For Narendra Modi, a victory in Uttar Pradesh would not just validate his tenure as Prime Minister so far, it would cut a pathway to 2019. Little wonder then that as he barnstorms through the State as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s principal campaigner, he seems to be his party’s chief ministerial candidate.
A familiar style
As Hindutva’s tallest leader, Mr. Modi has moved centrestage in U.P. in the closing days of the campaign, shifting from a sharp attack on the shortcomings of his political rivals to a dual strategy of isolating the Yadav community even as he makes a no-holds-barred attempt to polarise the polls.
On display again is the mixture of derision and aggression that he has deployed so effectively on other electoral battlefields: he refers to his chief targets, the Samajwadi Party (SP)-Congress duo of Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi, as the “ shehzade ”, princes, with the Urdu word intended to underscore their preferences.
At each rally, he reels off Mr. Yadav’s shortcomings in office, ending every example with “ kaam bolta hai ”, turning on its head the hashtag the SP has adopted. The BJP’s social media cell has been quick to send out hundreds of WhatsApp messages, tagged “ kaam bolta hain ”, each mentioning one failure. Answering the slogan, “U.P. ke ladke ”, Mr. Modi has styled himself as the “adopted son” of the State who will be more faithful.
The non-Yadav vote
Focussing on the Chief Minister’s poor record on law and order, he is seeking not just to galvanise the women’s vote, citing the many cases of rape, and lure Dalits back by talking of how difficult it is for them to register First Information Reports: he is working to consolidate the non-Yadav vote by accusing Mr. Yadav of converting police stations into extensions of SP offices. This last issue has resonance, and comes up repeatedly in everyday conversations across U.P.
On February 19, Mr. Modi upped his game, saying at a rally in Fatehpur: “A village that gets a graveyard, should get a cremation ground, too. If there is electricity during Ramzan, there should be electricity during Diwali too.” By not fielding any Muslim candidate, the BJP had already sent a message to Hindu voters. But this was clearly not enough. It was a follow-up to deploying the fiery, five-time Gorakhpur MP, Yogi Adityanath, in western U.P. for the first time, even though he has never been a favourite of either Mr. Modi or BJP president Amit Shah. In his shoot-from-the-hip style, the Yogi talked of the so-called Hindu exodus from Kairana and issues like the Ram Temple, the Uniform Civil Code and triple talaq that find mention in the party’s manifesto.
In the 2007 and 2012 U.P. Assembly elections, the BJP had not been in the contest. The SP and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) were locked in a straight fight. But thanks to the saffron tsunami that swept Mr. Modi into office at the Centre in 2014, with the BJP taking 71 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in the State, the party was able to mount a challenge for the U.P. Assembly with a much stronger base.
Yet, when the 2017 campaign started, there was barely a ripple, with the scale of the party’s support having clearly shrunk since 2014. In western U.P., the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 — and the sharp communal divide that followed — had set the stage for a BJP victory in 2014. Today, vestiges of that communal animosity, like a stain that refuses to be washed away, mar U.P.’s social landscape. But issues of demonetisation, farming distress, caste affiliations and personal rivalries too are present. Sections of the Yadavs and the Dalits that voted BJP in 2014 have returned to the SP and BSP, respectively. The powerful Jats have gravitated back to the Rashtriya Lok Dal. But what remains is substantial: a large section of upper castes and non-Yadav backward castes, replicating the social coalition that had sustained the BJP in U.P. in the 1990s when Kalyan Singh, an OBC was Chief Minister. The BJP is depending on an upper caste-backward caste combine and the organisational skills of Mr. Shah. There is, however, discontent among party workers over seat distribution.
Party leaders and workers told me this was the party’s biggest drawback in U.P., but said that Mr. Modi’s whistle-stop tour of the State would energise and unite angry cadres. Clearly, in an election seemingly without an issue, the BJP is playing its only card — Mr. Modi — to polarise the large numbers of silent, apparently disinterested voters to get past the finish line.