Travelling through Uttar Pradesh covering the first and last phase of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in western and eastern UP respectively, it was clear that caste would play a big role. The two main political groups, the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance and the Bharatiya Janata Party, represent the Other Backward Caste-Dalits, and the upper castes respectively. The Congress had decided to focus only on a few seats where its leaders were contesting. These included Amethi, Raebareli, Fatehpur Sikri and Maharajganj, among another dozen seats.
Did Hindutva trump caste?
With final numbers coming in, was caste trumped by Hindutva, or did voters want to give Modi a second chance? Going by the people one met and talked to, it seems more of the latter.
First, it appeared that most SP-BSP voters were clear they would vote for the gathbandhan (alliance), as caste power means rewards for the community. In a society where access to education, jobs and even development projects are beholden to caste leaders in power, it’s no surprise that caste groups vote their leaders.
However, going by the numbers in UP, it seems the Dalits and OBCs have trumped caste and voted for Narendra Modi’s BJP. There could be several reasons.
For the first time, while there was chatter about discrimination in getting welfare schemes with the upper castes being favoured, the word was also out that here’s a prime minister who talks of toilets and housing for the poor, Ayushman medical insurance cards and gas cylinders, has delivered some of them, in some of the places. Just holding an Ayushman card reassured a lot of people, even though they were yet to use it.
Of course, one also heard a Zila Parishad head say that orders had come in six months before elections to ensure deliveries of social schemes were speeded up and reached targeted villages and towns. So, even while deliveries may have been erratic, word had gone around that these schemes were available and working on the ground. This turned out to be a winner. Significantly, all the schemes were seen as a gift from Modi and the Centre—bypassing state government and leaders. It is also this precision of mapping out regions, constituencies, districts for the swift delivery of schemes and payouts of subsidies that have won party president Amit Shah the label of “election machine”.
The verdict need not be a testimonial to the triumph of Hindutva as people I met in villages and towns were not necessarily communal. But many (not SP-BSP voters) dreaded the return of “Behenji” (Mayawati) or “Bhaiyya” (Akhilesh Yadav), with “Muslims would then strut around” being a common refrain. The resentment created between communities because of “appeasement politics” by the SP-BSP—a misnomer as it did not in any way help in the upliftment of Muslims both socially and economically—did cloud the prospects of the SP-BSP alliance. Neither did nationalism or patriotic fervour grab emotions in the two regions (the Jats in western UP were more impressed), but there was a general appreciation that Modi had hit back at Pakistan with air strikes, and that it was a good thing, they believed.
Looking back, it seems the delivery of toilets, medical insurance and gas cylinders, with a dash of nationalism and Hindutva, gave Modi the magic formula to hit victory again.
Did the media help in making Modi prime minister again? This would be a question that can be answered only after insightful research. However, it can be said that there was no real counter-narrative against Modi in both big and popular media like television. Social media also played a formidable role—especially WhatsApp, bombarding you with facts. The constant whirring of images on television also added to an alluring Modi myth. Instead of investigative stories or in-depth reports on Modi’s governance, from demonetisation to the economy, there were just screaming debates on television, either with or against Modi.
If there’s anyone who has staved off the BJP, it is regional parties from the south to the east, from MK Stalin in Tamil Nadu to YS Jagan Mohan Reddy of the YSR Congress in Andhra Pradesh to Naveen Patnaik in Odisha. Reddy has been on a non-stop yatra for at least two years, covering the length and breadth of the state, and strategising his path with none other than Prashant Kishor, Modi’s once favourite pollster and strategist. The latter has been parked in the state for more than a year.
Stalin has reasserted Tamil dominance, though the BJP is expected to move in to take the place of Stalin’s rival, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which has been almost wiped out after its leader J Jayalalithaa’s demise.
Love them or loathe them, the fact is in the pitched campaign in the run-up to the election, many Opposition parties endorsed Congress party president Rahul Gandhi to lead them. After the disastrous results, has the time come to reinvent the Opposition’s strategy to Modi’s BJP? It couldn’t be more urgent than today.