either—to the ‘notebandi’ despite a shrill campaign by the opposition, what would a possible electoral defeat suggest?
By using electoral outcomes in municipal elections to argue a mass support for demonetisation, the BJP is creating a trap for itself by making the corollary true as well. In other words, you can’t claim that a win in Mumbai or Chandigarh is a validation of the currency ban but a defeat in Uttar Pradesh is unconnected.
After the Chandigarh win, Shah declared that a “series of wins” since the November 8 currency ban was all the proof needed that the majority of people backed the government’s move.
There is legitimacy in the BJP feeling self-congratulatory about the abject failure of the opposition’s inability in making demonetisation a ‘bankable’ poll plank. What’s less smart is to position every election outcome as a policy endorsement. That rhetorical trap could trip the BJP in the aftermath of a possible defeat in Uttar Pradesh, where the postmortems will invariably be not just about whether the prime minister’s individual clout has waned; they will also raise tough questions about one of the most disruptive decisions he has taken in two years.
Notebandi, however, is only one variable in a series of complicated factors that will determine the outcome in Uttar Pradesh. The result is predicated on a combination of caste arithmetic and leadership chemistry.
The only other thing that can steer the result in a certain direction is a ‘black swan’ moment—a development that triggers a mass emotional galvanisation. For instance, had the elections been held right after the Modi government announced the ‘surgical strikes’, the BJP would have had a certain advantage.
It is round about then that Congress strategist Prashant Kishor realised that, with Priyanka Vadra reluctant to lead the party campaign (one of his initial conditions) and the BJP commanding the political narrative, the only antidote to the force of sentiment was the cold certainty of numbers.
Despite Mulayam Singh Yadav’s best efforts to get the Gandhi family to back him in the dispute with his son, there was a quick calculation in the Congress camp that they had to back the winner. It’s then that Rahul Gandhi and his sister worked the phone lines to Akhilesh Yadav and kept the alliance alive even when it seemed to totter and collapse.
In the face of a likely Muslim consolidation for the SP-Congress coalition, the BJP will be chasing a minimum of 30 per cent of the vote share on the strength of caste realities and Modi’s popularity.
For the floating vote— an incremental addition that both sides need for a win—the BJP needs an X factor to go up neck-and-neck against the Y factor of the young Yadav chief minister.
The writer is a veteran broadcast journalist.