After Uttarakhand, BJP Is On Course To Mess Up Chances in UP in 2017

by R Jagannathan - May 13, 2016 11:28 AM +05:30 IST
After Uttarakhand, BJP Is On Course To Mess Up Chances in UP in 2017Modi and Shah
Snapshot
  • In UP, the BJP needs to project someone who embodies the following characteristics.

    One, he/she must have independent charisma and potential vote-pulling abilities.

    Two, he/she must not be seen as an infliction from above. Some distance from the BJP’s central leadership is vital – as has been the case with Vasundhara Raje and Shivraj Chauhan in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.

    Three, he/she must have a vision for Uttar Pradesh that is new and energising to the cadres and voters.

After getting egg on its face in Uttarakhand, where Harish Rawat of the Congress carried the day in this week’s Supreme Court-monitored trust vote, one has to question the BJP’s fundamental political instincts.

What, in god’s name, was the need to try and form a government aided by defectors when elections are anyway due in 2017? The assembly poll in 2017 could have been a cakewalk for the BJP in Uttarakhand, as the anti-incumbency breeze could have been harnessed in its favour. But it needlessly created a martyr out of Harish Rawat, whose government was anyway tottering under the weight of its own contradictions.

If the BJP can get Uttarakhand wrong, when it is one of the two dominant parties there, one shudders to think how it will negotiate Uttar Pradesh, the grandest political prize in India, with 80 Lok Sabha seats and a population punch of over 200 million. UP holds the key to 2019, and one wonders if the BJP is throwing it away.

That 2017 won’t be like 2014 is obvious, as no party will be unprepared for the BJP’s thrust-and-parry this time.

Mayawati, who decided to back the Congress government in Uttarakhand, is the clear frontrunner, with one poll in March giving her 185 seats in the UP assembly, which has 403 seats. The Uttarakhand backing to the Congress is really about UP; Mayawati is ensuring that if she falls short in May next year, it can call on Congress support on her own terms.

The Congress’ battle plans also look plausible, with new ideas being thrown up. One, dreamt up by strategist Prashant Kishor, is about projecting Rahul Gandhi as the potential Chief Minister. While the dynasty may not be willing to take such huge risks – a failure could ruin his image ahead of the big 2019 Lok Sabha elections, where he will be projected as the Congress PM candidate – the mere fact that it is being touted means fresh thinking is underway even in the Congress.

But where is the BJP in all this? Neither here nor there. It is still operating with the belief that some kind of caste combo will deliver it the votes; and it still does not have a credible leader to energise the party and excite voters. If it is depending only on Modi’s charisma, it will fail.

In April, party chief Amit Shah appointed the BJP’s OBC face in Uttar Pradesh, Keshav Prasad Maurya, as state party president. While this makes sense in a state where non-Yadav OBCs will be crucial to winning a viable number of votes, it is basically an underwhelming idea. Castes may be important at the constituency level, but they hardly do much for the party when a relative unknown is foisted from above to a leadership position based purely on his caste credentials. To carry caste clout, the leader needs to carry himself independently.

India has moved beyond caste. Not in the sense that caste does not matter at all to electoral outcomes, but it needs the right circumstances to work. In Bihar, Muslims and Yadavs consolidated behind the JD(U)-RJD alliance because they saw a real threat from the BJP. Existential threats bring out the caste votes all right. Caste may not work when such threats seem far-fetched. Dalits deserted Mayawati in UP in 2014 when they saw no threat from the Modi wave to their upward mobility.

Narendra Modi was elected in 2014 because no group (except perhaps Muslims) saw him as a threat.

In Uttar Pradesh, where caste is still important, it is only the Yadavs who may see a threat to their power if the Samajwadi is ousted. But Muslims have options – both SP and BSP, now that Mayawati is looking like the frontrunner.

Also, don’t rule out a tacit understanding between the Congress and Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh. Rahul won’t be fielded as CM candidate primarily because this will be a direct challenge to Mayawati – which the Congress may not be willing to risk keeping the need for allies in 2019 in mind. A tacit Mayawati-Congress seat alliance may enable not only Muslims but also the upper castes, to tilt towards her, giving her a potential sweep in 2017.

It is not clear that the BJP has thought through its options even though the elections are less than a year away.

The pivot the BJP lacks is a leader who can transcend the caste divide at the top, even while allowing caste-based candidate selections at the lower levels.

In the Uttar Pradesh scenario, where caste alliances tend to neutralise one another, what the BJP needs is a credible leader, and it is not necessary that this leader should be someone who is fully in tune with the Modi-Shah dispensation. A true leader is one who has strategic independence and room for manoeuvre on his own.

The BJP would be better off if it operates a quasi-federal structure, where the leadership at the state level has its own power base. A Congress-style high command structure is ill-suited for BJP’s - and even federal India’s - needs.

The right choice would be someone who embodies the following characteristics.

One, he/she must have independent charisma and potential vote-pulling abilities.

Two, he/she must not be seen as an infliction from above. Some distance from the BJP’s central leadership is vital – as has been the case with Vasundhara Raje and Shivraj Chauhan in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.

Three, he/she must have a vision for Uttar Pradesh that is new and energising to the cadres and voters. The reason Samajwadi Party won in 2012 was the energy of Akhilesh Yadav, and not the Yadav clan’s support base. But for this newness factor, we could well have obtained a hung assembly. Remember, Mayawati was just over 3 percent behind SP in terms of vote share. In 2017, this narrow gap will work in her favour. The BJP needs someone who will pull the marginal vote away from SP to itself, and this can’t be done by playing the caste card at the top. In short, the BJP needs a leader who will operate beyond caste.

Varun Gandhi seems to fit this bill better than most other UP leaders right now. Smriti Irani can be an aggressive campaigner against the Gandhi family, but cannot be projected as CM in a difficult state. And she is too closely aligned with the power structure right now to count as an independent leader in 2017.

This is not to say Varun will be the right choice, but this is the direction the BJP’s thinking needs to take if it is not to repeat Delhi and Bihar in UP.

Even in Punjab, the BJP should ask its ally Akali Dal to project Sukhbir Badal as CM nominee. It is difficult to convey the idea of dynamic change with a nonagenarian, Prakash Singh Badal, Sukhbir’s father, as perpetual CM.

Parties have to move with the times, and projecting energetic leadership is one of the ingredients of success. This is one thing the BJP lacked in Bihar and Delhi; will it make the same mistake in UP?

Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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