U.P. election campaign

Shaky start to BJP's Uttar Pradesh election campaign

Print edition : January 14, 2022

Prime Minister Narendra Modi showering petals on construction workers of the Kashi Vishwanath Dham corridor, in Varanasi on December 13, 2021. Photo: PTI

Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav at an election rally in Mainpuri, Uttar Pradesh, on December 21, 2021. Photo: PTI

Amid a sudden upsurge in the Samajwadi Party’s popularity in Uttar Pradesh ahead of the Assembly election and the anti-incumbency mood against the Adityanath government, Modi resorts to the familiar tactic of communal rhetoric and hollow claims of development.

On December 22, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his second consecutive trip in 10 days to Varanasi to inaugurate yet another lot of development projects that were reportedly worth hundreds of crores of rupees. According to press releases from the public relations departments of the Uttar Pradesh and Central governments, the Prime Minister launched a total of 22 development projects worth more than Rs.870 crore.

These included projects for which the foundation stones were being laid as well as ones that had been completed or were in various stages of completion. The projects covered diverse aspects of social and economic life ranging from housing, health, public infrastructure, dairy development, beautification and sanitation of civic services, enhancement of educational facilities and tourism promotion ventures. The biggest project, worth Rs 475 crore, was for dairy development, for which Modi laid the foundation stone.

Barely 10 days earlier, Modi visited Varanasi on December 13-14 to inaugurate the first phase of the Kashi Vishwanath Dham corridor, which was constructed reportedly at a cost of Rs.399 crore. The functions during this visit also included a conclave of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Chief Ministers and Deputy Chief Ministers, which was branded as a national convergence to showcase the new and improved premises and approach road to the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir. The Chief Ministers of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Goa, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Manipur, Tripura, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, along with the Deputy Chief Ministers of Bihar and Nagaland, participated in the conclave.

Eye on elections

The reason why Modi went on a spree of showcasing different aspects of development in the historical region of Varanasi, which is also his Lok Sabha constituency, was not far to seek. The Election Commission of India’s (ECI) notification for the Assembly elections to Uttar Pradesh was to be announced by the last week of December or latest by early January, and the development projects had to be announced or presented before the ECI’s code of conduct came into effect. Thus, all the ceremonies involving foundation stone-laying and unveiling projects were also a race against the electoral clock.

The single-minded focus that Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah bring to electoral battles is fabled. Their every single move, even in the early run-up to the elections, is known to be based on electoral calculations.

Also read: Masterstroke that misfired: BJP unlikely to gain in Uttar Pradesh

This time around, going beyond using the consecutive visits to Varanasi and the ceremonies, Modi and Shah decided to exploit developments elsewhere, including the legislative business in Parliament’s winter session, to add fuel to the BJP’s campaign for the forthcoming Assembly elections in four States apart from Uttar Pradesh: Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur.

For several decades now, the two central characteristics of all the election strategies of Modi and Shah, as well as their associates in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the various constituents of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh-led (RSS) Sangh Parivar, have been the sustained attempt to aggravate communal polarisation through manifold manoeuvres on one hand and propagation of highfalutin claims of development on the other.

The story is no different in this election season. Every occasion and opportunity is being converted into raw material for a polarisation campaign, whether it is dedication of a special approach corridor to a temple or a new piece of legislation in Parliament, all presented as new specimens of development.

Modi’s speech while dedicating the first phase of the Kashi Vishwanath Dham corridor was laced with high-sounding expressions. He said: “With the blessings of Baba Vishwanath, the grand corridor has been built and dedicated to the nation today. The inauguration of Kashi Vishwanath Dham will give a decisive direction to India and will lead it to a brighter future. This complex is a witness to our capability, our duty. If it is determined and and well thought out, then nothing is impossible.”

Polarising rhetoric

But such utterances were also accompanied by blatant communal rhetoric. Castigating Mughal emperor Aurangzeb and stressing that history was witness to Aurangzeb’s atrocities and terror, Modi went on to add that that the “soil of this country is different from the rest of the world” and that “if an Aurangzeb comes (here), a Shivaji also rises” and “if any Salar Masud comes, then brave warriors like King Suheldev make him taste the might of India’s unity”.

Moving on from history to the present day, Modi said that when the corridor was conceived, some people, owing to their vested interests and politics, had said that it would not happen as “people like Modi will come and go”.

The juxtaposition of the rivalries between Hindu and Muslim rulers of the past and the presentation of the same in a contemporary context was clearly aimed at adding fuel to the communal campaign that the BJP and the Sangh Parivar have been spreading for several months in the election-bound States, especially Uttar Pradesh.

Also read: BJP turns Lakhimpur Kheri into new Hindutva battleground

This blatant resort to communally polarising narratives was supplemented by familiar Modi-style theatrics that included showering flower petals on the workers involved in the construction of the corridor, sitting on the floor with them for a photo-op and having lunch with them.

Other rituals such as taking a dip in the Ganga and walking through the corridor with a ‘kalash’ (a metal vessel used in rituals) filled with water from the Ganga were also performed in style by Modi.

The polarising campaign in Varanasi soon found reverberations in Parliament too, when the government pushed forth two controversial pieces of legislation—one seeking to link electoral rolls to the Aadhaar database and the other aiming to raise the minimum age of marriage for women from 18 to 21.

Although the latter was referred to a parliamentary committee, the former, according to a BJP Lok Sabha member from Uttar Pradesh, “has been done and dusted”. The member was of the view that “the legislation would lead to the rightful disenfranchisement of thousands of illegal migrants who are enjoying benefits as voters illegitimately”.

The MP was also of the opinion that the marriage age proposal would also help consolidate urban, middle-class Hindu votes in favour of the BJP, although the Bill has not yet been passed. He told Frontline: “The very presentation of the Bill has sent a message and this is more than enough in the limited context of the forthcoming Assembly elections.”

Winter session

The stormy winter session of Parliament started with the government withdrawing the three contentious farm laws, yielding to the demands of farmers who had been on a year-long agitation.

However, the withdrawal of the farm laws was done without allowing any discussion. Similarly, there was no discussion on the passage of the Bill on Aadhaar-voter’s ID linkage. The Modi government also hurriedly passed two Bills on extending the tenures of the heads of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Enforcement Directorate (E.D.), underscoring the fact that it was hell-bent on not changing its high-handed approach to issues.

Also read: Akhilesh Yadav: ‘The strongman image of the Prime Minister is in tatters’

Political observers in Uttar Pradesh as well as large sections of Sangh Parivar activists across the State are in agreement that while the components of the BJP’s election game plan have been taken forward in a planned and predictable manner, Modi’s own individual involvement has come into play much sooner and more aggressively than expected.

Indraprakash Chaturvedi, a Varanasi-based political observer, said: “The reason is not far to seek. It is in the unexpected churning in the social and political situation of Uttar Pradesh converting the electoral battle into a bipolar one, between the BJP and the Samajwadi Party (S.P.). Under normal circumstances, Modi would have indeed made a grand entry to make these development announcements before the ECI proclamation of polling dates, but he certainly would not have presented the conspicuously nervy display as reflected in the double visit to Varanasi in a matter of 10 days. Evidently, there is an element of apprehension within the BJP leadership about the way in which the contest in the country’s most populous State is shaping up. The certainty about an easy walkover is no longer there.”

He added: “Along with the anti-incumbency mood against the Adityanath government, the virtual disappearance of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) from the social and political scene of the State and the inability of the Congress leadership to attract a core voter base, despite the spirited campaigns on various issues by Priyanka Gandhi, ‘the party’s face in Uttar Pradesh’, have contributed to the S.P.’s rise as the second pole in the bipolar contest.” There is also the widespread belief that Chief Minister Adityanath is no match for S.P. president Akhilesh Yadav.

The crowds that Akhilesh Yadav has been drawing over the past few weeks have been huge, spontaneous and burgeoning with each successive rally.

Chaturvedi also said that the impact of these rallies has been such that many influential constituents of the Sangh Parivar in the State, including sizeable sections of the RSS, are of the view that the contest has to be converted into one between the “towering personality of Modi and the smaller, relatively insignificant regional leaders”.

Ayodhya ‘scam’

According to many Sangh Parivar insiders, the unexpected revelation of scams with a Hindutva-religious connect have also considerably harmed Adityanath’s political personality and this too called for a bigger intervention by Modi. A case in point highlighted by them was the Ayodhya land scam, involving several senior BJP leaders and officials, including senior bureaucrats. Incidentally, the allegations in this scam involving several BJP leaders, including an MLA, the BJP mayor of Ayodhya and relatives of many senior and not-so-senior bureaucrats, came after Modi’s grand show on the Vishwanath Mandir corridor.

These leaders and officials allegedly bought prime real estate in Ayodhya following the November 9, 2019, Supreme Court verdict that cleared construction of the Ram temple there.

These leaders and officials were evidently privy to the master plan of the grand temple and surrounding areas that the official Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra Trust, set up in February 2020, has drawn up; the land they had acquired would be worth a fortune even in the near term.

As of late November, the trust had acquired nearly 70 acres, but the quantum of land in the control of these private players is more.

Also read: Churches under attack in Uttar Pradesh

The persons whose names have cropped up in relation to the scam include Indra Pratap Tiwari, the BJP MLA from Gosaiganj constituency in Ayodhya district, his brother-in-law Rajesh Kumar Mishra and his associate Raghavacharya; Tarun Mittal, nephew of Ved Prakash Gupta, the BJP MLA from Ayodhya constituency; Rishikesh Upadhyay, Ayodhya mayor; and Keshav Prasad Agrawal and Anand Vardhan, the father-in-law and brother respectively of M.P. Agrawal, who has been Divisional Commissioner of Ayodhya since November 2019. Several Sangh Parivar insiders told Frontline that such developments were negatively impacting the Adityanath government’s image. Many among them said that Chaturvedi’s perception about the challenge posed thrown by the political personality of Akhilesh Yadav had considerable merit.

But many of them also said that while the crowds and the level of enthusiasm in Akhilesh Yadav’s rallies were indeed a cause for worry, the BJP’s own experience in West Bengal in the last Assembly elections indicated that crowds or their enthusiasm were not enough to win elections. Shyam Bihari Mishra, a senior Sangh Parivar leader from Kanpur, said: “Earlier, Tejashwi Yadav’s rallies during the Bihar election campaign were sensational but ultimately the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) won.”

S.P’s early gains

However, he also said that Akhilesh Yadav and the S.P. had gained huge and unexpected traction in the early rounds of campaigning. S.P. leader Prof. Sudhirkumar Panwar told Frontline that the BJP and Sangh Parivar leaders were surprised mainly because of their increasing lack of connect with the grass roots.

He said: “Over the last two years, the S.P. has been systematically highlighting livelihood issues faced by the people and the direct relation these hardships have with the track record of the Adityanath-led State government’s failures. From the mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of public health initiatives to the colossal failure in addressing related economic effects including rising unemployment, agricultural distress and massive price rise all have aggravated people’s misery.”

He added: “The farmers’ agitation and many related developments have also exposed the crony capital affiliations of the BJP in general and its governments in particular. In turn, the people have naturally started looking back at Akhilesh Yadav’s own tenure when the fruits of development were sought to be distributed equitably, without succumbing to crony capital interests. This is why the S.P. president enjoys significant goodwill among all sections of the population.”

Also read: Lakhimpur Kheri could prove to be BJP’s Achilles heel

Akhilesh Yadav and leaders of a number of smaller opposition parties have sought to exploit the anti-incumbency and the related churning in the State through concrete political, social and organisational moves. The principal thrust of these moves has been to widen the opposition’s social base beyond the traditional base of the S.P. among the Yadav and Muslim communities. Towards this end, the S.P. has forged alliances with smaller regional parties such as the Rashtriya Lok Dal, which has a strong following among western Uttar Pradesh’s Jat community—which was at the forefront of the farmers’ agitation—Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party, a former BJP ally, the Mahan Dal, and the Janwadi Party (Socialist).

The S.P. has also won over several regional influencers belonging to the BSP and the Congress. Akhilesh Yadav’s resolution of a long-standing dispute with his uncle Shivpal Yadav is also expected to strengthen S.P.

Still, the big question in the political firmament of the State, including the BJP and the S.P., the prime contenders, is whether the current churning will prove adequate to cover the huge vote share gap between the two parties in the 2017 Assembly elections. The S.P. was behind the BJP by almost 18 percentage points in terms of vote share then.

While most S.P. insiders are hopeful that the current upsurge in its popularity would take it past the required vote and seat share, the BJP leadership hopes that the gap it created five years ago is big enough to help it retain power.

However, there is widespread agreement among political observers that the fight is so tough that the BJP has been forced to field Modi earlier than expected and that the Prime Minister may be forced to exert much more than before.

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