POLITICIANS generally do not abandon a winning party to join a losing force. The dramatic defections from the BJP to the SP in Uttar Pradesh, which is linked to the polls, indicate that the opposition is gaining momentum. On January 11, a prominent face of the CBO and Minister of Labour, Swami Prasad Maurya, along with some MPs, resigned. More bad news for the BJP followed the next day when Environment and Forestry Minister Dara Singh Chauhan also resigned. The seats from which Maurya and Chauhan were elected fall under the region called Purvanchal, the eastern part of Uttar Pradesh which stretches to the border with Bihar.
Maurya’s seat, Padrauna, is 70 km from Gorakhpur, the constituency of chief minister Yogi Adityanath, where he remains the chief priest of a religious order. Similarly, Chauhan’s current seat, Madhuban, is about 90 km from Gorakhpur. The CM itself will contest from Gorakhpur Urban, a safe seat for it, although there are intriguing reports as to why the BJP top brass decided against having it contested from Ayodhya.
But first, the ministerial desertions signal that the national party’s carefully knit social coalition of non-Yadav OBCs is in danger of falling apart (a third minister, Dharam Singh Saini of Saharanpur, also left the BJP on January 13). The BJP had pulled off a phenomenal feat of social engineering, winning the support of backward and advanced castes in the country’s most populous state which sends 80 MPs to the Lok Sabha.
Leaders such as Maurya and Chauhan were important faces in the OBC who would not have been denied tickets by the BJP. Their output suggests they are responding to the mood of their constituents. Eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bundelkhand are much poorer than the western parts of the state bordering Delhi and Haryana. If entrenched OBC leaders like Maurya and Chauhan abandoned the BJP on the eve of an election, it also means they believe the SP-led Front might be able to defeat the ruling party.
Between December 11, 2021 and January 13, 2022, 19 BJP members joined the SP-led front. Fourteen of them were incumbent deputies and this figure is expected to increase. According to data collected by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), between 2016 and 2020, 182 MPs across the country joined the BJP while only 18 left the party. Defection of MPs was a factor in forming BJP governments in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Goa and Manipur (the latter two states also vote in this round of assembly elections). But the fact is that when a reverse trend starts, it suggests that something is wrong with the ruling party in Uttar Pradesh.
The BJP is not one to turn around and accept defeat in the face of setbacks. What worries them, however, is that outgoing ministers and legislators have presented their resignations as being due to the regime’s insensitivity to backward castes and Dalits. Given that Adityanath Yogi is a Thakur, the strongest advanced caste in the state, the desertions were inevitably positioned by SP as a revolt of the backward castes against the advanced castes. The BJP has already started to respond that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is “the biggest leader in the OBC”, but this is a state election. So far, the BJP’s attempt to elect Narendra Modi against SP leader Akhilesh Yadav has not been successful. This is, after all, a state poll and the SP leader calibrated it as Akhilesh versus Yogi.
Yet the BJP has the upper hand in party structures, executives, financial resources, social media outreach and, in the event of a suspended mandate, a friendly governor. And regardless of the chaos in the ranks, the ideologically driven RSS cadre runs the stand to the last lonely outpost. The SP is also a party rooted in the state, but operates very differently from the BJP. The PS will offer tickets, in view of the many contenders, to the candidates most likely to fight in each constituency. Still, it is a challenge to welcome so many newcomers to the front when the party itself is well established in the state.
The SP Plus front is conducting the election tactically, seat by seat, with several small caste parties. The BJP, on the contrary, is still pursuing the grand narrative around Modi, Yogi, welfarism and Hindutva. Now that the tickets are distributed, separate social media cells for each seat will also be activated, but overall the BJP social media functions as a broadcaster of PM and CM speeches as well as content used to discredit Akhilesh, keep the focus on other Muslims. and reinforce Hindutva ideology and symbolism.
There is now a touch of desperation in the pressure on the intransigent Hindutva. Also, the CM’s statement that the election is between 80% and 20% (Muslims make up 20% of the electorate) is the most memorable thing he has said this election season. Maybe the party sincerely believes that it’s the push that will get it through; those are certainly the main ideas the CM seems to have. Now, however, after the defections, he was due to show up eating at a Dalit household on January 14.
The SP, meanwhile, is stepping up its campaign on social media, as many volunteers and professionals have now stepped up. Strategically, they will seek to dominate the news cycle and try to create the news instead of just responding to it. The message will focus on economic issues while positioning the fight as front versus rear. They say they want social media to also amplify people’s voices beyond Akhilesh Yadav’s and want two-way conversation and a lighter touch. Akhilesh Yadav himself has done a good job in media interviews which are now widely broadcast.
The state apparatus, both at state and center level, is in the BJP. With the Election Commission having put curbs on rallies and roadshows, BJP leaders/workers are more likely to get away with violations in the door-to-door campaigns the candidates will depend on.
We know that the current dispensation can be vindictive against opponents. Indeed, an old case against Swami Prasad Maurya was mysteriously revived the day after his departure from the BJP. Tax raids have taken place against those who hold SP funds, although in one case authorities allegedly blundered, going after a businessman with a name similar to an SP backer.
The BJP is a formidable force that started this battle with a whopping 40% of the vote in the 2017 elections. What works best for the BJP is the support of those who got houses under the programs governments and a steady supply of free rations. But the national party is still losing voters and leaders and if this continues the battle would begin to be described as a wave of elections against them.