It was just another dusty Saturday morning in Uttar Pradesh’s capital, Lucknow. Life was returning to normal, post the aura and magnificence of elections in India’s biggest State, UP- as populated as Brazil. The usual noisy days had dawned once again. The noise of loudspeakers and roadshows was replaced by the noise of children running around- the younger ones running out to play on a shiny Saturday and the older ones running to their tuition classes, frantically completing last minute revisions before the tense board examination season began. Customers, traders and hustlers filled the streets once again- replacing party workers and curious journalists. People rejoiced in the transitional weather, as the cold, peaceful winter slowly gave way to the torrid yet cheerful summers. However, much more was in transition than just the weather, and a man sitting in a small, spacious room in Lucknow, well versed with tech and tact was the chief orchestrator of this transition.
Sunil Bansal, a man Amit Shah described as the “hero of the 2017 battle”, organised one of the greatest ever political feats in the history of Indian Federalism. His task was extremely difficult- trying to win the battle for Uttar Pradesh in 2017 against the man who first showed it could be done in 2014. It was a high stakes contest. Though the real headline was the immediate test of Modi’s demonetisation, it was about much more than that. From the future of Modi’s government to the Rajya Sabha arithmetic and even the appointment of the next President of India, a loss for Modi could possibly have knelt a death blow to Modi’s development and reformist agenda. And that was what the media expected it to be.
The SP-Congress Alliance, the pain of demonetisation, and the ‘unification of the Muslim vote’ was all but certain to end Modi’s 4 year dominance as the de-facto political giant. A youthful Akhilesh and Rahul were to usher Uttar Pradesh into a new era, and the opposition into a new lease of life. Come Saturday, everything would change.
And they weren’t wrong.
However, the change was very different than what they imagined it to be.
Modi was no longer just the national political giant. He was the regional satrap as well. Varanasi’s very own Parliamentarian, Modi, had charmed Uttar Pradesh in a way unseen for almost the last 30 years. Reminiscent of the 73/80 performance in the General Elections, 2014, the BJP surged to a mammoth 312 seats out of the state’s 403 seats. Unprecedented, unexpected and unbelievable for some even within the party, the mood of 2014 had come a full circle. While bells rang in the temples in Varanasi, the music in the streets sang a different song, one that had been the rhythm of the streets in 2014:
“Hum Modi Ji ko Laane Wale Hai,
Acche Din Aane Wale Hai”
There was havoc in the press circles in Delhi. The points of analysis swiftly changed from the Akhilesh Model of Inclusive Progress to Demonetisation- The Economic Mishap but the Political Masterstroke. News channels rumbled on with how this verdict on demonetisation proved that the poor rural farmer in Uttar Pradesh is not bothered about the dismal macroeconomic picture nor is he bothered by the hardships he faced due to demonetisation, but is just about satisfied that this move hurt the rich as well. Expert analysts, the same ones predicting Modi’s end, were now claiming to have met thousands of people enroute their coverage of the 2017 elections, who bought in to the BJP’s narrative of the rich vs poor, hence neutralising the negative effect of demonetisation.
And this is why they fall prey to fallacies after every single election.
The 2017 election was not just about that one speech made at 10 pm on the 8th of November. It was the result of more than 2 years of planning, hard work and extensive ground action, envisioned by Modi, planned by Shah and executed by Bansal.
- The Age Old Caste-Religion Factors Are Not At Play Anymore:
For years, elections in India have been examined through the lenses of caste and religious polarisation and vote-bank politics. Each party has two or three traditional vote banks, and those vote banks are said to stay loyal to their party irrespective of its performance or chances of success in the election. However, the BJP broke this casteist pattern, or at least redefined these lenses for the time being. In a historic election, the BJP severely eroded the BSP’s Dalit vote bank, as it won 69 seats reserved for Dalits, compared to BSP’s dismal performance of just 2 victories on seats reserved for Dalits. Similarly, the BJP made heavy inroads into Muslim dominated regions, winning 31 out of the 42 seats in Muslim dominated areas.
To call this an end of caste in Indian politics would certainly be a naive conclusion. Caste is still a burning factor in Indian polity, and will remain so for the visible future. However, under the leadership of Shah and his understudy, Bansal, the BJP reworked its caste dimensions, changing its image from the party of the upper class and the urban middle class (19% of voting population in UP) into a party promising inclusive development, especially for the most backward sections of the population, which are predominantly Hindu. Through Modi’s promise of Sabka Sath Sabka Vikas, a massive 32% more-backwards, 37% most-backwards and 21% ati-Dalits have shifted to BJP since 2012. These new caste combinations, along with the native BJP voter base of upper class traders and the aspirational urban middle class, helped the BJP record a mammoth record breaking vote share in excess of 40% and cross the three fourth majority threshold in Uttar Pradesh.
2. Moving from the Urban to the Rural
Even though the BJP was formed in the 1970s, it was always perceived as an urban party, with a very limited rural appeal. Even during the peak of the Vajpayee era, the BJP was powerful because of its extremely strong urban support. Right of centre, the BJP has never really been able to connect with the ordinary farmers and uncontracted labourers living in rural India, who make up a majority of India’s population.
However, the Modi Government’s posturing and policy has helped the BJP make significant inroads in rural India. His heightened agrarian focus, from a greater budgetary expenditure to soil health cards, fasal bhima yojana, providing farmers security, and the emphasis on rural connectivity by roads and communication successfully carved an opening for the BJP in the rural political dynamic of India. Bansal’s emphasis on contesting the Panchayat Polls in UP, despite the resistance of many, led the BJP to create the strong organisational structure needed to ensure a strong and effective campaign and help spread the word of Modi’s enterprising rural focus. The final piece of the puzzle was Modi’s loan waiver promise to the farmers, which significantly turned the small and marginal farmers towards the BJP, making the BJP a strong rural force.
3. Micromanagement of Every Seat
So essential was it to win UP after the Bihar debacle of 2015, that Amit Shah and Bansal, along with their entire team, had thoroughly examined each and every seat and crafted a strategy for each seat separately before the ticket distribution commenced. As the saying goes, to build the greatest wall, you must aim to lay each brick perfectly.
Every seat’s demographics and issues were detailed and an effective strategy and candidate was consequently chosen. Leaders from rival parties were poached, traditional BJP candidates were dropped. But all of this was needed to execute the master plan. The ruthless pragmatism of the BJP leadership paid off.
4. One-Upping the Mahagathbandan: BJP’s Alliance
The SP-Congress Alliance was the Mahagathbandan to look out for in the UP elections. Akhilesh’s popularity and the organisational resources of the Congress. A result like Bihar was on the cards. A united opposition, unification of votes and the victory of yet another anti-Modi alliance.
However, while the media glare was on this alliance of two youth scions, there was another alliance in the making, which proved to be the real Mahagathbadan in terms of the election results. One feature of Modi’s BJP has been the conjuring up of alliances with small regional partners in order to add significant small yet loyal votes to the BJP’s kitty. Be it the alliance of 5 parties weaved in Tamil Nadu for the General Elections in 2014 or even the alliances in the North East which have smoothened the path for a BJP presence in the North East, the Modi-Shah led BJP presents a totally different dynamic of coalition politics than the UPA, and even the NDA of the Vajpayee era.
In a massive state like UP, even a percentage increase in vote share can cause a massive swing in terms of results. The BJP entered into an alliance with the Apna Dal and Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP) in UP. Because of the Apna Dal alliance, more-backwards, especially Kurmis massively shifted to BJP. The SBSP, a party of Rajbhars (most-backwards), has about 9000 votes on an average per constituency. The small percentages added to the BJP’s own increased vote bank, to produce stunning results for the BJP alliance.
5. Immense Hard Work and Execution
However well you can plan, planning only takes you till the door of success. Strategy without execution is hallucination. Though the BJP had engineering the perfect campaign in terms of its planning, it was now necessary to mobilise all resources and use them effectively to bring the plan to fruition. This is when Sunil Bansal stepped up.
Bansal’s pivotal task was to energise the organisation early. So, at a time when the Samajwadi Party was embroiled in an internal struggle and the BSP remained in a state of virtual invisibility, the BJP had already begun raising the battle cry. “The idea behind this was to increase the visibility of the party. Some programmes are more successful, others are less. But the point is to keep the party organisation mobilised,” said a party source. This, he said, was also a good way to neutralise the disadvantage of not having a chief ministerial face.
The party organised 88 youth-centric, 77 women-centric, 200 OBC-centric, 18 Dalit-centric and 14 trader-centric events, and held numerous state, regional and sector-level meetings with booth workers. It deployed 403 Parivartan Vans to each constituency. The party also launched a Mann ki Baat campaign that received 34 lakh responses, and organised Parivartan rallies at the end of 2016. It created four Facebook pages and 6,608 Whatsapp groups. And, to prepare candidates for the elections, it gave each of them micro village and family level data compiled through phone calls and voter surveys. Ministers and party leaders, especially those popular in UP, held three to four public meetings every day. Modi addressed a grand total of 30 rallies in Uttar Pradesh, and held two consecutive road shows before the final phase in an attempt to wrest power in Lucknow after two and a half decades.
The BJP gave it their all. And it surely paid off.
However, an election won is just half the work done. Now comes the crucial task. The task of leading an effective government. And judging by the performance of the BJP government at the centre, that is something that the BJP still needs to master and perfect. The BJP has a glowing mandate, probably the best ever in the history of UP elections. If Modi is indeed serious about the future of India, this is his chance to finally push India to new heights. UP can be the catalyst for Modi’s agenda of change. However, can Modi be the alchemist UP needs?