In Uttar Pradesh, BJP looks bruised, battered and on the backfoot
All eyes are on 60-70 close contests in which the margin of victory will be one or two thousand votes, and in which postal ballots and NOTA would make a difference, making predictions difficult
As pollsters get ready to unleash their exit polls this evening, people believing or disbelieving the figures depending upon their own wishes, what stands out is the resentment and confusion among BJP supporters in Uttar Pradesh.
They clearly had not anticipated the tough fight put up by the Opposition. The divided opposition, it was assumed correctly, would strengthen the BJP. But the first phase of polling on February 10 changed their perception. All pollsters had till then predicted a comfortable victory for the BJP, if not quite a cakewalk. But while honours were at best shared at polling in the first two phases, BJP supporters acknowledged, the opposition would lose steam by the time polling reached other parts of the largest state.
With the last and seventh phase of polling taking place on Monday, March 7, they are no longer so confident. The tone and the tenor of the BJP leaders showed their confusion. They began apologizing for failures, held out dark threats that goonda raj would return if BJP was not voted back to power. Officials strengthened the impression that BJP was on its way out by ordering signboards to be re-painted in neutral or in Samajwadi Party’s colours.
The image of the Prime Minister taking a stroll in Varanasi and sipping tea from an earthen cup at a roadside stall and accepting a betel leaf projected vulnerability, not strength. His plaintive plea that because of the conflict in Ukraine, voters must elect a strong government in UP and India failed to move people. That he failed to utter a word on inflation and unemployment did not go unnoticed. His boast that elderly women in UP would not betray him because they were beholden to him for the free ration during the pandemic, evoked a sharp reaction from Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. Her riposte was quickly taken up by the rest of the state, forcing the PM to sheepishly admit that he owed a debt to the people.
An election, which seemed destined to be determined by Ram temple, Kashi corridor and Mathura, had spun horribly out of the loop. When the PM and BJP leaders did speak of people’s issues like stray animals destroying crops, they sounded apologetic and defensive and far from convincing. The PM claimed he had found the perfect solution and would unveil it on March 10, as soon as the Model Code of Conduct is lifted. The government, he hinted, would buy cow dung from people who would then become ‘lakhpatis’ or millionaires.
BJP had never looked in such disarray since 2014 as it did in Uttar Pradesh this time. Demoralised BJP leaders claimed the party would still win the election. They placed their faith in the strategic mastery of Union Home Minister Amit Shah (his ability to pull off miracles, buy off MLAs) and as a last resort, pointed out that Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party in any case would support the BJP in forming the government.
Morale of the opposition in contrast seemed high. Most pessimistic pre-poll assessments that BJP is invincible in Uttar Pradesh, that Hindus and Muslims in UP cannot vote together for the same party or candidate, that the state is far too communal and the social engineering forged by RSS and Amit Shah was enduring etc. had all fallen by the wayside.
While only the very brave will attempt to predict the outcome, it is clear that the opposition will fare a lot better than what people expected it to do in the first week of January. Even in the first week of March, BJP supporters looked and sounded jaded while supporters of the SP, Congress and the BSP in comparison seemed more energetic and determined.
Not many would have thought it was possible for Akhilesh Yadav to draw a bigger crowd and hold a more energetic roadshow in Varanasi than Prime Minister Modi on the same day.
So, theoretically BJP is still in with a chance and may scrape through in UP. But it will be a Pyrrhic victory and a bruised and battered BJP will have to go back to the drawing board. The mood has changed. Communal polarization and talks of terrorism have not worked. Hindustan-Pakistan, Abba jan, pyjama have not worked. Temples and Hindurva have not worked. It remains to be seen if this is a permanent shift. But there is no denying the shift.
The Samajwadi Party is undoubtedly reaping the benefits of anti-incumbency by default. It had done little to support the farmers’ agitation or the anti-CAA protests. Nor was it visible during the Covid crisis. It was not seen to take up issues of women’s safety, unemployment or police brutality. But by virtue of being a powerful regional party perceived to be a viable alternative with a credible social base, it has emerged as the challenger.
Irrespective of caste, farming communities from the West to the East turned against the BJP. Jats, Gujjars, Sainis, Kurmis, Kushwahas joined hands with Yadavs and Muslims and other Dalit/OBC castes and sub-castes. While the consolidation will vary from one constituency to another, and also depend on the candidate concerned, a formidable alliance have voted for the SP this time.
Akhilesh Yadav, to be fair to him, acknowledges that this election has been fought between the people and the BJP. He has been humble enough to accept that he is the beneficiary of the people’s anger, people who believed only Samajwadi Party was capable of taking on the arrogance of BJP leaders and catch the bull by its horns.
Akhilesh Yadav not only spearheaded his party’s campaign but kept his family and the controversial faces away from his stage. This deflected allegations flung by BJP leaders like ‘Parivarwadi’, ‘Dangesh’ and ‘Pakistani’. Also, the tactical ticket distribution by opposition parties have helped SP to play with caste equations.
So, who is winning Uttar Pradesh? March 10 will tell. But what could be the possible result when a majority of Muslims, Jats, Gujjars, Yadavs and Kurmis vote with at least some sections of Pasis, Dalits, Brahmins and Thakurs for a single party?