3 Big Take-Aways From BJP's Uttar Pradesh Triumph

Published: March 11, 2017 12:33 IST
Everything seems to have turned exactly the way Bharatiya Janata Party, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah hoped. In Uttar Pradesh, the party has been given a resounding mandate to govern. To all extents and purposes, this victory is likely to be just about as all-conquering as its extraordinary sweep of India's largest state in 2014. The Bahujan Samaj Party and Mayawati - still, in my opinion, the best UP Chief Minister in recent history - have been practically wiped out. More importantly, for the first time, Modi has come up against a powerful and popular state leader - and won. The Samajwadi Party banked on Akhilesh Yadav's personal popularity. And it appears his popularity remains robust - it's just not as strong as the Modi mystique.

And, of course, the BJP will be happy about the Congress - both that it's lost in UP and that it's winning in Punjab, and competitive in Goa. The Congress being so solidly humiliated in UP was important for the BJP's plan - it delegitimises the idea of the Congress as a coalition partner for any strong state leader. That it couldn't retain Uttarakhand, when faced with the BJP, is a bonus. But it's almost as good news for Modi and Shah - and they'll be celebrating - that it is performing well in the other two "mainland" states. The Aam Aadmi Party has simply failed to make a dent in either Punjab or Goa. Modi will be celebrating, for he knows he needs his principal opposition to remain the ineffectual Rahul Gandhi, not Arvind Kejriwal.

But this magnificent victory in UP is surely the jewel in the BJP's crown. Three things are clear. First, that the BJP is set to retain power in 2019. There is simply no challenge on the horizon to Modi's connection with the people of India's north, and to Amit Shah's ability to whip the party organisation into shape. Second, that the notebandi-as-vote-loser concept has been thoroughly demolished. Modi has won the battle over that narrative, and thoroughly. And finally, that the "suit-boot" barb no longer has the power to wound. Along with notebandi, several other welfare schemes - including gas connections to rural India - have decisively ensured that Modi is the new Indira, with a garibi hatao updated for the 21st century. The BJP can no longer be characterised or caricatured as a Brahmin-Bania party. It's social and class coalition is deep and strong in the North.
modi holi

The BJP has ridden a Modi super wave to a massive victory in Uttar Pradesh

So how was UP different from Bihar, where the BJP was wiped out? Well, first, of course, the Opposition was more divided in UP - the BSP and the SP can never be allies the way the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Janata Dal (United) came together. Second, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has always been more powerful in UP than in Bihar, and the party's own cadre is deeper and more spread out. But finally, and perhaps most important, the BJP's own caste coalition was more solid. In Bihar, the contest was seen as being as between "arithmetic" and "chemistry" - the caste arithmetic of the JD(U)-RJD-Congress alliance and the personal chemistry of Modi. Arithmetic was too strong for chemistry there. But in UP, the arithmetic was with the BJP too. It won in UP in the 1990s when it had a prominent OBC at the helm in the state - Kalyan Singh, a Lodh. Shah has painstakingly constructed a similar caste coalition in 2017. The Lodhs are back. The Kushwahas were added to the coalition, a caste locally powerful in eastern UP, now with the BJP under its state chief Keshav Prasad Maurya and recent defector from the BSP, Swami Prasad Maurya. When arithmetic and chemistry come together, sweeps happen.

The four biggest losers in these elections? The Congress, the BSP, the AAP, and Muslims. I don't include the SP and Akhilesh Yadav in this list, since the young soon-to-be-ex Chief Minister's personal popularity means that he cannot be counted out - he's got a long career ahead of him, after all. But the other four sure have problems.

For the Congress, the bad news simply piles up. Their best rhetorical weapon against Modi - that he ran a government for the rich - has been neutralised by notebandi and a sharp turn towards welfarism. Rahul Gandhi possesses enough celebrity to draw crowds, but not enough charisma to make people vote for him. The party organisation, already weak, gets ever weaker without access to power. The second rung of leaders may be competent in parts, even effective in a limited sort of way, but simply too anonymous in comparison to the leadership. The problem, in my opinion, is that the Gandhis are too crucial to party unity to be eased out. They are the glue that holds the Congress together. But they're no longer vote-winners the way they were. They will have to find a way to push others forward, and to create a positive narrative for the Congress that goes beyond personalities and antipathy to Modi. No gimmickry, like the con-job being sold by Prashant Kishor, will save them.
modi amit shah

PM Modi and party chief Amit Shah had started creating a plan for UP long ago with region-specific policies and initiatives (File photo)

Then there's the BSP. This is terrible news for the party. It seems likely that non-Jatav Dalits have gone over again to the BJP, as happened in 2014. How will the party woo them back? If it doesn't do so soon, they will be permanently Hindutva-ised, seeing Hindu nationalism - and not the solidarity that the BSP offers - as their way out of caste traps. 

As for the AAP, it needs to stop blowing its own trumpet so very loudly. The party, so irritatingly triumphalist, has been clearly shown to be a paper tiger outside Delhi - and I use that phrase advisedly. It continues to have far more votes in Delhi's newsrooms than anywhere else. Perhaps it should read less of its great press, think less of headline-grabbing stunts, and focus on what makes it actually different: that it has a plan to revamp governance that's different from the Congress and the BJP's approach. Decentralisation, not drama. But a party that lives by drama will die by drama, and it's busy dying by drama at the moment. 

Finally, spare a thought for North India's Muslims. The BJP has swept this election in UP without a single Muslim candidate. Its 2014 victory was almost as exclusionary. There isn't even a pretence of reaching out electorally. The message is this: we are not interested in bringing you into our coalition. This is a very different message from what went out under Atal Bihari Vajpayee's BJP. Whatever your political opinions, even if you believe India's history before 2014 was one long parade of craven appeasement, you should at least be worried about the real consequences of India's largest religious minority feeling that they are excluded, perhaps permanently, from political power. 

Here's the big picture: Modi and Shah can celebrate. UP can perhaps look forward to what it has long lacked, co-ordination between state and central governments to solve development problems. And in 2019, Modi will start with a giant head start. But he will also, for the first time, be playing defence, with no state governments or Congress to blame. Let's see how he manages that. 

(Mihir Swarup Sharma is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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