Elections: Beware the Ides of March

Published: February 15, 2017 - 00:05 Updated: August 4, 2017 - 16:34

If early polling is anything to go by, then the assembly elections across five states could mean an all or nothing scenario for the BJP

Sanjay Kapoor Delhi

By 10 am on March 11, the faces of change would be visible. Polling trends from five assemblies would be available, and experts at various TV studios would be calling the elections. What they would also be discussing animatedly are the implications of the verdict on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Bharatiya Janata Party, Congress, Aam Aadmi Party ( AAP) and the regional parties: Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, Akali Dal and much more. In just a matter of a few hours on March 11, the country would also know what 160 million voters scattered across five states think of Prime Minister Modi’s decision to demonetise high-value currency notes.

If the mood in the country is anything to go by, then the results will not just announce the culmination of a political process flagged off by the state elections, but the beginning of new agitation, alliances and arrangements to take on the BJP in 2019. A loss in Uttar Pradesh for BJP, which is not beyond the pale of doubt, despite its sensational win in the 2014 Parliament elections, could seriously create confusion in the party about its policies and the ability of Modi’s leadership to lead them to power in 2019. What would also take a hit is the belief that BJP can come to power in different parts of the country led by the two gentlemen from Gujarat- Narendra Modi and Amit Shah- without declaring a chief ministerial face. This strategy proved a disaster in Delhi and Bihar, where the party got a severe drubbing and could be tested on this issue again in UP, Punjab, Goa, Uttrakhand and Manipur.

The results of these elections would also decide who will lead the charge against the BJP in 2019. Would that be the interesting Congress-Samajwadi Party alliance led by two new generation leaders, Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav or by Aam Admi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal, who could surprise everyone by emerging tops in the fiercely fought elections in Punjab? What about BSP’s enigmatic Mayawati? What will she do post the elections- both, if she does well or sinks?  Nothing is certain except the fact that 2017 is no 2014. Despite his personal popularity, people are no longer enamoured of the BJP or Modi and could vote along caste lines in UP and in other states. Unlike the Parliament elections, which are about electing a party or a leader in Delhi, the state elections are fought to protect one’s turf. A Dalit would like to elect a BSP government in Lucknow as it would ensure justice for them and also the appointment of Dalits in police, district administration, etc. Similarly, for Muslims, who would prefer a Congress- SP government to enjoy protection from the state in the event of a riot. So clearly, the assembly elections are really important and in some cases, a matter of life and death for some communities. The Dalits suffer with the rise of Yadavs in UP. And minorities quiver at the thought of the BJP coming to power in UP. After all, they have been witness to the misery and violence they have to go through when the forces of Hindutva backed by the BJP are on the ascendance. All these insecurities accompanied by a  desire for a better life would ultimately drive voting behaviour. In 2014, Narendra Modi had ignited hope in the voters of UP, where the people- cutting across castes- gave a thundering verdict in his favour. The BJP got 73 seats and more than 40 percent of the votes. Although the Akhilesh-led Samajwadi Party’s government continued to hang on to power, it was seen as a matter of time before the BJP came to power in Lucknow too! There is no longer a predictable inevitability to a BJP win in Lucknow- as the alliance between the Congress and Samajwadi Party is challenging them all over the sprawling state.

The first round of voting in Western UP, which set the pace and tone for the subsequent six rounds, did not give an impression of a wave for any party. A bastion of Jat leader Ajit Singh, this is a wealthy part of an otherwise poor state. British investment in irrigation networks in these parts coupled with the Green Revolution in the mid 60’s lifted the fortunes of millions of farmers. Not too long ago the thriving agro-economy of this region was sustained by communal amity between Jats and Muslims, which was rudely disturbed by the 2013 riots. The riots were so ugly and widespread that they changed the way people perceived the political landscape of the state. The BJP benefited from a fierce communal polarisation, getting all the Hindu votes and made caste-based parties look like a joke. Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal, BSP and SP all got a serious drubbing in the general elections in 2014. BSP, whose support base of Dalits is supposed to be rock solid, too, found to its mortification its voters gravitating towards the BJP. SP leader Akhilesh Yadav accused the BSP of helping the BJP by shifting its votes. BSP is the only party that has a reputation of parleying its Dalit votes from one party to another.

This time around, the communal polarisation that the BJP was hoping to benefit from was tripped by two factors: the ire of the Jat community that was upset with the ruling party for not granting them reservation plus the police crackdown on their agitating brethren in the neighbouring state of Haryana. During a recent visit to this part of the state by this writer, it became clear that the Jats were experiencing a loss in influence after they were co-opted in the larger in Hindu fold of the BJP. Worse, they felt that they had been used and cast aside by the ruling party. A recent audio tape of a meeting between BJP chief Amit Shah and Jat leaders revealed the desperation of the party’s top leadership for the community’s vote, which Shah chose to describe as “ biradari”. Post poll reports suggest that Jats in big numbers voted for the Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal.

The other reason why the BJP is facing a stiff challenge is due to the Congress-SP alliance that is seen as an attempt to replicate the Bihar model of Gathbandhan. BJP candidates that would have benefited from the splitting of the anti-BJP vote four ways will find the alliance getting a bulk of the votes. BSP, which has worked hard to get this vote, could find this vote deserting them. BJP supporters, though, claim vigorously that their fight is against the BSP- to confuse those voters that don’t want BJP to come to power. The absence of a wave is confusing everyone, but what cannot be denied is the strong presence of the BJP in many areas. This is despite the fact that demonetisation has destroyed small businesses and the farming sector. What is really remarkable, though, in Western UP is that the criticism of cash ban policy of the government has acquired a communal colour. Minorities in Deoband were vociferous in their criticism of the note ban whereas Hindu supporters of the BJP did not shy away from extolling the virtues of demonetisation. As the election to the state goes through the motions, there would be greater clarity on who is fighting whom. By the look of it, the electoral contest could narrow down: the SP-Congress alliance will be squaring-off against the BJP. If the alliance succeeds then it would be one more step forward in the Congress’s journey to regain relevance.

A political observer pointed out, either all the five states would go in the same direction or the BJP will take them all. BJP will be wise to prepare for the Ides of March.  

Editor of Delhi's Hardnews magazine and author of Bad Money Bad Politics- the untold story of Hawala scandal.

Read more stories by Sanjay Kapoor

This story is from print issue of HardNews