In 2017, the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) fought separately, and a key issue was the communal riots in Muzaffarnagar in 2013. The assembly elections also took place against the backdrop of demonetisation and surgical strikes against a terror camp in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (PoK).
If the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was successfully able to spin the demonetisation issue as one of ‘poor versus rich’, the surgical strikes were used to whip up an anti-Pakistan mood that got translated into an anti-Muslim mood on the ground. For these two parties, it was a virtual wipeout, with the RLD winning just a single seat.
This time, in 2022, while the BJP has again gained a more-than-comfortable majority in Uttar Pradesh, at the time of writing this article, the SP-RLD-led combine was leading in at least a third of the seats in this region. While this is considerably less than these two parties had hoped for, it is certainly an improvement from 2017.
Muslims Want to Make Their Votes Count
So, what worked for them and what did not? In the run-up to the elections, I travelled through western Uttar Pradesh to get a sense of whether there had been any changes. The year-long farmers’ agitation had drawn many of its activists from this area, but what I discovered was a mixed picture. In Bijnor district and parts of neighbouring Muzaffarnagar, the protest was resonating enough among Jats for it to be an election issue, on which they said they would vote.
Trends show the combine leading in several of these seats. This area also has a sizeable Muslim population, and members of this community were determined this time to make their votes count against the BJP.
Another factor that has seen the RLD rising from the ashes this time is the recent death of RLD chief Jayant Chaudhury’s father, Ajit Singh. This was recalled in many villages to me and seemed to have created a sympathy factor for the young man. Indeed, the RLD lost traditional party seats such as Baghpat and Baraut very narrowly, but managed to win eight of the 33 seats it contested.
In the traditional Yadav belt, where lies the constituency of Karhal – from where SP chief Akhilesh Yadav is contesting – the SP appeared to be regaining many of the seats that it had lost in the last elections. At that time, uncle Shivpal Yadav had fought against the SP, thus dividing the community vote.
Moreover, some educated Yadavs had also moved to the BJP. This time, five years of Yogi Adityanath’s rule has demonstrated to the community that there is no place for them in the BJP, and they, along with Muslims, have been at the receiving end of a harsh administration. The SP was also, not surprisingly, ahead in the Muslim-dominated seats of Moradabad rural and city seats.
But, in the end, while the RLD got some breathing space, the SP got back its traditional vote and Muslims found themselves not so irrelevant. The BSP appears to have played spoiler in many seats, such as Bijnor and Fatehabad. In both seats, the BSP had strong candidates and the Muslim votes appear to have got divided, giving the BJP an advantage.
The '80:20' Politics
Ultimately, the fact that the BJP has succeeded in still having an upper hand is not merely because of its much-touted welfare schemes – especially the free rations that were a boon to the poorest of the poor in the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The fact that widespread unemployment, skyrocketing prices and the stray cattle menace – that came up in conversations in every village that I visited – did not affect the BJP’s winnability is because its ‘80:20’ discourse worked for it. For instance, a BJP leader, Raju Ahlawat, who abandoned the farmers’ movement for the ruling party as recently as late last year, told this writer, “The Muzaffarnagar riots remains an undercurrent in these elections. Law and order is the most important issue.”
In effect, the BJP’s boast that it ran a tight administration, placed all criminals behind bars and established a Ram Rajya in which “our wives and daughters can walk freely at night” was really another way of saying that Muslims would no longer trouble anybody.
The BJP line was that while the largesse being doled out by the government – rations, gas cylinders, etc – were being equitably distributed among members of all religions, Muslims need not expect anything more, and that it would be better if they retreated into their ghettos.
On the flip side, there was a constant reminder that a vote for the SP-RLD combine would see the return of a Muslim-Yadav Raj. And, last but not the least, there was Yogi Adityanath’s compelling, straight-from-the-shoulder strongman talk that saw a majority take shelter behind the saffron flag.
BJP's Hate Campaign Has Taken Deep Roots
In a sense, this is what made a majority of non-Yadav OBCs – many of whom I spoke to during my travels – declare that they intended to vote for the BJP again because they did not want to see a Muslim-Yadav combine back in power. And this despite the fact that many senior OBC leaders – Swami Prasad Maurya, Dharam Singh Saini and Dara Chauhan, to name just three – had quit the BJP just ahead of the elections, saying that while OBCs had been accommodated by the party, they were not given a real share in decision-making.
In the end, the BJP’s hate politics – what it likes to describe as ‘cultural nationalism’ – has taken such deep roots that it will take a very strong and well-articulated alternate vision to counter it.
(Smita Gupta is a senior journalist who’s been Associate Editor, The Hindu, and also worked with organisations like Outlook India, The Indian Express, Times Of India and Hindustan Times. She’s a former Oxford Reuters Institute fellow. She tweets @g_smita. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)