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The new Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh

Huge blunder? Useless provocation? Strategic masterstroke?

There were different assessments of the new political situation after the BJP announcement yesterday that the new Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh would be Yogi Adityanath, a Hindutva hardliner known for his egregious comments on Muslim women and communal relations in general. Yogi Adityanath is known – among other things – for his call to install Ganesh idols in all mosques, an offense to Muslims. His appointment raises fears of renewed communal tensions, particularly in areas where Muslims represent a large section of the population. Adityanath hails from Gorakhpur, in the eastern part of the state, and has been elected several times at the Lok Sabha from that constituency. Adityanath is not just a BJP leader, and a member of the RSS – the paramilitary group that propagates the Hindutva agenda — he’s an unabashedly religious leader.

The delayed appointment of the CM – it took one week for the BJP leadership to make the decision – suggests that the party leadership (basically Amit Shah and Narendra Modi) were forced to negotiate with the state party leaders, and more likely, with the RSS itself, though these negotiations would probably never be revealed to the public. In all likelihood, Adityanath was not the favorite candidate of either Modi or Shah and reports that he especially flown in from Gorakhpur to Delhi to meet with Shah suggests that the party leadership had to bow down to the base. This could help explain why the party leadership did not choose a more moderate face – and there were many, including Manoj Sinha and Rajnath Singh – and yet at the same time, was able to make sure to include the appointment of two Deputy CMs, Dinesh Sharma, a former mayor of Lucknow, who is widely respected as competent, and Keshav Prasad Maurya, the state party president, more of a controversial figure, but perhaps more acceptable to the mainstream. Both Yogi Adityanath and Maurya have criminal cases pending against them, though whether they will be pursued in the future is anyone’s guess.

By appointing a very radical figure, by many accounts, one of the most controversial, the BJP may be shooting itself in the foot and could alienate many mainstream voters who were and are attracted to Modi’s development rhetoric. The BJP central leadership has its eyes set on 2019 and may only want to ensure relatively smooth governance in the state until then. Adityanath represents a very real challenge to these prospects, not to mention communal peace across the state.

The Muslim vote

The BJP landslide in Uttar Pradesh has raised many questions, given the importance of the Muslim community across the state, and its demographic dominance in certain areas, such as the Northwestern districts of UP. The question is, to what extent that communal polarization account for this outcome?

The BJP turned out to be more prepared for this election than the other parties. More resources, more staff on the ground, which presumably allowed the party to carry its message across more forcefully. It is unclear whether the message at the local level was communal (or more communal than say, the speeches given by political leaders). What is clear however, is that the strategy pursued by both the SP-Congress and the BSP helped the BJP assemble a large pan-Hindu coalition. While the size of the coalition remains large (40% of the votes), it includes a diverse array of caste groups (according to exit polls): Brahmans, Thakurs and Rajputs of course, which form the bedrock of the BJP vote in North India, and many non-Yadav OBC caste groups.

While the SP-Congress did not make specific communal appeals, it continued to be associated with the idea of a ‘Muslim sarkar’ which, for many BJP voters who deeply distrust Muslims, was a strong rallying cry. But the BSP strategy of wooing Muslim voters aggravated this feeling among many Hindu voters that this election was about winning Muslim votes and not about them. For the SP and the BSP, the result was unambiguously disastrous. The SP was not able to garner enough Muslim votes, and possibly lost a lot of Yadav votes, and the BSP succeeded in dividing the Muslim vote, while not garnering enough support overall.

What does this mean for the political representation of Muslims in Uttar Pradesh? The BJP made no effort to reach out to the Muslim community during the campaign, and the Modi-Shah electoral strategy suggests that this is unlikely to happen in the next few years. Muslims are politically underrepresented in the new Vidhan Sabha. Whether the SP can craft a new message that solidifies the Muslim vote around it and at the same time appeals to larger number of Hindu voters remains to be seen. The BSP’s future remains extremely uncertain, given the severe electoral losses of 2014 and 2017. The BSP has historically not included Muslims in its ‘bahujan’ coalition.

While the BJP perhaps used less incendiary language than usual towards Muslims, its messages resonate among Hindu voters at large far more than it did 10 or even 20 years ago. The idea that Hindus should really just vote for a Hindu party has made considerable progress, at the expense of support for a pluralist democracy which accommodates all faiths and identities.

And the results are in!

Every election brings its surprises. The 2015 Bihar elections had been called early for the BJP, before they were called for the RJD-JDU. And the Nitish Kumar-Lalu Yadav alliance had won by a landslide.

UP and Bihar have a lot in common. Two large, mostly agricultural and poor, dysfunctional states. Yet the outcome in UP is markedly different. Preliminary results show the BJP winning close to 40% of the popular vote, which, by the standard of Indian politics, especially at the state level, is huge. The defeat of the ruling coalition is bitter, given the hopes that had been put in Akhilesh Yadav. And the BSP is in shambles, its leader crying foul over the EVMs rather than pursuing some early form of introspection.

So what happened? Anti-incumbent feelings always run high in state elections, but they seem to have been particularly strong this time. Akhilesh Yadav did try to project a new leadership towards the end of last year, but this move came too late, and the alliance with the Congress brought no benefits – and might have contributed to sinking the ship further.

Demonetization seems to have worked to a large extent in preventing the incumbent and the BSP from using resources on a large-scale with the purpose of buying votes. But even more than that, it is the deep connection that a growing section of the population is starting to feel with Modi (rather than the BJP, in fact). This happened to a large extent in 2014 and while 2017 is not exactly a repeat of 2014, the outcome of this election suggests that people are increasing receptive to the broader discussion about development, rather than basing their voting decisions on patronage expectations (usually along caste lines).

One more thing – unlike in Bihar, the BJP mastered the arithmetic of caste in UP, giving tickets to a large number of non-Yadav OBCs. This middle belly of the electorate is important numerically, and it appears that BJP is inching closer to building a pan-Hindu coalition in North India, which Muslims will be conspicuously left out from in the near future, at least.

 

Exit polls

The first exit polls are now out and they all predict a lead for the BJP, with the SP coming second and the BSP third. The polls seem all relatively consistent, and with the exception of one, do not predict the BJP will win an absolute majority of seats (which is at 202 in UP).

So what do we make of this? First, the BJP would appear to have made inroads into the non-Yadav OBC vote, a very large demographic group which was usually up for grabs in the past. Second, the SP would appear to have limited its losses, and so that would validate the strategy of Rahul and Akhilesh. It remains to be seen whether the alliance will have garnered more votes in urban rather than rural areas. Third, and this is consistent with ‘rumors,’ the BSP would appear to have considerably weakened.

The results won’t be released until Saturday morning. A hung parliament remains very likely at this point. Which means all bets are off, and a ‘khichdi sarka’ – a broader alliance, could emerge. The BSP may be willing to strike a deal with the BJP, but that alliance has not worked well in the past, and Mayawati would not be in a position to covet the post of Chief Minister. The BJP however may be willing to consider letting her become the Chief Minister, if only to further capture ‘Hindu’ votes among the Scheduled Castes. The SP and Congress for their part would probably remain marginalized.

Securalism

Today was the last phase of the Uttar Pradesh elections. Polling took place in southeastern districts of the state, including  Varanasi (Benares), where the main parties had organized large rallies and road shows. Narendra Modi campaigned in Varanasi over the weekend and visited several places of religious worship, which coming from the leader of the BJP should not surprise anyone, but in comparative perspective sounds peculiar. India is officially a secular country, though the practice of secularism in India differs significantly from other countries. In recent years, the rise of the BJP, India’s openly Hindu party has challenged this understanding of secularism minted in the immediate post-independence period after the trauma of partition. Varanasi is an important symbol for the politics of religion and secularism. It is one of Hinduism’s holiest places, but it also includes a large Muslim community. The show organized by the BJP and Modi’s visits to important temples are very significant in that regard.

The election results will be announced on Saturday morning, just before the festival of Holi on Sunday and Monday next week.

Rumors

The second to last phase of the Uttar Pradesh elections begins tomorrow. Polling will take place in districts of the northern part of the Purvanchal region, which include Deoria and Gorakhpur. Purvanchal, the closest region to Bihar, used to be its poorest as well.

The final results will be announced next week and rumors abound. While a few weeks ago, the rumors had Akhilesh and the SP-Congress Alliance winning, talk on the street is of more of a landslide BJP victory these days. The mood seems to have changed, but then how much credit should we give to these rumors? After all, polls in the US had predicted a landslide victory for Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate. The BJP has never done exceedingly well in UP, for a lot of reasons, but what if the polls had gotten it wrong? They did get it wrong in Bihar two years ago, and by a lot. Mayawati’s strategy of wooing the Muslim vote represents a real danger for the SP-Congress alliance. By threatening to divide the Muslim vote, it could dramatically affect the SP’s chances. And under the First-Past-The-Post system, this could create real opportunities for the BJP. After all, under FPTP, all you need to win is a plurality of votes.

Polling in Bahraich

Polling took place yesterday in the Phase 5 districts, which include some of UP’s poorest districts along the border with Nepal, such as Balrampur, Shravasti, Bahraich and Gonda. It is very difficult to predict who will win, and asking people what they ‘feel’ the winner will be is often very misleading. I spent most of the day yesterday in two villages of Shravasti district with Brahman families, which overwhelmingly support the BJP. It is remarkable to see that despite their relatively small demographic weight, the high castes form the bedrock of the BJP’s electorate. Part of this support owes to the personality of Narendra Modi, who is seen as ‘honest,’ or comparatively more honest than other politicians. His responsibility in the Godhra incident in 2002 (pogroms against Muslims) does not turn Brahman voters off, in fact, it is one of the main reasons of their support for the PM. In a district such as Bahraich, where the Muslim population is relatively large (30% as against 18% in the whole of UP), he is seen as someone who actually taught Muslims a lesson. It was somehow disheartening to hear some of them praise Donald Trump, simply because he dislikes Muslims…

And then there are the reservations. ‘BJP sarkar banti, to arakshan khatam ho jaaega’ [If the BJP forms the government, then the reservation will end] is a mantra among Brahman families. When one travels in the countryside, it is remarkable to see how unable Brahmans are to see how much better off they are. Villages in rural Uttar Pradesh include ‘majres’ [hamlets] that include different castes and Brahman families often live next door to much poorer communities, be they SC or OBC.

Bahraich rallies

The polls open today in Bundelkhand and parts of Southern UP. Bundelkhand is one of the poorest areas in Uttar Pradesh, and one which does not benefit from irrigation (unlike other parts of the Gangetic plain). Bundelkhand used to be a BSP stronghold, and the SP may struggle to get its message ‘Kaam bolta hai’ across, in a region that has suffered from continuous drought over the last years.

Phase 5 of the polls will start on Monday, February 27. Phase 5 districts are all located north of Lucknow. Bahraich, which is one of them, will be blessed with two rallies today and tomorrow. Akhilesh Yadav is giving a speech later today and Narendra Modi will be coming tomorrow (after an initial visit earlier this year had been canceled due to the fog). Modi has come several times to Bahraich and the district makes sense as a campaign stop for the BJP as it has a large Muslim minority (close to 30%). The BJP’s chances in all of Bahraich’s constituencies remain slim however. In Matera constituency, sitting MLA and Minister Yasir Shah will likely easily win and in Bahraich constituency proper, the real fight is between Yasir Shah’s mother, Rubab Sayda, and Ajeet Pratap Singh, the BSP candidate.

Of religion, electricity and cemeteries…

The Prime Minister made a surprising speech yesterday at a campaign rally, calling for a better treatment of Hindus in Uttar Pradesh. Narendra Modi specifically pointed to the absence of load-shedding during Ramzan and Eid (and the relative absence of electricity during Diwali), and promised that a BJP sarkar would provide adequate facilities for Hindus as well.

Ramzan me bijli athi hai tho Diwali me bhi ani chahiye; Bhedbhav nhi hona chahiye (If there is electricity during Ramadan then it must be available during Diwali too; there shouldn’t be any discrimination)” said the Prime Minister, who added “Gaon me kabristan banta hai to shamshaan bhi banna chahiye (If there is a ‘kabaristaan’ (graveyard), there should be a ‘shamshaan’ (cremation ground) too.” (quote taken from the Indian Express).

Communal appeals from the leader of BJP should not surprise anyone, given his past stance and actions, particularly as the Chief Minister of Gujarat. What is surprising (and interesting) is the timing of these appeals. The campaign has been relatively free of communal violence. Perhaps the communal appeals reflect the BJP’s nervousness as the last three phases of the polls are slated to take place this week and next. The BJP leadership in Uttar Pradesh has faced an unusual level of pushback from its cadres when decisions relative to party tickets were made earlier this year. There are fears that the party may perform badly at the polls because of this intra-party feud. The BJP remains one of the only relatively institutionalized parties in India as it relies, perhaps more than other parties, on a mobilized group of cadres. At the same time, however, parties in Uttar Pradesh must consider the local caste coalitions when awarding tickets (which explains that a party like the BSP has this year given a large number of tickets to Muslims and non-Dalits in general).

Will these appeals be successful in rallying Hindus behind the BJP banner? The same appeals made during the Bihar elections in 2015 proved not only ridiculous (in their emphasis on a beef ban), but also disastrous electorally.

Phase 3 votes tomorrow

Twelve districts go to the polls tomorrow for the third phase of the UP polls. These districts include Lucknow, but some of the Central UP districts that are home to the SP founder Mulayam Singh Yadav. The SP won big in this region in 2012, bagging 55 seats, against 6 for the BSP, 5 for the BJP and 2 for Congress. It is unclear whether the Party will perform as well as it did 5 years ago, given the family feud within the Yadav clan. It is also unclear whether the SP will benefit from its alliance with Congress. The Congress strategy is reminiscent of its alliance with Nitish Kumar and Laloo Prasad Yadav in Bihar in 2015. But the Congress in UP got an even better deal, 25% of the seats (105) in the seat-sharing agreement. The Congress is no longer a major player in UP, but Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi have been very involved in this campaign. Priyanka Gandhi yesterday took a swipe at Narendra Modi for being an outsider in UP, saying that UP would choose one of theirs (read Akhilesh or the Gandhis, whose connection to UP remains tenuous, to be tenuous).

In the meantime, Amit Shah, never short of promises, promises UP rivers of milk and dahin [yogurt] if the BJP wins. And Mayawati lashes out at her Modi, calling him Akhilesh’s ‘chacha.’

I can’t help but wonder really how Mayawati is campaigning this time in UP. Her office and residence in Mall Avenue are oddly quiet, and she does not seem to have a strong media presence (unlike the BJP and SP, whose billboards are for everyone to see in Lucknow).