The BJP Has the Edge in the Electoral Race in Uttar Pradesh

Voting in the seven-phase election to the Uttar Pradesh state assembly crossed its half-way mark early this week, with voting for 201 seats of the 403-state assembly completed.

At an election rally in Hardoi in Uttar Pradesh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged people to vote for his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), if they wanted to keep “terrorism at bay.” Modi who is the BJP’s star campaigner, described opposition parties, including principal challenger, the Samajwadi Party (SP) as “terrorist sympathizers.” A victory in this state election is critical for Modi and the ruling BJP, in their bid to return to power for the third consecutive time in the 2024 general elections.

With three phases remaining in the seven-phase election, Modi and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath are openly resorting to jingoism, religious polarization, threats, and minorities and Muslim bashing to win votes in this election. Modi even alluded to the recent conviction and death sentence awarded to 38 members of the Indian Mujahideen and of the banned Students Islamic Movement of India for the serial bomb blasts in Ahmedabad city in 2008, and said that the SP’s silence on the verdict was revealing.

Modi arbitrarily described the SP’s poll symbol, the cycle, as “a terror vehicle,” since many of the bombs had been planted on cycles.

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An angry SP chief and former chief minister Akhilesh Yadav hit back, accusing Modi of “insulting the common man’s vehicle and thereby insulting the common man of India.” Yadav said this insult will be avenged with the poll verdict. Incidentally the SP was formed and got its poll symbol, the cycle, way back in 1992.

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Modi and the BJP have been persistently raking up non-existent issues and controversies to divert the attention of voters from serious problems like unemployment, farmer unrest, inflation, and atrocities against Dalits. There is no doubt that the Yogi Adityanath government is battling anti-incumbency on multiple fronts in the state, but it is banking on its tried and tested formula of religious polarization – consolidating the majority Hindu vote by vilifying the Muslims – and claims that national security “can only be ensured by a strongman like Modi,” to win a second term.

At the last state assembly election in 2017, the BJP won an unprecedented landslide victory, winning 312 seats on its own. Together with its allies it notched up a mammoth tally of 325 seats in the 403-seat assembly.

This time around, analysts and observers, including BJP party members themselves, concede that there is no BJP wave. BJP insiders admit that there will be significant losses but they believe they will ultimately win with a diminished margin. The BJP needs 202 seats to win the polls.

SP insiders dismiss BJP claims as hollow, pointing to deep discontent among voters, especially among farmers in western Uttar Pradesh, who were at the forefront of the year-long agitation against Modi’s enactment of controversial farm laws. Over 700 farmers died in the agitation. The protests were successful in forcing the Modi to repeal the laws.

Western Uttar Pradesh, which voted in the first phase of the election, is the stronghold of the Jat farmers who have traditionally owed allegiance to their caste and voted for the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD). This time around the RLD is in alliance with the SP, and they hope to reap the benefits of the agrarian unrest.

In 2017, the BJP had won 53 of the 58 seats in western Uttar Pradesh.

One of the critical factors behind the BJP’s victory in this region in 2017 was the rift between Muslims and (Hindu) Jats, an outcome of the Hindu-Muslim riots in Muzaffarnagar in 2013. This time around, the bond between Muslims and Jats, which was strengthened during the farmers’ protests, is likely to see Muslim voters throw their entire weight behind the SP-RLD combine.

A split in Muslim votes due to the entry of Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM in the fray seems unlikely. The extreme communal pitch of the BJP in the elections has driven Muslims to extend full support to the party with the best chances of defeating the BJP – that being the SP.

Over the past five years, Yogi Adityanath’s governance has been marked by high-handed authoritarianism of the landowning Thakurs, an upper caste that Adityanath belongs to. Lower castes and Dalits have borne the brunt of the rising violence against women. The horrific gang rape and murder of a Dalit girl in Hathras in 2020 sent shockwaves through the country as authorities tried to burn the victim’s body at night to cover up the incident.

In 2017, the BJP benefited from a split in Dalit votes, with a sizeable section of Dalits gravitating toward the BJP. This time around, Dalit voters are expected to stand solidly by the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), with some voting for the Congress. The Congress’ Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has woven the entire Congress campaign on women empowerment and on attacking the Yogi government for its poor track record on women’s safety.

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However, the Congress’ depleted ground strength – it won only seven seats in 2017 – points to the fact that the party is still not a major threat to the BJP.

Incidents like the one at Lakhimpur Kheri, where Ashish Mishra, the son of a BJP minister in the Modi government, drove into protesting farmers in his vehicle, have angered the masses. Mishra was arrested only after public outrage mounted against the Adityanath government but he is now out on bail. Atrocities against Dalits have also dented the Yogi government’s appeal among the masses.

The SP is also hoping to renew its hold over the “Yadav land” areas, which includes Etawah, Mainpuri, and Etah. The BJP won 23 of the 29 seats in the Yadav bastion in 2017. The BJP has been fear mongering here by reminding the people of the goondagardi (lawlessness) during previous terms of SP rule.

The opposition has been punching holes in the BJP claims that people are happy with their “double engine” government (BJP in power at the center and in the state) by drawing attention to its mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic and alarming level of joblessness in the state.

However, some are impressed with the infrastructure development in the state. First-time voter Sachin Kumar (22) from Allahabad said that Modi “spells development” and that the “number of new projects he has unveiled will bring progress to the region.” A final year student of commerce, Kumar hopes to join a private bank. His father runs a paan (betel leaf) shop near Rambagh railway station. Kumar says he is not worried about issues like unemployment and religious polarization as he has “no desire for a government job.” Modi’s personal charisma still attracts voters. The state government’s poor performance does not seem to matter.

The Uttar Pradesh government’s cow protection policy in pursuit of its Hindutva agenda has led to a serious problem of destruction of crops by stray cattle. So grave is the issue that Modi had to reassure voters that he would solve the problem when voted to power. Whether these grievances are strong enough to translate into votes against the government remains to be seen.

Uttar Pradesh has a history of not giving a chief minister two successive terms. Will that jinx be broken? Will the anti-incumbency sentiment against the Adityanath government impact only the margin of its win and not its victory? That will be known only on March 10, when votes are counted.