Last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in the temple city of Varanasi inaugurating the Kashi Vishwanath temple corridor with great fanfare, in the run up to the 2022 Uttar Pradesh elections. For the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the elections in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh is the most crucial contest of all the five states going to polls early next year; its outcome will be critical to ensuring BJP and Modi another successful bid in the 2024 national general elections. Incidentally, Uttar Pradesh alone has 80 parliamentary seats.
Leaving nothing to chance, Modi himself camped in Varanasi, which is also his parliamentary constituency, for three days. After laying the foundation stone of the 594 km Ganga Expressway Modi publicly endorsed the incumbent Yogi Adityanath as an able chief minister. “UP [Uttar Pradesh] plus Yogi bahut hai upyogi (Uttar Pradesh plus Yogi have great utility),” he said to much applause.
Projecting Yogi Adityanath as the chief ministerial face, Modi put to rest any speculation of strained relations with the saffron robed Adityanath, the state’s sitting chief minister. The image of Modi putting his arms around Adityanath like an elder brother, which was circulated some weeks ago, further bolstered this view. By including Adityanath in its arsenal, Modi and thereby the BJP is leaving no stone unturned in its mission to win the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections.
Playing the “Hindutva” card (pandering to majoritarian Hindu sentiment) to the hilt, the BJP, which is the ruling party at the center and in Uttar Pradesh, aims to attract votes by projecting itself as the true champion of the Hindu faith. The party is also drawing attention to the fact that construction of the long-promised Ram Mandir at Ayodhya has already begun. A massive outreach program is underway in Varanasi which will continue until the festival of ‘Makar Sankranti’ on January 14.
The BJP is also relying on Modi’s popularity to tide over voter discontent over Adityanath’s mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic, the migrant labor crisis during the lockdown, and horrific incidents of rape, including the Hathras gang rape case.
The temple blitzkrieg is aimed at countering the anti-incumbency factor.
Modi and the BJP have also attempted a course correction. For over a year, farmers from Punjab and western Uttar Pradesh were protesting the Modi government’s controversial Farm Laws. It recently rolled back these laws. Opposition parties are underscoring the BJP’s humiliating retreat.
Samajwadi Party (SP) chief and former chief minister Akhilesh Yadav has repeatedly attacked the Yogi government, most recently accusing the chief minister of tapping the phones of political opponents. Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who is the state in-charge for the Congress party, has hauled up the Yogi administration for its abysmal record on women’s safety. She sent out a strong message on women’s empowerment by promising to give 40 percent tickets to women candidates. She has also criticized the Yogi government over atrocities against Dalits.
To counter the opposition attack on his poor governance, Yogi and the BJP have turned again to their successful strategy of communal polarization.
Muslims comprise a sizeable 19 percent of Uttar Pradesh’s population. Yogi has used this figure to project the community as a threat to Hindus. His government passed a controversial law to prevent alleged “love jihad” (Muslim boys marrying Hindu girls with an intent to convert them) and clamp down on inter-religious marriages. His hardline Hindutva ideology has found many takers in the BJP and the Sangh Parivar, a family of Hindu right-wing organizations, making him the most powerful BJP chief minister. In terms of popularity and stature, Yogi stands second to the powerful Narendra Modi and Amit Shah (the Home Minister) duo.
In the past, Yogi’s independent streak was frowned upon by the Parivar leaders. But as head of the powerful Gorakhpur mutt (religious organization) in eastern Uttar Pradesh, he has at his command the Hindu Yuva Vahini, a militant youth group. Today, he enjoys the full support and backing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Parivar’s ideological wing, and its chief Mohan Bhagwat.
The BJP is acutely aware that Hindutva alone might not work to bring it back to power especially since the caste factor continues to hold sway in Uttar Pradesh’s politics. So while it largely enjoys the support of the upper castes (Brahmins and Thakurs), it is aware of its limited appeal among the Scheduled Castes (Dalits), which traditionally vote for the Bahujan Samaj Party. It will be difficult too for the BJP to draw votes of the Yadavs and Jats, which the SP and the Rashtriya Lok Dal, respectively attract. To secure its position in such a complex political matrix, the BJP is stitching together alliances with smaller caste-based parties like the Shoshit Samaj Party.
Given its hostility to Muslims, the BJP will not attract the Muslim vote, which is likely to be picked up by the SP. Interestingly Congress, which in the past attracted Muslim votes, has now been reduced to a marginal player in Uttar Pradesh.
Significantly in the 2017 assembly election, the BJP did not field a single Muslim candidate. Yet, the party won 325 of 403 seats in the Uttar Pradesh assembly. It hopes to repeat that performance now but party insiders are conscious of how stiff the challenge is this time around.
Announcement of dates for the assembly elections is just weeks away. In a last minute bid to impress voters, Modi has been inaugurating infrastructure projects, including airports, expressways and medical colleges in the state. The BJP is attempting to project Uttar Pradesh as the new “development hub.” Reality on the ground is different. The state ranks abysmally in human development indices and still figures among the BIMARU (ailing) states. The latest National Family Health Survey report highlights severe anemia and malnutrition among children in Uttar Pradesh. Its scanty health infrastructure collapsed during the pandemic, with erratic oxygen supply and shortage of hospital beds leaving a trail of dead bodies floating on the Ganga.
However, none of these worrying statistics will find mention in the BJP’s election campaign or even in its poll promises for Uttar Pradesh. Surprisingly, Opposition parties too have not succeeded in making anti-incumbency of the Yogi government a decisive factor in the polls.
For both Modi and Adityanath, the outcome of the Uttar Pradesh polls is critical for their political survival. For Adityanath, a decisive victory in the state would secure him a second term and anoint him as one among the three tallest leaders of the BJP.
For Modi, who is still smarting from the electoral loss in the Bengal assembly elections, winning Uttar Pradesh is imperative. The Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress’ victory in Bengal has energized the Opposition to take on Modi nationally. To stamp out any prospects of the opposition mounting a challenge to him in the 2024 general election, Modi must win a decisive victory in Uttar Pradesh.