In the narrow lane from the Hanumangarhi temple to the Ram Janmabhoomi site in Ayodhya, the local shopkeepers are visibly upset. Their shops will be demolished as the town administration plans to widen the road as part of its grand renovation design. “We have been here for decades and now they take such a big decision without even consulting us,” a shopkeeper laments. So who will you vote for, I ask? “Vote toh BJP ko padega sir, without Modiji and Yogi ji, there would be no Ram Temple. Aastha (faith) bhee important hai!” is the telling response.
We are in a village near Kanpur, discussing politics over a cup of chai with a group of farmers from the Kurmi community. The rising price of diesel and cooking oil and the stray cattle menace is cause for concern. “Mehngai bad gai hai,” they moan, but then add that their vote remains with the BJP. “Yogi ji’s government is giving us free ration for months now,” is their reasoning. Not surprisingly, the ration packets carry pictures of the chief minister and the prime minister.
Switch to urban Lucknow where the city’s young and restless are hanging out at a food street. Many of them admit that they are troubled by the lack of job opportunities in the city. “I am a software engineer but here in Lucknow there is only one HCL campus that was set up when Akhilesh Yadav was chief minister,” grumbles a young woman. So who will you vote for is my standard question. “Akhilesh has a vision but I would like to give Yogi government one more chance, at least women’s security is now better and I can move around after 7 pm,” she answers.
While criss-crossing the Awadh belt of central UP, the country’s most populous and politically influential state remains a puzzling bundle of contradictions. This isn’t quite the turbulent 1990s where Mandal was pitted against Kamandal, where caste and community ‘wars’ were fought with frenetic zeal. Yes, there is disquiet over the tough times that so many have endured in pandemic times but the anxiety hasn’t turned into anger. Not yet. Except for western UP that was the epicenter of the farmer agitation which dramatically changed political equations in the region, UP seems to have settled into a more stable order in a previously chaotic political universe. What explains the paradox of a disenchanted voter but a relatively clear-cut political preference?
Firstly, the lack of political options are stark. Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj party which only 15 years ago won a remarkable majority appears to have suddenly disintegrated: only her core Jatav vote seems to still stand by her. The Congress under Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has at least tried to lift itself from the mire but decades of organizational sloth cant be overcome by a few months of effort. That leaves Akhilesh Yadav as the last man standing upto the BJP juggernaut. His attempt to recast the Samajwadi party by intelligently striking alliances with smaller caste based parties is a recognition of the limits of the party’s original Muslim-Yadav base but he still has to live down the image of leading a force which is identified with Yadav bahubali (strongmen) dominance.
Secondly, the BJP has invested heavily in astute social engineering over the past seven years, creating an entirely new power structure where the large grouping of non-Yadav OBCs have become the party’s engine room. This has created friction at the leadership level between the traditional upper caste elites and the recent entrants but on the ground it has meant that the BJP has a much wider social base than its competitors.
Thirdly, the flagship welfarist schemes of the Modi-Yogi so called ‘double engine’ have created an unmistakable pro-poor image that may enable the ruling party to tide through ‘mehngai’ (price rise) and creeping anti-incumbency against its MLAs. For example, the PM-Kisan launched by the Centre in February 2019 has continued since, assuring the farmers an income of Rs 6000 per year over three instalments. UP has the highest number of such farm beneficiaries at around 2.5 crore: it is this vast pool of ‘labhartis’ or beneficiaries of cash transfers and free rations that are at the heart of the BJP’s political outreach.
Fourthly, the media narrative is so tightly controlled by the Yogi government’s crisis managers that no negative news is allowed to become a sustained prime time narrative, be it dead bodies floating in the Ganga during Covid 2.0 or ministerial corruption in public works contracts. Even the horrendous incident in Lakhimpur where a union minister’s son is the main accused in crushing protesting farmers to death has been projected as proof that the Yogi government will not hesitate to punish its own. The occasional journalistic expose has been met with heavy-handed state action, including FIRs against mediapersons, creating an atmosphere of fear and foreboding.
But above all else, there is the lure of the Hindutva project, wherein UP, much like Gujarat in the Modi years, has become the centre-piece of an ominous religious polarization. Yogi Adityanath’s controversial ‘80:20’ remark for example isn’t just inflammatory rhetoric but is designed to shore up his image as a ‘protector’ of ‘Hindu interests’. The chief minister, in fact, has been a serial offender when it comes to brazenly appealing to one religious grouping while demonizing another. But what is crude and offensive to those who swear by constitutional norms of non-discriminatory politics, is cheered by the vast multitudes of Yogi supporters who contrast Hindu assertiveness in the last five years with the ‘appeasement’ of Muslims in the previous regime. In fact, even the chief minister’s core appeal of being tough on law and order is viewed through the prism of anti-Muslim sentiment: ‘Muslim’ gangsters are seen as prime targets of Yogi’s ‘bulldozer’ boast.
This doesn’t mean UP’s deep caste fault-lines have entirely disappeared or that local anti-incumbency isn’t a factor, one reason why the BJP does face a decline in numbers. It is just that a majority in UP seem unwilling to break with the Modi-Yogi fixation: women in particular remain a key demographic whose support may cut across the caste barrier. Just how long this cult-like fascination for the BJP’s ‘UP-Yogi’ poll pitch lasts is uncertain but for now it seems that the Hindi heartland is still content to keep rocking in its Hindu cradle.
Post-script: In the power corridors of Lucknow, there is much speculation whether a section of the BJP leadership would prefer a narrow victory to an overwhelming one. As per this theory, a downsized Yogi would suit certain political interests within the BJP’s established power structure. If only electoral politics was so easy to control.