Election 2014: It’s Mission 50+ for Modi

Can the BJP’s electoral strategy provide the winning formula to beat the regional parties in Uttar Pradesh?

Walter Andersen & Allison Berland Kaul Delhi 

Uttar pradesh is the electoral lynchpin for the Bharatiya Janata Party’s mission to cobble together 272+ seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections to form the next national government. In the fight over Uttar Pradesh, it appears that BJP Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi has executed a remarkably deft political strategy, which combines an explicit good governance, pro-development message with a subtle handling of issues of caste and religion,  with a vast grassroots organizational outreach effort. He is further helped by the blunders of his regional party opponents in Uttar Pradesh and the perceived weakness of Rahul Gandhi and the Congress party at the national level.

Pre-election surveys indicate that, in the run-up to the national elections, the BJP may stage a major comeback in this critical state. The recent Lokniti-IBN election tracker survey conducted in February in UP indicates that the party has improved its position among upper-caste and sections of Hindu Other Backward Castes (OBC) voters, and even has a modest percentage of support from Muslims — at 13 per cent. The survey projects that the BJP may win as much as 36 per cent of the vote share and between 41 and 49 of the 80 parliamentary seats in the upcoming election in the state, an increase of nearly 20 percentage points in the popular vote compared to the 2009 election. At the national level, the Lokniti-IBN poll indicates that the BJP has a significant overall lead among the critical youth (18-25 years) group, with 38 per cent supporting the BJP, compared to 23 per cent supporting the Congress.

Two decades ago, the BJP’s mobilization efforts directed at building the Ram temple in Ayodhya catapulted the party’s electoral fortunes in UP, resulting in a six-fold seat increase, from a mere eight seats in 1989 to 51 seats in 1991, while increasing its popular vote share from 7.6 per cent to 35 per cent. The party’s explicitly pro-Hindu strategy generated large political dividends in the following three national elections, ensuring that the BJP was the dominant player in the state.

This was an era of charismatic leadership, led by national BJP frontman, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who represented the Lucknow constituency, and state BJP leader Kalyan Singh, known for his strong administrative skills and the ability to attract votes from the politically important OBCs. Yet, as the Vajpayee era passed and Kalyan left the party, the BJP’s organizational structure withered as it faced the challenges of caste-based parties like the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP).

In recent elections, the BJP has been forced to take a backseat to the BSP and the SP — rival regional parties — whose focus on representing lower castes and minorities has proved to be a winning strategy in the state for over a decade. The SP, associated with supporting the interests of OBCs and Muslims, won the highest number of Lok Sabha seats in the 2004 and 2009 national elections, capturing 35 and 23 seats, respectively. The party also won a landslide victory in the recent 2012 state assembly election, winning 224 out of 403 seats. Five years earlier, the BSP, under the leadership of Mayawati, working from her Dalit core base, won a landslide victory with 203 seats in the 2007 state assembly elections.

However, what was originally a socio-political movement to give voice to historically disadvantaged groups in the state transformed into populist schemes, favouritism, and rampant corruption, creating deep resentment over the use and abuse of vote-bank politics. Telltale signs of this deep public frustration can be found in the reversal of fortunes and the defeat of the BSP in the 2012 assembly elections, when it lost 126 seats, reducing its representation from 206 to 80 seats. Mayawati’s once-empowering message to the Dalit community, in practice, came to be perceived as a singularly Dalit agenda, and pervasively corrupt.

Most recently, the SP finds itself in the unenviable position of upsetting both its Yadav caste core constituency due to charges of Muslim appeasement, as well as many Muslims, who feel abandoned and vulnerable as a result of the party’s mishandling of the recent Muzaffarnagar riots that left over 60 dead and more than 50,000 displaced.

In addition, both the BSP and the SP are generally viewed in Uttar Pradesh as allies of the Congress, an association that is unlikely to prove helpful in the upcoming parliamentary election. Lokniti-IBN pre-poll tracker surveys conducted in UP in July 2013, January and February 2014, indicate a flattening of electoral support in the state for Rahul as Prime Minister, ranging between nine and twelve per cent. At the same time, the survey indicates a trend of significant gain in electoral support for Modi as Prime Minister, increasing from 20 per cent in July 2013 to 34 per cent in February 2014.

 

For these reasons, after two decades of blatant vote-bank politics, while caste and religion continue to be a prominent feature of the state’s political landscape, the road to political success in UP now requires a bigger vision accompanied by a more sophisticated electoral strategy.

In this context of popular discontent associated with the Congress and  regional parties, the BJP’s electoral strategy, guided by Modi, may well prove to be the winning formula to achieve the party’s stated goal of winning at least 40 of the 80 parliamentary seats. This includes targeting the 17 reserved constituencies for Dalits, of which the party at present holds two, but has had a fairly good record of winning in the past.

To improve the party’s position in the Lok Sabha election, the strategy of the BJP in UP appears to be aimed at consolidating the Hindu vote, while taking care not to antagonize the Muslims, whose population is over 20 per cent in two dozen-odd seats in west UP and at least eight seats in east UP, as well as potential allies in other states who could be partners in a coalition government at the Centre — a difficult balancing act.

In eight rallies across UP since last October, Modi’s good governance, pro-development message highlights his own credentials as an effective government administrator. These rallies also function to counter the messages of caste-based parties with a pan-Hindu theme, while speaking to the broader frustrations and aspirations of voters across the religious spectrum, especially younger voters seeking jobs.

Indeed, a recent pre-poll survey sponsored by the Lok Foundation indicates that corruption is the single most important issue for the majority of voters in UP in the upcoming election. The survey found that Muslim voters across the country identified the same priority of concerns — growth, corruption and inflation — as other voters.

While Modi himself has publicly been silent on issues related to Hindutva (e.g., building a Ram temple in Ayodhya), other BJP leaders in Uttar Pradesh have been more willing to address pro-Hindu issues in ways that indirectly signal that the BJP and its leadership are sympathetic to these interests. For example, last July, Amit Shah, the BJP’s general secretary in charge of UP, visited the disputed site in Ayodhya and indicated his hopes of seeing the construction of a grand Ram temple. Shah also met with Yogi Adityanath, the 41-year-old charismatic religious figure in eastern Uttar Pradesh who strongly supports building the Ram temple.

Modi has also stayed away from discussions of caste-based alliances, though he has publicly embraced his own humble OBC background, which has become a major theme in his rallies in UP. In a politically savvy move, he turned the tables against those who scoffed at his humble origins by promoting the “Chai Pe Charcha,” tea-stall campaign, which includes over 170 tea stalls across UP, as a means of interacting with common people. In addition, the BJP’s pre-poll electoral alliance with Dalit leader Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) in neighbouring Bihar may enhance Modi’s appeal among Dalits in UP. These actions indicate a willingness to address identity issues in a subtle manner, while simultaneously maintaining the focus on economic development and good governance.

Modi’s recent decision to contest from the city of Varanasi, home to the iconic Hindu temples, Kashi Vishwanath and Sankat Mochan, is also likely aimed at bolstering the BJP’s electoral performance in eastern UP and neighbouring Bihar. Yet, it can also be construed as an implicit signal to Hindus that both the BJP and Modi are mindful of their religious interests.

The BJP’s electoral strategy in UP is tied together by a massive organizational outreach effort on the ground, led by Modi’s longtime lieutenant and advisor, Amit Shah. Shah has been tasked with the responsibility of creating an organizational structure that is capable of delivering big wins.

 

Amit shah’s political career follows Modi’s successful rise in Gujarat. When Modi won a landslide victory against the Congress in the December 2002 assembly elections, it was Shah, contesting in the state’s Sarkhej constituency, who won by the highest margin. Five years later, in 2007, Shah won the Sarkhej seat again, with an even greater margin.

After the BJP’s 2002 victory, Modi picked Shah as Home Minister of Gujarat. Shah proved to be highly adept at understanding the impact of party organization and outreach on electoral results. Yet, Shah faced a major setback in 2010, when he was forced to resign from his position as Home Minister, after he was arrested for the alleged involvement in a fake encounter killing of Sohrabuddin Sheikh, a criminal accused of arms smuggling.

Now, as the chief election management strategist for the BJP in Uttar Pradesh, Shah is focusing on the party’s organizational development and outreach efforts to  connect with people at the local town and village level and ensuring an active party presence at the state’s 1.27 lakh polling booths.

The BJP has coordinated extensively with leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to serve as poll coordinators for 40 Lok Sabha seats. As part of a small poll coordination team, each of the local RSS leaders is tasked with mobilizing workers in the constituency, supervising poll management, and maintaining coordination between RSS and BJP workers.

One sign of the significance of these coordination efforts is the recent rise in the number of meetings between senior RSS and BJP leaders in February, led by RSS leader Mohan Bhagwat, who visited Uttar Pradesh for a five-day tour of the state. In conjunction with the organization’s annual regional meeting, the RSS leader met with senior BJP leaders to offer input at discussions about possible party candidates.

The BJP recently turned to the critical issue of candidate selection. On March 15, along with Modi’s decision to contest from Varanasi, the party announced that its president, Rajnath Singh, would contest the Lucknow seat, though some ticket allocations in the state met with local protests over the distribution process.

With the BJP’s electoral strategy for Uttar Pradesh in place, the upcoming election will show whether the party’s strategy, combining a good governance, pro-development message with a willingness to handle caste and religion in a subtle fashion, and underscored by a massive organizational outreach effort, proves to be successful in achieving the goal of winning at least half of the parliamentary seats in Uttar Pradesh. Surveys suggest that the party’s strategy has been effective so far in competing with the regional parties, though any prediction of the outcome is complicated by the uncertainty of whether popular support for Modi and the BJP translates into votes for specific local party candidates.  

 

Dr. Walter Andersen is the Director of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) South Asia Studies Programme.

 

Allison Berland Kaul recently completed her Ph.D. and is currently a post-doctoral research fellow at the programme.

 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: APRIL 2014