The BJP’s victory in Uttar Pradesh may come as a surprise for many but Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and the RSS campaign had hardwired into the electorate three sets of narrative from the get go — rashan, bhashan and kada prashasan. Or free ration, speeches promoting Hindu-Muslim divide, and tough law and order.
But most importantly, what worked is that the BJP under Modi, Amit Shah and Adityanath have spun the aspiration of the people into something they feel but not see. That’s how they defanged the vote against raging unemployment.
The RSS quietly worked on spreading the word about how nobody went hungry under the Modi and Yogi governments during the Covid-19 pandemic. This, they said, became possible because of the free ration scheme that had reached every poor person’s home. This not only created an army of beneficiary communities across Uttar Pradesh (along with the previous Ujjwala and low-cost housing schemes), but also built an antidote to the Covid-induced economic distress. Free ration was not just limited to rice like in Tamil Nadu and Odisha, but also included oil and salt. Packets of salt distributed among the poor even had Modi’s photo on them. Free ration ensured that hunger did not grow into a big issue in the election.
While on the ground stomachs were kept filled, the fiery speeches by CM Adityanath, PM Modi and scores of lower-rung BJP politicians occupied the mindspace of the UP voter and kept the content-sharing universe chugging. Speeches meant to polarise voters on communal lines went viral — ranging from the hijab row in Karnataka to using dehumanising language like ‘katmullah’ and ‘inshallah ki aisi’. Ration kept the kitchen fires burning and bhashan kept the us-versus-them mindset fired up. One without the other would not have taken the BJP to the finishing line. That was clear from the start for ground-level campaigners. What’s food without ideology, after all.
Much like Donald Trump, CM Adityanath became the law-and-order politician of Uttar Pradesh. Remember how Trump would tweet just these three words as Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality raged in the US? In fact, Trump (and then-vice president Mike Pence) uttered ‘law and order’ more than 90 times in 2020 by one count. Both the supporters and critics of Adityanath started saying that law and order had improved under him, before rattling off names of Samajwadi Party candidates with alleged criminal backgrounds. The BJP supporters even grudgingly acknowledged how crime was controlled under Mayawati.
ThePrint’s columnist Yogendra Yadav wrote that law and order was a code for showing the Muslims their place in Indian society under the Adityanath government. Also just like in Bihar, law and order became a savarna code for Yadav-ruled gundaraj in UP too. Much like the usage of ‘law and order’ in American politics to dog-whistle White fears about ‘Black criminality’.
Aspiration as an emotion
When the BJP came to power in 2014, it was on the back of a new promise of addressing the growing aspiration of Indian youth. India had to create jobs equivalent to five Australias between 2018 and 2027, a PwC report had said. Many at that time had even mocked NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) and said that India’s youth want real jobs. Not only has India witnessed the failure to create jobs, the BJP government has in fact presided over a massive loss of jobs in recent years – 30 per cent decrease between 2016 and 2021, according to a report by Centre for Economic Data & Analysis (CEDA).
Despite this poor track record, the word aspiration has stuck to Modi and Adityanath politics. How? The story of the last eight years is one of how the Modi propaganda machine has turned the notion of aspiration successfully and cleverly from a tangible measure of jobs into an intangible entity of emotion and pride. There was a new barter between the government and the voters. As long as the citizens are convinced that the nation was better off now in some abstract understanding of strength, they would not hold the government responsible for non-creation or loss of jobs.
Modi and other BJP politicians have created a vibe of pride across many parts of India, especially among the youth. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, many students in Kota had told ThePrint that they did not think it was the Modi government’s responsibility to create jobs. They had absolved him of that obligation, thereby giving rise to a crucial decoupling between performance evaluation and voting behaviour. This decoupling dents the very idea of electoral democracy.
Among the BJP voters today, there is a general sense of India becoming ‘strong’ even though the economy is weakening, and social harmony fracturing with time. Modi and Adityanath governments could no longer be measured by data about jobs and GDP. Instead, the measure was in convincing people that India was poised for greatness. During the UP campaign, Modi turned the Russia-Ukraine conflict into one about India’s greatness by asking the crowd a basic rhetorical question: “Should India be strong in the future or not?” With this kind of national mood, why would the jobless voter question Yogi Adityanath?
In spite of so many journalists traveling across Uttar Pradesh reporting on massive joblessness, there is apparently very little street anger around the issue. Idleness has been replaced by a frenzied busyness in mobile data usage, as ThePrint’s Jyoti Yadav reported.
More importantly, instead of jobs, people got ration. And this is different from the Congress’ NREGA. Scholar Hilal Ahmed explained to me that it is the distinction between welfare and charity. Welfare can be viewed as an obligation of the state in times of distress. Charity is discretion. One kept the villagers into slipping below the poverty line, the other from going hungry. In 2014, some economists constantly said that NREGA was making India’s labour classes lazy and in fact even argued that villagers were using NREGA money to buy jewellery.
Today, we are just satisfied that no one went to bed hungry in Uttar Pradesh. Abki baar, lower the bar.
Rama Lakshmi is the Opinion and Features Editor at ThePrint. She tweets @RamaNewDelhi. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)