The second and the more deadly Covid-19 wave earlier this year ravaged through the vast swathes in a little less than two months. The pandemic killed, maimed, and inflicted untold miseries on millions. The extent of damage wrought by the pathogen remains a matter of debate between experts and administrations. A task, which at best, has now been left to the historians.
But life and politics wait for none. As active cases dwindled by mid-May, the urgency of a post-Covid ground assessment became conspicuously evident to the political class – especially in states which would go to the polls in 2022.
And if the state in contention is Uttar Pradesh, then the stakes are eminently higher. Even here, as is generally the case in matters related to electioneering, the Bharatiya Janata Party BJP was first- off the block.
In one such stocktaking meeting held in the first week of June, a senior minister in Yogi Adityanath government touched upon a raw nerve. In presence of central observers, including BJP’s national general secretary in charge of the organization, BL Santosh, the minister reminded the audience of the 2018 by-poll defeat in Gorakhpur and Phulpur- the Lok Sabha seats vacated by the chief minister and his deputy Keshav Maurya.
The underlying message to those in attendance was abundantly clear: you can’t win the war with a demoralized army.
Perhaps realizing that one can’t even win wars with a demoralized general, the party has since moved to end all speculations over leadership issues in Uttar Pradesh. After months of bickering, the unambiguous message backing Yogi’s leadership came right from the top last month when Prime Minister Narendra Modi lauded the chief minister’s ‘unprecedented’ handling of the Covid crisis. The plaudits were soon endorsed by Home Minister Amit Shah.
An image makeover has concomitantly been in the works. The government has sought to reach out to the poor by promising free ration and financial aid to those living below the poverty line and daily wagers.
But the biggest surprise this election season in UP thus far has been BJP’s audacious caste pitch on the hustings.
The net practice to build its own model of ‘samajik nyay‘ began with Prime Minister Modi’s recent cabinet expansion. The party has since made it a point to underscores its caste credentials by showcasing the proportional representation offered to backward and Dalit communities in the union council of ministers.
The reiteration of the political intent came in the form of the cabinet nod clearing the way for 27% OBC reservations in medical entrance tests under AIQ or All India Quota.
The build-up in UP thus defies political notions and theories that BJP does best in a communally polarized polity; while an election contested on caste lines tends to suit the regional parties.
BJP’s growing confidence to face the 2022 polls on a heady mix of social justice perhaps stems from the party’s success in winning almost 80 percent of Lok Sabha seats in the last general elections. The victory against the combined strength of Mandal parties by mopping up close to 50 percent of the votes polled has encouraged the saffron brotherhood to experiment further in its efforts to bring disparate social groups – from upper castes to backwards to Dalits – under an overarching umbrella of Hindu nationalism.
This new caste calculus also stems from an underlying presumption that in the prevailing political situation, the upper castes will stick to the BJP despite the government’s performance on the economic front. Moreover, by extending 10 percent reservations to Economically Weaker Sections EWS, the Modi government has sought to assuage its core support base.
For the opposition, BJP’s shrill caste pitch is an opportunity to open another front to engage the ruling party. Both Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party have taken precocious steps to woo Brahmins which constitute the biggest voting block in UP after Muslims and Jatavs.
Treading with extreme caution this time around, the Samajwadi Party for one has been hopping and skipping so as not to get ensnared in any issue that may engender polarization on religious lines. Taking a cue from Rashtriya Janata Dal’s campaign during Bihar assembly polls last year, Akhilesh Yadav is priming the pumps for the last few rounds closer to the elections.
This election, SP’s prospects hinge on the party’s ability to build an alternative social coalition by offering high-value promissory notes to the Most Backward Castes among the OBCs. Most of these communities have drifted towards BJP since 2014. BJP is seeking to consolidate them further. Six out of seven ministers inducted in the Modi cabinet recently are either non-Yadav OBCs or non-Jatav Dalits.
Can Samajwadi Party propose a better deal to Rajbhars and Nonia-Chauhans of eastern UP, Maurya’s and Koeris in the West or the various tribes of boatmen or nishaads living by the Ganges and its myriad tributary to emerge as the prime challenger and repository of non-BJP votes in the state?
The Congress party, after registering its worst-ever performance in 2017 Assembly polls is still trying to find its feet. Its organization remains in tatters. Amidst talks of polls strategist Prashant Kishor’s formal entry into the party, the Congress has announced a mass contact program beginning the third week of August to reach out to 90 lakh people across 30 thousand villages. The Congress needs to shed its image of a party of absentee landlords.
The BSP, however, remains the elephant in the room for both SP and BJP. Mayawati’s Brahmin pitch is a source of discomfiture to the BJP. The Dalit czarina can hurt SP even more by fielding a large number of Muslim candidates. A hung Assembly in 2022 appears to be the best-case scenario for the BSP giving Mayawati enough elbow room to survive and fight another day.
The floating votes, especially the MBCs this time around, are waiting and watching for the parties jostling to knit winning combinations and narrative. Bonanza bids from key players will open up later this year, sometime after Diwali.
Everyone wants to end up on the winning side. Or at least be seen to have helped the winner take it all.
(Sumit Pande is a contributing editor with India Ahead News. The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author.)