Prime Minister Narendra Modi
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath (File) Image Credit: PTI

A complete image makeover for India's Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is on the cards as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) continues its laser like focus on elections - specifically in the biggest and most critical battle of Uttar Pradesh (UP) - the polls for which are due in eight months.

Despite the horrific toll of COVID-19, particularly in UP (with bodies floating in the River Ganges/Ganga) the Rashtriya Swamsevak Sangh (RSS), the mothership of the Sangh parivar, feels that the big battle for UP can still be won if the BJP takes “concrete steps” in Lucknow, UP's capital, to win some brownie points for the Yogi Adityanath-led BJP government.

All this and other upcoming elections were on the menu at a top-level meeting on May 23 which was attended by Modi, union home minister Amit Shah, BJP president J P Nadda and the newly appointed RSS number two Dattatreya Hosabale, alongside UP organisational in-charge Sunil Bansal, who is Shah’s key aide in the all-important UP affairs. Significantly, Yogi Adityanath was not part of this key meeting.

Anxious about UP

The BJP is particularly anxious about UP which it has won twice and which is the Indian state with the biggest political heft with 80 Lok Sabha seats. Modi is the MP from Varanasi and is fully aware of UP stakes as the kingmaker in Indian politics.

The oldest political wisdom in the book is that the path of power to New Delhi lies through Lucknow.

Sources say that Hosbole becoming the CEO of the Sangh, replacing Bhaiyyaji Joshi is advantage Modi since the two have worked together and have an excellent personal rapport.

Hosabale, who is 66, is younger than Modi, 70 and is entirely aligned to Modi and Shah’s political goals - key to which is a third victory in UP.

The RSS is fully supportive of Modi and has conveyed that the Centre has to step in and contain the COVID-19 catastrophe that UP is facing. The optics of dead bodies floating on the Ganga is an image that has to be immediately replaced.

The recent panchayat polls which saw the BJP doing badly in key constituencies of Varanasi and Lucknow have also got the the party in “damage control” mode. While, there is still no countdown to Yogi Adityanath’s removal, the central BJP via Bansal and Shah will certainly be watching the Chief Minister's administration carefully in the run up to the UP elections.

The BJP is sanguine about its deep pockets in running a campaign that will be bigger than West Bengal elections. The usual strategies of undercutting the opposition by fielding “B” teams to take polarisation to extremes and also to cut in to the vote banks of the two regional parties is on the anvil.

The Owasi factor

Interestingly, Asaduddin Owaisi, the national president of the of the All India Majlis e Ittehad ul Muslimeen has announced that he and his party will be contesting UP elections.

Owaisi has already tried his luck in the 2017 UP elections and that outing at the hustings was completely lacklustre. Owaisi's party is considered a “vote katua” (vote cutter) in Indian political parlance.

With the Samajwadi Party doing well in the panchayat polls, the BJP will be looking to cut in to the SP's Muslim vote bank.

Akhilesh Yadav, SP chief - for whom 2022 will be a make or break election - post his two defeats is looking at ensuring the least amount of polarisation and keeping his Yadav/OBC vote-bank intact.

The non-Yadav OBC’s in UP had previously voted for the BJP in huge numbers but, are currently disenchanted with the Adityanath's government which is popularly believed to run a “Thakur Raj”.

The other regional party heavy weight, Mayawati, the chief of the Bahujan Samaj party is - according to Priyanka Gandhi - acting as the “B team” of the BJP with her complete silence on COVID-19 mishandling.

BJP's B Team?

Sources say that Mayawati may even ally with the BJP but, is completely amenable to the Saffron party because of the anti-corruption cases against her.

The Centre, which controls the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), can dial up or dial down the status of the cases against Mayawati according to the political needs of the BJP.

The Congress party, under Priyanka Gandhi, who continues to be a helicopter leader is looking at an utterly fractured organisation and is trying to appeal to the upper caste Brahmin vote alongside the Dalit vote to make an impact in the UP polls.

The BJP is prepping accordingly. The takeaways from the Sunday meeting was to ensure an image upgrade of Modi with several trips to UP planned and a sharp watch over Yogi Adityanath’s handling of COVID-19.

Adityanath, who does not have a Sangh background, and is known to be difficult to handle, will be “gently” asked to tone up his administration.

A senior BJP leader says, “We know how important winning UP is for us. And, we will do everything it takes to ensure a win”.