Opinion | How Almost Everyone Missed The All-Too-Visible Signs In Uttar Pradesh

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Let's try to understand the main takeaway of this election: how the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lost Uttar Pradesh and thereby its sole Lok Sabha majority.

Uttar Pradesh swung the national verdict, and the fact is that nobody anticipated that, let alone predict it. Nobody stuck her or his neck out and said the Congress-Samajwadi Party (SP) alliance would win more seats than the BJP. Yogendra Yadav's phase-wise election overview and his heartfelt write-ups based on his travels through the Hindi heartland zeroed in on the many factors that resulted in the 19% swing in favour of the Congress-SP alliance in the state, which led to a 9% vote drop for the BJP and 10% for the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Yadav was the closest anybody got to sensing the electorate earthquake that, single-handedly,  prevented the BJP from getting a simple majority.

Blind Men And A Rather Big Elephant

Many would argue that prominent YouTube channels in Hindi, most notably Red Mike, as well as innumerable bloggers, also gave glimpses of the surge in the Congress-SP support. Like that proverbial tale of the blind men and the elephant, many sharp observers correctly felt the many parts of the elephant, but nobody realised that it was an elephant - and a rather big one - they were facing.

The Dalit vote was going to be critical, and it was correctly observed that the BJP's aligning of non-Jatavs against the BSP's Jatav base - one of the key tactical drivers of its sweep in the state in the last general as well as two assembly elections - had come undone over the Congress's charge that a "400 paar" mandate would lead to a change in the Constitution. But nobody anticipated that Jatavs, whose 13% vote share dominates the Dalit base, would also vote tactically to defeat the BJP.

For that to happen, the Jatavs had not only to jettison the BSP but also get over their antipathy towards the Yadav-dominated SP. Uttar Pradesh's Dalits have long regarded the Yadavs as their worst oppressors; memories are still fresh of the law and order mayhem under the SP regime before Yogi Adityanath. Dalits, especially Jatavs, have not forgotten the Lucknow "Guest House" incident of 1995, when aggressive SP legislators and supporters came close to physically molesting Mayawati. Mulayam Singh Yadav carried that cross as long as he was alive. The SP-BSP alliance in the 2019 Lok Sabha poll did little to heal the emotional scar, even if it fetched 16 seats. But it was still wholly unexpected that 'Behenji's' Jatav vote would abandon her in such totality when it became evident that her ticket selection for the BSP was clearly aimed at improving the BJP's performance.

Akhilesh's Deft Social Engineering

Observers also noted that this time, Akhilesh Yadav's ticket distribution indicated much smarter social engineering as it marked a departure from the party's almost total reliance on its Muslim-Yadav (MY) base. Tickets were given to only nine MY candidates: five Yadavs, all relatives of Akhilesh, and four Muslims. The rest of its 48 candidates were drawn mainly from the myriad other OBCs, denting another pillar of Amit Shah's social engineering in Uttar Pradesh, where he had won over the non-Yadavs by pitting them against the Yadavs. There were a couple of other counter-intuitive choices too by Akhilesh: a ticket to a feisty Jatav woman in Meerut (a general seat), and another to a Brahmin in Ballia, where Rajputs have long reigned and where the BJP candidate was the son of arguably one of the tallest Rajput leader, ex-Prime Minister and veteran Congressman, Chandra Shekhar.

Many also noted the restiveness among the Jats in western Uttar Pradesh. But it was believed that the BJP's alliance with Jayant Chaudhury, grandson of Chaudhary Charan Singh and Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) chief, would rally the Jats. Add to that the party's decades-old politics of polarisation in western Uttar Pradesh - which successfully dented the Jat-Muslim base of Charan Singh's RLD - as well as its Hindutva support base, and many were sure that the BJP would bring the bacon home in this part of the state given the significant Muslim population.

Mention was also made of the resentment among Rajputs over Yogi Adityanath's apparent sidelining in the seat-selection process, allegedly by Amit Shah, the most visible BJP leader after Modi. His 188 rallies across the country were seen as a pointer to the who-after-Modi question. The denial of tickets to a few good candidates, including General V.K. Singh, a Rajput, was also mentioned as a red flag.

An Assessment Quite Off The Mark

And yet, the overall assessment had been that Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP and allies won 64 out of 80 seats in the previous Lok Sabha election, was well within its control. The party's popularity in the crucial and populous Doaba region, with Ayodhya as the epicentre, was never in doubt. When Rahul Gandhi forsook Amethi, it did seem that he was running away from the battlefield, sensing another defeat - something the BJP crowed about relentlessly. Meanwhile, there weren't too many doubts about the BJP's dominance in Bundelkhand, a region entwined with the party's stronghold of Madhya Pradesh.

Even after all this, as the seven-phase elections rolled across the state and headed to the Purvanchal region (or eastern Uttar Pradesh), trends emerged that ought to have triggered serious doubts. Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav were forced to abandon an election meeting in Phulpur, near Allahabad (Prayagraj), after a massive crowd erupted in enthusiasm and breached security barriers to greet them. This was well-noticed. Veteran journalist Neerja Chowdhury, who was present at the meeting, said in a podcast later that the fervour she saw among Congress-SP supporters reminded her of the excitement she witnessed in 1987-89 when V.P. Singh was set to storm the Uttar Pradesh fort on the back of his Bofors-charged challenge to Rajiv Gandhi.

Throwback To 1977

That association, if I may be allowed a personal detour, should have alerted me. I have covered numerous elections between 1977 and 2014. Coincidentally, both those elections were 'wave' elections, where the crowd support in meetings and rallies was so manifest that you needed to be blind to not see the winner. And yet, I have not seen the kind of fervour I experienced in Varanasi in one of V.P. Singh's "Raja Nahi Fakir Hai, Desh Ki Takdeer Hai" rallies. I was in Singh's Jeep, merely an arm's distance from him, and I have not seen that kind of mania at any meeting ever - neither in the hugely emotional election rallies of any Janata Party leader in 1977 nor in any of Modi's rallies in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar in 2014. Balconies of the houses along the streets were packed and brimming as people showered flowers on their  "Raja Sahib". To be sure, these were not flowers supplied by Mr Singh's party.

And yet, nobody thought that any of this would push the Congress-SP vote and seat share past that of the BJP's.

I'm reminded again of a vignette from the 1977 election. We were at an election rally in Muzaffarpur, Northwestern Bihar, where the Janata Party candidate, George Fernandes, was fighting from jail. Madhu Limaye, a giant figure from the Socialist Party, was one of the main speakers. He noticed a few supporters getting boisterous as they shouted slogans hailing the leaders. He called out to them and said something to this effect: "Itney nashey mein mat raho; agla election hum haar bhi saktey hain" (Don't jump around, we may lose the next election).

The Waning Of The 'Magic'

Prashant Kishor, one of the more astute observers of Indian politics, explained in his TV interviews why he thought the BJP would end up near its 2019 tally of 303 seats. Modi's popularity, he said, is the leitmotif of the party's dominance. This popularity rests on four pillars: Hindutva, alignment of nationalism with Hindutva, the improvement in the material life of the labharthis through what has been termed "new welfarism", and the BJP's stupendous organisational strength and resource superiority.

The debate will continue in the coming days over which of these four pillars caved in and by how much. But one fact has been cemented yet again: there is a 'sell-by' date for every product. 

(Ajay Kumar is a senior journalist. He is former Managing Editor, Business Standard, and former Executive Editor, The Economic Times.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author