It is noticeable that Mr Modi’s UP campaign has been low key till now
Guesswork about how caste and religious equations will determine outcomes is the best that strategists, whether from political parties or professionals armed with opinion poll numbers, can offer. In the absence of a wave of support for a single party, icon or symbol, the voter has to make decisions and choices based on a complicated combination of self-interest, sentiment, experiences, realities that reflect negotiations between the voter, community leaders, the manifesto and off-manifesto promises.
The five states going to the first tranche of polls in 2022 will deliver a verdict on the performance and failures of the state ruling parties and pronounce judgment on the performance and leadership of Narendra Modi and his government. Seventy years after India’s adults voted in the first 68-phase elections in 1951-52, the voter has a lot of muscle memory, individually and collectively, on how and why to choose a candidate, even when elections are spread over seven phases in Uttar Pradesh.
The voters are no different in Goa, Manipur, Punjab and Uttarakhand. Reports indicate there is no clear positive wave for the BJP anywhere. The voters will make a rational choice on whether a “double engine sarkar” model and the BJP’s hegemonistic “one nation-one party” vision is the best option they have or a heterogeneous alliance of parties gives them greater opportunities to be represented in states and the Centre. It will be a limited referendum by the end of the year, when elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh are completed in December.
The UP elections will matter the most for the BJP and its challengers in 2024. The verdict will be a signal and will influence choices in later state elections because of its sheer size and therefore weight in Indian politics. After March 10, political parties across the board will decide on strategy for 2024 based on the UP outcome.
The BJP’s leadership was shaken by how wrong they were in gauging voter choices in the 2021 West Bengal elections. Post-defeat corrective actions included an overhaul of the party’s management teams in key states, including UP, a Modi Cabinet reshuffle with the conspicuous inclusion of dalits and OBCs representing subsections of communities whose votes will matter in UP.
Changes were made in the Yogi Adityanath government, after the BJP failed to destabilise him. The party succeeded in changing its chief minister in Uttarakhand, which is a measure of how apprehensive it was about the 2022 elections.
The concern was not misplaced. The best indicator was how the Modi government crumbled in the face of pressure from farmers on the repeal of the three farm laws and conceded the need to establish a mechanism for a nationwide guaranteed MSP for 23 different crops, with the UP and other elections in the offing. By failing to follow through by unveiling a policy and plan in its 2022-2023 Budget on farm reforms, the Modi government has taken a gamble, hoping perhaps that his popularity and aroused Hindutva sentiment will see it through.
To relinquish the opportunity offered by the Union Budget to woo farmers was deliberately provocative and the SKM and BKU responded predictably by vowing to campaign against the BJP.
Support from Jat voters, 80 per cent of whom voted for the BJP in 2019, up from 70 per cent in 2017, is vital to the BJP’s prospects in UP. It can mean the BJP doesn’t see the partnership between the Jat-dominated Rashtriya Lok Dal and the Samajwadi Party as a serious challenge. Or it could mean the BJP is confident of splitting the Jat and farmer votes by appealing to the complex compound of fragmented communal and sub-caste interests. Or it could be that the BJP hopes communally divisive majoritarian appeals to voters led by Mr Modi will work in a state that tends not to vote the same ruling government back to power in the last three decades.
It is noticeable that Mr Modi’s UP campaign has been low key till now. The BJP may be conserving his firepower for the remaining five phases that begin from February 20 in the central and eastern districts where its appeal has been traditionally higher. In Awadh, the BJP’s share of votes has been around 43 per cent, and correcting a swing away from the party is probably easier in a territory where local issues have not triggered animosities between the party and voters, as in the Jat-dominated parts of western UP.
The BJP also seems to be ignoring the growing distance between the party centre in New Delhi and the organisation’s long-time workers at the grassroots. It is, perhaps, an unintended consequence of the party having grown very large, with limitless resources and a high command that doesn’t recognise alienation. As is usual, the party has prepared lists on how many seats it will certainly win and in how many there may be a credible contest. The problem is that the BJP high command has one list; but within UP there are more lists. One such list estimates the number of certain wins is about one-fourth of seats in the 403-member Assembly, implying that the BJP’s future is precariously hanging in the balance. Party watchers warn the effects of restricted access of unhappy leaders to the top brass has increased simmering friction and factionalism which could seriously undermine the party’s efficiency in managing the vote.
Elections are about organisation and management. An effective and efficient organisation led by a collective of party managers is essential. There are the tensions between Yogi Adityanath and his Cabinet, including on Covid-19 mismanagement and the farmers’ protests, unemployment and sidelined leaders.
This has impacted morale on the one hand and a resigned acceptance that a Modi wave will do the work that party workers usually have to labour for.
This would be unrealistic, unless Mr Modi can pull a rabbit out of his ever more colourful headgear, to expect that the BJP will get 50 per cent of the vote share as it did in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. It will be equally unwise to anticipate that the BJP will get 40 per cent votes as it did in the 2017 UP elections.
The UP elections will be a contest between voters who will weigh their choices and the BJP on the one hand and the SP and its partners on the other. Going into the elections, the BJP must have calculated the risk of voters who tend not to choose the same ruling party twice in a row. Too much has happened to voters not to reconsider how far they can trust the BJP to fulfil their expectations.