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.

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