Hopefully COVID will relent and allow the Uttar Pradesh (UP) assembly elections to be held as scheduled, in February-March 2022. It is going to be an important election, more important than UP elections usually are.
At one level, the outcome will reflect whether the democratic slide and social fracture in India’s largest state, indeed a large swathe of the country, is retrievable in the foreseeable future. At another, it will either boost or dampen — significantly, either way — the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) prospects for the 2024 parliamentary elections. Also, it may well present the party and the larger Sangh Parivar a post-Narendra Modi face.
Some readings of the current political situation in UP suggest that the BJP could suffer on account of its handling of the pandemic and the farmers’ agitation. This will worry the party — it has already sparked closed-door huddles, and speculation about changes in government and party refuses to die despite the ‘all is well’ signal that has been sent out — but not as much as its detractors imagine.
2022 Uttar Pradesh Polls: What BJP Can Take ‘Comfort’ In
There are three factors the BJP would draw comfort from in the UP context.
- One: The party has grown a hyper-nationalist, Hindutvawadi constituency that is unlikely to ditch it in a hurry. This core constituency prizes its supremacist goals above all else, sees the BJP as the political instrument for realising this goal, and will not be swayed in meaningful measure by even the most compelling evidence of mis-governance and insensitivity. While not large enough yet to swing an election on its own steam, the fiercely loyal core is certainly of a size that will make the party a key contender in most seats.
- Two: The BJP will back its tested cooption and communication strategies to stop constituencies less enamoured with Hindutva from moving away on an outcome-influencing scale. These are groups who shifted support to the BJP after rival parties struggled to deliver purposeful, forward-looking governance and accommodate them in power structures, but have been less punishing than expected of the BJP’s missteps. These groups may be conflicted about their political choices, but have tilted towards the BJP when it comes to actual voting. Remember how the party picked an unprecedented tally in the UP assembly elections within months of demonetisation, and how impressively it performed in the state in the 2019 parliamentary elections despite an indifferent-at-best record in power. The core support base alone could not have ensured this.
What’s Helped BJP Retain Non-Hindutva Vote?
Among the factors that have helped the BJP retain the non-Hindutva vote are:
- on-ground social coalition-making
- appeals in the name of national unity and positivity
- the mix of silence, deflection, counter-outrage, intimidation, and data cherry-picking it deploys to neutralise negative perception
- Jitin Prasada’s recent waltz into the BJP is neither the first nor the last trick up the party’s sleeve.
It is a potent mix and could well save the day for the BJP despite the real, proximate wounds that COVID has inflicted. Especially since there is some time left for those wounds to dry and/ or be papered over before the elections happen.
A Listless, Unimaginative, Struggling Opposition
- Three: In recent elections, the opposition has been hobbled by lack of imagination, agility, and resources, and has struggled to pitch, despite some established names in its ranks, a credible leadership option. Not much appears to have changed since. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) is adrift. There’s uncertainty around whether the Congress’ new-found energy under Priyanka Gandhi will sustain and translate into actual votes in the absence of a solid organisational structure. The Samajwadi Party (SP) could mount a challenge, but the electorate is yet to notice its top leaders breaking sweat, and party boss Akhilesh Yadav carries the burden of two much-vaunted alliance gambles that failed.
So, the BJP is clearly not in a space it would be enjoying, but will not be despondent about its chances of turning things around.
Can Opposition Engineer a ‘Ghar Wapsi’ of BJP’s Non-Core Voters To Itself?
What could the opposition parties do, going forward, besides the obvious bit of energising their machinery?
Winning the BJP’s non-core voters — these are voters who slipped away from the opposition — must be a priority. Such ‘ghar wapsi’ has been attempted before with little success, despite social justice rhetoric and arithmetically-promising alliances. That is no reason to give up on the idea though. Sure, rekindling past relationships will not be easy given the attractions and distractions the BJP will offer, but there really is no other choice for the opposition given the unwavering core support the BJP enjoys.
Engineering ‘ghar wapsi’ would require the opposition to sharpen the pitches that had mobilised its voter base in the first place, and questioning the BJP’s intentions and claims of delivering on the promises with which they had been weaned away.
That, in turn, is a case for focusing the opposition campaign on governance and social power relations, both in terms of underscoring the BJP’s unflattering record with respect to these, and offering a credible pathway of how it would do things differently if voted into power.
Whitewashing COVID Mismanagement May Help BJP Retain UP
With memories of the pandemic unlikely to recede by the time UP goes to polls, and more importantly, the need for exposing the governance failures that exacerbated its impacts on life and livelihoods, the pandemic will — and should — feature prominently in the election-time discourse. The opposition will have ammunition here to fortify its case. There’s one potentially game-changing spin to watch out for though.
What if UP voters were gradually and systematically told that the pains of the pandemic were universal, ordained by fate, and that things could have been worse for their populous, poor state if not for the leadership at Delhi and Lucknow?
Even if a section of voters come to accept that there was nothing unusual about the tragedies they have witnessed and that the state was overwhelmed by a force that had brought richer, more powerful nations to their knees, it will be a welcome level of heat off the BJP’s back. Ominously for the opposition, the messaging has begun.
(Manish Dubey is a policy analyst and crime fiction writer and can be contacted at @ManishDubey1972. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)