The thumping victory of the BJP in UP puts aside the narratives of double anti-incumbency against the double engine government. In fact, brand Yogi and augmented brand Modi are reflected in the increased vote share of the BJP compared to the last Assembly elections. Apart from breaking the anti-incumbency factor, this election would be remembered by analysts and the public for the many lessons and trends that unfolded.
The emergence of beneficiary-centred development politics, increased significance of women voters, the emergence of Muslims and Yadavs as the neo-untouchables, the invisibilisation of the Dalit agenda and the preponderance of the virtual political sphere defined the election.
The BJP is known for its ability to generate new political constructs. The entire campaign of the party revolved around a new class of beneficiary. The poorest of the poor constituted the backbone of this class and it seemed to have thrown its weight behind the BJP in this election. Beneficiary as a political identity is yet to be established but in this election, it did help the BJP checkmate the political alliance of its prime opponent, the SP. A promise of freebies and direct cash transfers are prime components of this development narrative. It is a political benefit that creates a perception of care and benevolence without giving any political agency. The tall claims of multiple freebies by all political parties further legitimised this trend. Freebies as the desired economic benefit is the easiest way to create a spectacle of development and the BJP mastered it.
The way parties appealed to women remains significant in this election. From election tickets to reservation in jobs to a greater share in government schemes and freebie distribution, women remained at the centre of political campaigns of almost all big parties. Polling booths were thronged by women of all castes, classes and religions. While all parties attempted to address women, we see that it is the BJP that succeeded in pulling them towards itself. The BJP’s campaign of safety and security, a riot-free state, distribution of rations, home, gas cylinders and other benefits in their name seems to have struck a chord with the women voters.
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The one significant result of the bipolar contest between the BJP and the SP-RLD alliance was the sidelining of Dalits. They have around a 21% share in population and remained a significant player in the politics of the state for almost two decades. While Dalit voters were on the radar of almost all parties, their agenda seemed to be missing from manifestos. The BJP tried to appease them by highlighting their beneficiary status in a lot of government schemes while the SP simply relied on the winnability score against the saffron party to attract Dalits. The Congress was seen making a direct contact with Dalits by reaching out to those in need prior to the actual election campaign. The increasing atrocities against Dalits in the state, the educational, social and cultural disadvantage that they have in accessing benefits, the dying occupation of many of these communities and the discrimination they face was not addressed by any party in the election. The BSP, which once championed the cause of Dalits, largely remained silent and made no attempt to either consolidate its support base or raise their concerns. In the absence of the BSP, the Dalits seemed to have preferred the BJP over the SP that remained their arch-rival during the heydays.
We also saw a forceful consolidation of Muslims voters behind the SP. While this benefited the party by adding to its winnability perception, it also kept the communal sentiments of Jats and Dalits alive, especially in western UP. The communal polarisation that started before the Muzaffarnagar riots could not be addressed by the farmer’s movement and we see a large number of Jats, Lodhs, Sainis and Dalits voting in favour of the BJP. The hijab controversy during the election also seemed to have accentuated the communal bifurcation of voters in western UP. Likewise, the inter-community differences between the Yadavs and other OBC communities, and between Yadavs and Dalits, worked against the SP. The alliance could only partly reap the benefit of OBC leaders who joined its bandwagon just before the election. The image of Yadavs as a community of goons was propagated by the BJP. And the party succeeded in taking this image to the ground through its aggressive campaign. The Muslims and Yadavs, the vocal BJP critics, became the new political untouchables in the state.
Due to the ban on election rallies, this poll was primarily fought through the media in the domain of the virtual political sphere. This election was unique in terms of the technology-centric reach. People were hearing their leaders on television, YouTube and other social media platforms. There was an almost one-sided dissemination of information from the leaders and parties that went on to create perceptions. While it worked against smaller parties, this gave a huge advantage to the BJP, which has the strongest media presence. There is no comparison to the BJP when it comes to passing information through the media. The hold of upper classes and castes, the key supporters of the BJP, over information and technology also explains the ease of the party in expanding its reach and influence over social and other media.
The BJP would go on to set records in elections due to its ability to feel the pulse of the voters and, more importantly, mould the public perception. The frame is set by the BJP and other parties only play within that frame, even when that puts them in a disadvantageous position. Until an alternative vision of democracy, participation and development is created, it would remain impossible to break the BJP’s hold.
Shilp Shikha Singh
Assistant Professor, Giri Institute of Development Studies