The BJP was back to school on Friday - IRL and not online - as union Home Minister Amit Shah held an hour-long meeting in Varanasi to coach nearly 700 attendees on how to win what party leaders are calling the "Baap" (father) of all elections.
Shah was all business at the meeting, sources said to me, and upbraided sharply some state leaders whose plans he found unsatisfactory. Significantly, Shah repeated his key statement made a few weeks ago - that the 2022 victory of Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is critical for the party's return to power in the general election of 2024. This time, though, he claimed Adityanath's return is essential not just for the BJP but for India. "You have to make sure that Yogi Adityanath returns. This is not an election about MLAs, but bringing Modi back to power. "Win 300 plus seats, and the way for 2024 is clear," he reiterated several times. So, the target has been set by the ruling party's chief election strategist: 300 of 403 seats.
Yogi Adityanath was present. So were both his deputies, Union Minister Dharmendra Pradhan who is UP election-in-charge, and Sunil Bansal (trusted Shah aide), who is designated the BJP's General Secretary for UP.
Shah dislikes unstructured meetings, so the state leadership presented for review campaign material starring Modi, Yogi and Shah. Election slogans and jingles were also tried out for size. Among them, "Sabse bade ladiya Yogi" (Yogi is the biggest fighter) liberally borrowed from the movie Omkara made by Vishal Bharadwaj, his version of Othello set in the heartland. Yogi is being projected as a macho doer who has transformed UP and tamed criminals. While this muscular projection of Yogi is quite a brand fit, the BJP also plans to go big with the development work done by the "non-corrupt" Yogi, the man who gave up his own family for the people of UP. There is likely to be a reference to Yogi not even attending his father's funeral last April because of Covid restrictions. Asked about budget estimates for the profuse campaign, BJP leaders state only that the party will spend whatever it takes to retain UP. The BJP's war chest was comprehensively on show in the West Bengal election. Expect a humongous spend as the BJP will outspend every party in the big fight of UP.
The party will use to the max the inimitable appeal of Modi as well. In this month, the PM will be in UP every week, flagging off development projects. Modi will zip across the huge state, addressing public meetings in record numbers. Modi's diary is currently with Shah and has open slots for wherever Shah says the BJP needs him. Shah after his big election strategy meet will be in Azamgarh tomorrow, challenging rival Akhilesh Yadav on his home turf.
Shah had as party president claimed that the BJP was the biggest political party in the world after a missed call campaign which saw huge numbers added to its support base. A similar campaign is underway UP to get more voters on board. Every booth in every constituency will be monitored and have a booth-in-charge.
The BJP also plans to consolidate its gains as the largest WhatsApp mobilizer. It has an ever-lengthening list of chat groups, the result of arduous work over years which provide it with a simple and effective way to reach voters directly. The party has WhatsApp pramukhs or block-in-charge in every single village of UP. What is euphemistically called a "negative campaign" but could be baseless claims about rivals or even fake news is disseminated to these groups with no editorial filter.
The BJP will project its rivals as "corrupt leaders" who have looted UP. Currently perceiving Akhilesh Yadav and his Samajwadi Party as competition, a special effort is being made to project him as an insecure and indolent leader who does not stir out of his luxurious home. The Samajwadi "Itr" (perfume) that Yadav launched yesterday is a gift to the BJP as they will use it to bolster their allegations of his minority appeasement politics. The BJP's in-house surveys, now being done on a weekly basis in the state, show that Yogi's claims of an airstrike against the Taliban, the progress on the building of the Ram Mandir, the so-called "exodus" from Kairana (debunked earlier) and talk of Kabristans (burial grounds) play well with the BJP voters. If Mohamed Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan, has entered the political discourse in UP for the elections, you really don't need to wonder how polarised this campaign will be.
The challenge of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and her Congress party is limited to dismissing her as an accidental election tourist. Mayawati and her BSP, which has maintained a tacit silence on Yogi's governance, will be ignored, perhaps a giveaway of the theory that she is the BJP's "B-team".
So brace yourself for the Biggest Big Bang campaign as the BJP flexes to retain UP. Shah is taking charge.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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