Why did the Election Commission of India choose to go from west to east in scheduling the seven-phase election in Uttar Pradesh? Many in the Bharatiya Janata Party and political experts thought the ruling party, even after the repeal of the contentious farm laws, would bide more time for the Jat farmers’ anger to subside. After all, people in UP’s Jatland are still not holding sugarcane juice glasses to welcome BJP leaders. Why start elections from a region where the BJP may not perforce get the tailwind? Why not start from the east and get the momentum to overcome headwinds in the west—if at all—towards the end?
One may say these questions are impertinent. Poll dates are fixed by the Election Commission of India (ECI). Why would it care what might or might not suit the BJP? The Commission is an independent body, isn’t it? Besides, Chief Election Commissioner Sushil Chandra, former chairman of the Central Board of Direct Taxes, would know better than many how to deal with political pressures.
To the ECI’s defence, the west-to-east roll of the polling wheel follows a pattern; it was the same in 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections and the 2017 assembly polls. Call it a coincidence that it suited the BJP. Post-2013 Muzaffarnagar riots, Jats in western UP swung towards the BJP, giving it a big springboard in early phases of the elections.
The 2022 election is happening in a different backdrop though.
Simmering anger among farmers over sugarcane prices and arrears and power bills was tapped by leaders like Rakesh Tikait to mobilise them against the three contentious Union farm laws. The Modi government has quashed them but their angst hasn’t been fully addressed yet, creating an opportunity for Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) leader Jayant Choudhary to try and reclaim the political legacy of his grandfather, Chaudhary Charan Singh, and his father, Ajit Singh.
There are 136 assembly seats in western UP across 26 districts in Braj and Rohilkhand regions. The ECI has scheduled elections in these areas in the first three of the seven phases. The farmers’ agitation was resonating in a large part of this region and a section of BJP leaders in UP, therefore, wanted to start their electoral journey from the east. It’s another matter that the central leadership didn’t necessarily agree with them.
Post-facto, BJP leaders proffer many positives.
“It’s good to get over with the farmers’ anger in the very beginning (in initial phases of the election),” said one. “We have our candidates’ list ready while they (Jayant Chaudhary and Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav) are still discussing who will contest which seats. That gives us an edge,” said another. “If we had started from the east, it would suggest we are not confident. The fact is we are sweeping the polls. Doesn’t matter whether we start it from the west or the east,” said a third one, a minister in the Yogi Adityanath government.
BJP’s poll plank: 80 per cent versus 20 per cent
If one listened to Adityanath Saturday, shortly before the ECI announced the poll dates, it gave an inkling of why the west-to-east rolling of the poll wheel suited the BJP’s agenda. UP elections will be “80 per cent versus 20 per cent,” said the chief minister.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech in Meerut on 2 January was a giveaway, too. “Lewd comments were passed at women; houses were burnt down during riots and people were forced to leave their native homes. The BJP government is now playing jail-jail with such criminals,” said the PM, as reported by The Hindu.
He was indirectly referring to the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots and exodus of Hindus in Kairana and nearby places. Union home minister Amit Shah has also been referring to the Kairana exodus in his election meetings.
Such political rhetoric is only likely to get sharper and louder in coming weeks, with western UP’s demographic profile offering a convenient receptacle. About a quarter of the population in this region is Muslims. In some areas—such as Rampur and Moradabad in Rohilkhand region— Muslims constitute about half of the population. Firebrand Muslim leader Asaduddin Owaisi whose All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIAMIM) is likely to contest a hundred seats must be setting his eyes here, which may bring a sparkle in BJP leaders’ eyes.
How polarising politics undermines Yogitva
In the overall narrative, west-to-east rolling of elections suits the BJP insofar as its Hindutva agenda is concerned. It’s no more about Yogi Adityanath’s development agenda. It’s not even about social engineering, which Amit Shah so assiduously did from 2014, by bringing about leaders representing different castes and sub-castes under the NDA umbrella and reaching out to backward classes and a section of Dalits. It’s about setting the Hindu-Muslim poll narrative from the west and taking it to other regions.
Electoral outcome in UP notwithstanding, the predominance of this agenda runs the risk of undermining Yogitva, a derivative of Moditva that has come to symbolise vikas or development agenda with Hindutva as its underlying principle. The hackneyed description of Modi as a Hindu Hridaya Samrat after the 2002 post-Godhra riots got sublimated into a larger persona defined by selfless benevolence and welfarism by the time the Gujarat Chief Minister launched himself into a national role in 2013. Yogi was modelling himself on Modi, trying to do in four years what Modi did in a decade —get an image makeover.
Yogi might have started with anti-Romeo squad and closure of slaughter houses, but he was soon seeking to become another Modi, even choosing not to attend his father’s last rites because, as he wrote to his mother, he had to serve 23 crore people of UP when they were facing the pandemic. Like Modi, he wouldn’t have a dirt on his personal image. He would like his administration to be defined by infrastructure developments — Agra-Lucknow Expressway, Purvanchal Expressway, Bundelkhand Expressway, Gorakhpur Link and Ganga Expressways—apart from his tough action against criminals and welfare measures.
Look at his government’s pre-poll advertisements. It’s all about his achievements on the development front.
One may or may not agree with this projection but the fact is Yogi was trying hard to become a Modi of future. But if Yogi and his senior party colleagues’ recent pronouncements are any indication, the west-to-east rolling wheel indicates an intent to go for out-an-out polarising politics.
Even if Yogi Adityanath were to retain power on 10 March when the assembly poll results are out, he may not get the due credit. If Modi is the face of the UP polls—having addressed 14 public meetings and rallies in UP since November so far— and Hindu-Muslim politics the predominant poll strategy, what differentiates Yogi from any other BJP CM? The BJP could very well install a Sanjeev Balyan, Sangeet Som or an Ajay Mishra Teni as the CM post-elections. Or Niranjan Jyoti or any another saffron-clad leader for that matter. That’s not to suggest the possibility of the BJP doing a re-think about Yogi becoming the CM again.
It’s only to underline how Yogi is no longer The Factor in the BJP’s larger electoral agenda in UP. He is just another BJP CM in another state whose political fortune depends on Modi’s mass appeal and aggressive Hindutva as the central plank.
The UP election that was once centred on Yogi Adityanath— his persona and his development agenda being the focus—is fast becoming an election for Modi and another opportunity for Shah to show why the PM called him, then-general secretary in-charge of UP, man of the match in 2014. And Yogi can’t but play along.
DK Singh is Political Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @dksingh73. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)