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Mainstream, VOL LX No 6, New Delhi, January 29, 2022

The up-coming UP assembly elections: A macro-level analysis | P S Jayaramu

Friday 28 January 2022

by P. S. Jayaramu *

23rd, January 2022

2022 is the year of elections. The year will witness assembly elections in five states during February-March, biennial elections to 75 seats to Rajya Sabha in June-july and elections to the Gujarat assembly in December. The mega polls are, of course, going to take place in Uttar Pradesh in seven phases spread over 10th February to 7th March, 2022. It is billed as the most spectacular electoral event for a few reasons. Firstly, the BJP has made Prime Minister Narendra Modi its mascot to garner votes for a second term to the Yogi Adithyanath government . Modi is projected so much that chief minister Yogi has come to occupy a secondary position in the campaign yatras. Secondly, the Modi government is perceived to be banking on UP victory to be a precursor to the Lok Sabha polls due in 2024. Conversely, a defeat in UP ( which is unlikely) would make a serious dent on Modi’s image, as the West Bengal results showed last year. That is the reason why a Prime minister should not invest so heavily on state elections. Prime ministers in the past have not put themselves at the centre stage of assembly election campaigns in the electoral history of India, except making a couple of customary speeches. But, Modi is Modi. He loves campaigning. In the process, he proves a point which Yashwant Sinha made recently in one of his writings calling him ‘an electionjivi’! That was Sinha’s rebuttal to Modi describing some people who supported the farmers agitation last year as ‘andholanjivis’.

The third reason why Modi is projecting himself strongly in the UP campaign is the lurking fear among the BJP central leadership that Yogi Adithyanath’s image has taken a beating in recent months due to a host of reasons like his dictatorial style of functioning. The same is evident from the manner in which influential leaders of his government have deserted the party to join the Samajwadi Party (SP). Fourhly, the Yogi government is also perceived to be not handling the Covid-19 pandemic now nor during the second wave when dead bodies floated in the holy Ganga river. The Union health ministry admitted recently that UP is among the States where the pandemic is surging around 16000 cases a day. Modi-Shah duo are making an attempt to shield Yogi by taking on themselves the leadership of the campaign.

To return to the theme of the dictatorial attitude of Yogi Adityanath, it is worth noting that former minister Swami Prasad Maurya and three other MLAs left the Party and joined the Samajwadi Party alleging gross neglect of lower strata of the OBCs. It is reported that the official letters written by many BJP MLAs to the chief minister about issues concerning the poor were not even acknowledged, leave alone attended to. Three time BJP MLA Roshan Lal Verma has, in an interview, stated that he left the party to join SP utterly dissatisfied with Yogi’s style of functioning. Rumours are that many more MLAs are knocking at the door of the Samajwadi Party.

Let me turn to some of the issues which are likely to play in the minds of voters when they cast their votes. While on the one hand it can be argued that the ongoing construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya and the unveiling of the ‘Divya Kashi- Bhavya Kashi’ by Modi, along with the Hindutva card that is being played by the party is going to get the Yogi government the electoral support of the hardline Hindu voters, But, the narrative of pushing the Hindutva agenda beyond a point may turn out to be counterproductive to some extent. The silence of the state and central leadership of the BJP in not condemning the hate speeches delivered at the ‘dharma sansad’ recently in Hardwar and the groundswell of criticisms it has evoked nationally culminating with the Supreme Court taking up a public interest litigation on the issue, has not only led to fears in the minds of the party leaders but also the moderates among the Hindu voters on whether to vote back a government which cuts at the secular fabric of the larger UP electorate, specially the youth. Also, the communal polarisation being pursued vigorously by the Yogi sarkar may deny it some of the muslim women votes which it reportedly got in 2017.

Caste dynamics:

Caste has always played a predominant part in the politics of Uttar Pradesh, as indeed of other States in India. As the saying goes, the Indian voters, by and large, vote their caste and not cast their vote! The demographics of UP broadly consists of around 14 percent forward groups, 44 percent of OBCs, 20.8 percent Scheduled Castes, and 20 percent muslims as per the 2011 census. That means broadly that whoever gets the support of muslims and SCs ( lower and upper groups among them) would be in a better position to form govt. But then, the caste groups in UP are not monolithic, with so many sub-groups being in existence in different regions, owing loyalty to different political formations. The Congress Party when it was in power enjoyed the support of the forward groups, especially brahmins, muslims, SCs in some pockets and a small section of OBC voters. That was the secret of its success mantra for being in power for long. But, with the rise of the Samanwadi Party, Congress’s support-base dwindled with the SP managing to take away the Yadav and muslim voters to its side. Mayawati came to power on the basis of the support of SCs in a big way and gradually won over section of brahmins to her side in the post-Kanshiram phase of BSP politics. Thus, in UP, parties have gone all out to woo the support of voters outside the ambit of their respective caste base.

As for the BJP, in an effort to expand its social base which consisted of brahmins and traders traditionally, it brought in Kalyan Singh, an OBC and Rajnath Singh, a Thakur, to wrest and retain power. The present dispensation headed by Yogi Adithyanath has the support of forward groups, sections of the SC groups, vast sections of brahmins under the Hindutva influence and a good portion of OBC votes. Narendra Modi, himself an OBC leader, played a key role in swaying the OBC votes to the BJP side in 2017, though of course he made Yogi Adityanath, a Thakur, as chief minister to widen the Hindutyva base of the Party. The OBCs who were accommodated in the ministry, came to be marginalised in decision-making over a period of time. In Yogi’s cabinet, Thakurs, coupled with sections of bureaucracy, have exercised power in a decisive manner.

It is this concentration of power in the hands of Yogi and his coterie, which led to desertions by some of the OBC leaders from the party, under the leadership of Swamy Prasad Maurya recently to the SP, alleging neglect of lower stratas. The dessertions have sent shock waves to the central leadership of the party. In a damage limitation act of sorts, the party leadership has given tickets to a good chunk of OBCs in the first round of ticket distribution for the upcoming elections.

The Samajwadi Party under the leadership of Akhilesh Yadav, who has clearly come out of his father’s shadow, is the other main contender for power. The biggest challenge to him would be how well he manages to balance the distribution of tickets, retain his loyal followers who have been with him when he has been out of power, in addition to accomodating the new entrants to the party. He will also have to come out of the shackles of his Yadav-muslim base, without at the same time not displeasing them, who constitute his core support base.

Akhilesh Yadav could have gone in for an electoral alliance with the Congress, but pulled back from it going by his past unproductive experience. Quite realistically, the SP has gone for tie-ups with Rastriya Lok Dal ( RLD) and some smaller parties, like the BJP has done with Nishad Party and Apna Dal.

The Congress Party, is making the right kind of noices under the leadership of Priyanka Vadra Gandhi, supported by her brother Rahul Gandhi. Her decision to give 40 percent seats to women is seen as a tactical move to win over women voters, cutting across caste groups. The Party is rightly taking up issues like unemployment, declining law and order situation and a raging inflation. Realistically speaking, the Congress Party is starting from a ground-zero position of sorts,( it has only 3 seats in the present UP assembly). Rise to double digits, ( if not three digits) will be an improvement for the grand old party.

Campaign issue:

With the Election Commission continuing to ban large rallies and road shows in view of the raging Covid19 pandemic, campaigning will be in a hybrid mode with focus on virtual canvassing. Traditional door to door campaigns would be the feature this time round. BJP and the Congress Party, which is said to be facing resources crunch, have drawn-up detailed strategies in this regard at the district and taluka levels with WhatsApp groups being already set up to reach out to the voters. SP too, is said to be preparing itself similarly as the campaign heat picks up, while the BSP has complained that virtual campaigns would bring to the fore ‘digital inequality’ in electioneering.

Conclusions:

1. The UP assembly elections are billed as the semi-final to the larger Lok Sabha polls due in 2024. A win or loss to the BJP would add to or affect the image of Narendra Modi as he symbolises the Party’s campaign.

2. The electoral contest is going to rouse greater national and international attention in the days to come, adding to the prevalent perception that elections in India are both a festival and financial extravaganza, with governance taking the back seat.

3. The business of forecasting/ opinion polls has begun and will gather speed as days go by, with some groups saying the BJP will return to power with a small majority. Quite possible. Retaining power with a reduced majority may, ironically, suit Prime Minister Modi, as that would remove the competition from Yogi Adthyanath to his own position, as Yogi is being projected by some as an alternative to Modi! Such an outcome may be pleasing to Amit Shah too as that would help him retain his number 2 position! Conversely, loss of power in UP may dent Modi’s image.

4. A resounding performance by the Opposition will act as a stimulus to the efforts of regional parties to take on the BJP juggernaut in 2024.

All in all, the days to come are going to be interesting, if not breath-taking, for those of us who watch UP elections from our ring side seat.

(Author: Dr. P. S. Jayaramu is former Professor of Political Science, Bangalore University, and former Senior Fellow, ICSSR, New Delhi)

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