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BJP & Five State Elections: State of Play || Midweek Matters 37

13-11-2021published_dt 2021-11-13T10:14:22.331Z13-11-2021 15:44:22 IST
2021-11-13T10:14:22.331Z13-11-2021 2021-11-13T10:14:22.331Z - - 18-01-2022

Hello and welcome to

Midweek Matters.

Before I begin, here’s an announcement.

I will be travelling in some of the poll bound states starting today for about two weeks.

I will be back again with Midweek Matters on 1st December.

The BJP has concluded its National Executive Committee meeting in New Delhi three days ago. Newspapers told us that among other things, the party's top leadership has discussed its Rana Niti, meaning strategy, for the impending elections to the five state Assemblies. We all know that real strategies are not discussed in such formal and large forums. Therefore, the gathering in Delhi is not important for what the party's spokespersons told us about its agenda and speeches. It is important for the signals its proceedings sent out, combined with the messages the party's supreme leader and Prime Minister conveyed to the people of India from his recent trip abroad, and from his itinerary after he returned to India. Signals from these three sets of activities are important for us to understand what is on the top of the mind of the ruling party and its mascot. Today I would like to try and decipher those signals to understand the state of the play in the states that are going to the polls shortly.

The five state assembly elections scheduled for early next year, just a few weeks away actually, are indeed important for BJP and the Prime Minister. Of the five states, four now have BJP governments. In other words, in four of them BJP is the defending champion. Two of them, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, had given a clear mandate to the party in the last elections. Congress holds Punjab. In Goa and Manipur the BJP managed to become the ruling party. The result in UP, Uttarakhand and Punjab have a real bearing on the party's fortunes in the 2024 general elections to the Lok Sabha. Of the three, UP is undoubtedly the crown jewel. Union Home Minister also known as BJP's electoral Chanakya made it clear in so many words that Yogi Adityanath's victory in UP is essential for Modi's win in 2024. Together the three states of UP, Uttarakhand and Punjab have 98 Lok Sabha seats. Victory in Goa and Manipur is more of symbolic value than for its implications for the 2024 hustings. They account for four Lok Sabha seats, two each.

I will briefly deal with Punjab first. Then will look at Uttarakhand. And finally come to the situation in Uttar Pradesh. I will not deal with Goa and Manipur in the present episode.

The long-standing political bonding between the Shiromani Akali Dal and the BJP has broken in the wake of the farmers agitation against the new Central Farm Laws. The electoral understanding between Akali Dal and the BJP began in 1967, during the days of Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the BJP's earlier avatar. In spite of the contradictions between them on several points the hard fact of electoral arithmetic that neither of them could come to power without the other's numbers kept the alliance going for over five decades. Akalis have always been the senior partner in the alliance. Now, the reason for their break up, protest against central farm laws, is unlikely to go away before the Assembly elections. And perhaps even before the 2024 general elections. Any possibility of BJP's tie up, with former Congressman and ex chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh also looks remote for the same reason. Although an understanding between them is mutually advantageous. BJP has no CM face, and the Captain can supply that. And his yet to be floated party will require manpower and financial resources that BJP could bring to the table. But again, the Captain is unlikely to strike a deal in the absence of some initiative with regard to the farm laws by the union government. With the Akali Dal and Captain Amarinder Singh thus severely constrained to do business with BJP, it is in a difficult electoral situation in the state. At best it can expect to pick up some seats as a result of Hindu consolidation. And its attempts in that direction are unmistakable.

In Uttarakhand, the BJP looks a bit unsure.

It had to let a Chief Minister go as it wasn’t prepared to risk a by-election to get the then incumbent elected to the state Assembly. More than a concerted challenge from the Congress, it’s the BJP's infirmities and anti incumbency that the party's leadership is struggling to overcome and retain its hold on the state. Political winds in its mother state, UP, have a significant influence on the electoral outcome in the smaller state. The BJP seems to be banking on the impact of recent visit of the Prime Minister to Kedarnath, inauguration of several projects of religio-cultural significance along with some of developmental import. However, that visit is more likely aimed to have greater impact on UP than on Uttarakhand. The hill state is not as religiously polarised as its big neighbour.

The National Executive witnessed a very special treatment given to the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister. He’s the only BJP CM who was present at the gathering in person. Others participated in the meeting virtually. His importance was further underlined by the party leadership's decision to ask him to move the political resolution. By any reckoning, this is an unusual preferential treatment. During the last few visits to the state by the PM as well as the Union Home Minister, the UP CM received full throated praise and endorsements by them. It is a surprise to many political observers that precisely on the counts on which the state is perceived as particularly weak, the PM chose to heap praises on the Yogi administration. Vaccination drive, control of Covid spread, law and order, for example. But it is more than evident that the BJP is not dependent on the so called performance of the Yogi government on these counts. The party is too experienced in electoral politics to ignore the serious threats posed to its prospects by the continuing farmers' agitation, the controversy over the union minister's son's alleged involvement in the Lakhimpur Kheri killings, Covid deaths, floating of dead bodies in the sacred Ganga, Chinese incursions, fuel price hikes, demonetisation fiasco, rural economic distress, general price rise, alienation of Muslims and sections of OBC voters. Increased visibility of Congress and Priyanka Gandhi, the Samajwadi Party's success in stitching up alliances are not things that the BJP dismisses lightly, public posturing to the contrary notwithstanding. The only solace for it, of course, is the remote likelihood of the opposition coming together to offer a united challenge to the ruling party.

But the risks are too high for the BJP. Too high, indeed, to depend on the certificates of extraordinary performance given by the PM and the Union Home Minister to the Yogi government. Hindu consolidation behind the BJP is a much more dependable to overcome the challenges posed by the headwinds in the form of the factors that I mentioned earlier. In Punjab, without the organisational structure of the Akali Dal for it to ride on, the BJP is now aggressively attempting Hindu consolidation. In UP, the Chief Minister's reasoning for a population control aimed at the minority community, the Abba Jaan remark on the disappearance of ration, the Taliban mentality remark in Kairana, the union government's positioning of the construction of Ram temple in Ayodhya, the recent visit of the Prime Minister to Kedarnath and the huge fanfare worked up in many religious places across the country in tandem with the event, are clear appeal to the Hindu sentiment and a loud message that the BJP is on a mission to revive the cultural and religious pride of the Hindu community. They are not intended to be limited in their appeal to the voters of Uttarakhand. The call is for the Hindus in Punjab as well. And much more importantly in Uttar Pradesh. The embarrassing hugging spree of the Prime Minister at the G-20 summit in Rome and at the Climate Conference, COP-26 in Glasgow was intended to convey to the electorate that India's leader is on equal terms with world leaders and under his stewardship the country has arrived on the world stage. It might look like crass behaviour to the sophisticates. But the PM evidently reckons that it impresses his core constituency of voters.

Outcome of the just concluded by-elections seems to have unsettled the BJP leadership. Reduction in excise duty on petrol and diesel is a clear pointer. Till before the results of these elections, the union government consistently maintained that it has no role in controlling the rise in fuel prices.

In UP the BJP's campaign is rolling out two narratives. A meta narrative and a subordinate one. The meta narrative is that pursuit of the Hindutva political project is predicated on the return of BJP under the leadership of Modi in 2024. And for a Modi victory in 2024, a win in Uttar Pradesh is essential. The Union Home Minister's utterances convey this undisguised pitch.

The Prime Minister's messaging from Kedarnath pitches the messages at a even higher level. There were powerful optics from Kedarnath: the PM had sandalwood paste prominently daubed on his forehead. His sitting in meditative pose in front a huge Adi Shankara statue was beamed across the nation. His address from Kedarnath is replete with Hindu revivalist messaging. The PM said,

"Cultural heritage centres as well as places of faith are now being viewed with the pride and honour that they deserve."

He added that Ayodhya got its glory back after centuries. He declared that he intended to develop all the places associated with Lord Ram into a religious tourism circuit for the devotees. These cement his image as the Hindu Hriday Samrat. Add to this his visuals of spending Diwali with the army jawans in Nowshera, you will understand the enormous impact it would have on the minds of the Hindu voters. This is calculated to overwhelm the day to day concerns like the rise in fuel prices, unemployment, Covid mess, law and order, farm protest etc. The subordinate narrative is that it is the Yogi who is the no nonsense figure that would uncompromisingly carry out the Hindutva agenda in the state. Not giving even one ticket to a Muslim for the Vidhan Sabha will just be a starters.

Remember, even a couple of decades ago the BJP leadership used to be either diffident or apologetic about its majoritarian agenda. It’s top leadership used to repeatedly clarify that they had no 'hidden agenda'. But now the BJP has acquired enormous self confidence about its programme. It is in a position to wear it on its sleeve and proclaim it with no trace of compunction. The situation in UP in particular, and in the country in general, is that no political party can criticise this Hindutva messaging of BJP and the Prime Minister without risking being branded as anti-Hindu. Why only political parties? Even businesses are caving in and pulling down their advertising campaigns under the threat of being branded anti Hindu. The threats are no longer from some fringe groups, but from elected representatives belonging to BJP. The party and its ideological parivar have been able to successfully convince a large section of our population that Hindutva is, in fact, Hindu faith and Sanatana Dharma. The greatest advaitin Adi Shankara himself is now coopted to serve the Hindutva project.

In the current state of play, the BJP's attempt is to overwhelm the economic and governance issues with issues of Hindu identity and dharmic pride. It’s ahead in the game at the moment. The challenge for the opposition is to bring to the fore the issues of governance, economic hardship and threat to the tolerant and pluralistic identity and a liberal idea of India. Equally important is to forge a unity to take on the might of the electoral juggernaut that the BJP has morphed into under the stewardship of Modi-Shah. The chances of this happening look dismal today. All things being equal, the outcome of the contest scheduled in UP in the next few months will cast the die. The outcome will determine the shape of India as a society and polity.


That’s all for this week.

I am going to hit the road in the poll bound states for about two weeks. To gauge the mood in those states.

Hence will be back again on Wednesday, 1st December

Lunch time at 1:00 o’clock.

Stay safe and do take good care of yourselves and all your dear ones.

Until then, Bye.