If a week can be a long time in Indian politics, a decade is truly an eternity. Just jog back to Uttar Pradesh 2012 when the BJP won a mere 47 seats and barely 15 per cent of the vote while the Samajwadi party won a clear majority. Prime minister Narendra Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat, didn’t even campaign in the polls in protest against the choice of Sanjay Joshi, his great rival from early RSS days, as the BJP’s organizing secretary for the polls. Ten years later, the BJP has just hit a ‘chauka’, its fourth consecutive win in Uttar Pradesh with over 45 per cent of the vote share that firmly establishes the party as the dominant force in Indian politics and prime minister Modi as the Supreme Leader. The Samajwadi party, by contrast, has emerged as the principal opposition force in India’s most populous state but too far behind to really matter. So what has shifted the contours of Indian politics so dramatically?
The short answer would be to suggest that this is a ‘new’ BJP operating in a ‘new’ India: the party of Modi-Amit Shah has discarded the mask of gentle reasonableness of the Advani-Vajpayee era and become a relentless election machine that decimates all rivals by the sheer force of its no holds barred methods. This is a political juggernaut that knows how to combine state power and astute media management to virtually overwhelm and even ‘invisibilise’ its hapless opponents into pale submission.
In the process, the BJP has rewritten the rules of Indian electoral politics, even pushing traditional notions of caste-based identity politics to the margins. It isn’t as if the BJP has discarded social engineering and caste alignments on the ground: it has just recast them in a manner that the party is not identified narrowly with any single dominant caste. Instead while flaunting the badge of Hindutva – a religio-political construct that stands for both cultural Hindu nationalism and coarse anti-Muslim sentiment – the party has managed to widen its social base by nurturing a ‘Hindutva-plus’ constituency that goes beyond just religious identity.
Central to this broadening of the BJP’s appeal is the targeted pro-poor ‘welfarism’, aimed at creating a vast pool of beneficiaries or ‘labhartis’ of government programmes. It isn’t as if previous governments didn’t have a pro-poor outreach – the rural employment guarantee scheme for example is a successful pre-2014 arrangement – but the manner in which the BJP has linked delivery of public conveniences, be it a toilet, a gas cylinder, free ration or a house to its political agenda, makes it a genuine game-changer. Just look at the disproportionately high woman vote the BJP has received across all segments in almost every recent election, a pointer to the fact that ‘Mahila’ and ‘Yojana’ are seen as the new MY factor that has uprooted the original ‘MY’ (Muslim-Yadav) community-caste arithmetic.
But the rise of the BJP would not be as striking without the domineering presence of prime minister Modi as messenger in chief. After all, it isn’t as if the four BJP governments who have been re-elected have provided wholesome governance. Yogi Adityanath, for example, might justifiably claim to have tightened UP’s law and order machinery with stricter policing but can anyone truly assert that the glitzy ‘UP Shining’ propaganda blitz mirrors the reality of a state where millions are jobless? Manipur might have achieved relative peace in the last five years but the state’s per capita income is still amongst the lowest in the country. That the BJP had three chief ministers in one year in Uttarakhand is proof of the leadership deficit in the state. In Goa too, the Pramod Sawant government was widely perceived as having failed on a variety of fronts, from Covid management to endemic corruption.
And yet, if the BJP was able to create a ‘pro-incumbency’ momentum, it is because the Modi factor often overrides all else. The connect that the prime minister has built, especially in his ‘karmabhoomi’ of Uttar Pradesh, transcends a ‘normal’ voter-neta equation. Deep in the Hindi heartland, a woman voter laments how her husband died unattended during Covid and her son is without a job but then affirms that she will still vote for the BJP because of ‘Modiji’. It is almost as if the prime minister has struck a deep emotional attachment with his supporters to the point where there seems an almost irrational belief that ‘Modi hai to Mumkin hai’ (anything is possible with Modi) isn’t just a catchy slogan but a symbol of a billion plus aspirations. The well-marketed ‘pradhan-sewak’ ‘karmayogi’ image can be lampooned by critics but for those far removed from ideological battles, the prime minister is a cult-like figure who is seen to be challenging a withered and corrupted ancien regime.
In a sense, the opposition too has provided a Modi-led BJP with the ‘perfect enemy’. Then, be it an Akhilesh Yadav in UP or a Rahul- Gandhi at the national level, they both represent a non-meritocratic, dynastical culture that smacks of the privileges of birth and not achievement. For a ‘new’ India, there is an acute discomfort with this old order of entitled political inheritors who cannot quite shed past baggage. It becomes easy for the BJP to target the Samajwadi party for patronizing political goondaism or indeed the Congress for tolerating corruption because the charges have stuck in public imagination. When a party is seen to be a ‘parivar’, the BJP can strike a chord by effectively drawing a contrast in leadership style and organizational functioning.
Which is why it is perhaps not entirely coincidental that the other big winner this time is Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi party (AAP). For while straddling the anti-corruption platform, Kejriwal too challenged the established order in Punjab: a moth-eaten and factionalised Congress on the one hand and a feudal and corrupted ‘family raj’ of the Akali Dal on the other. Like Modi, Kejriwal too symbolizes the politics of hope and change, albeit without the massive resources available to the BJP leader. Which is perhaps why the BJP might fear a rising Kejriwal as a political opponent far more than they would any other potential rival. If just the last seven years have brought such tectonic changes in Indian politics, who knows what the next phase might usher in: maybe Modi versus Kejriwal in 2029?
Post-script: Two weeks ago, in this column, I had explained why the BJP was in pole position to win UP. Then, I was criticized for jumping the gun by those who insisted that the state was witnessing a fiercely competitive fight. I hate to say I told you so, but the truth is, an election ‘hawa’ can be gauged only when you step out of an echo chamber of like-minded voices.