Akhilesh Yadav
Samajwadi Party (SP) chief Akhilesh Yadav Image Credit: ANI

The Uttar Pradesh assembly elections make it clear that the Modi wave of 2014 is still intact in India’s largest and politically most important state, seven years later.

It didn’t have to be this way. There are enough and more reasons why the Samajwadi Party could have won this election and made history. But history will find them wanting in their efforts. The substantial increase in the Samajwadi Party’s vote share and seats is not really due to their own efforts but because of the decline of the other opposition parties.

The people of Uttar Pradesh are experiencing both high inflation and high unemployment. They have gone through terrible and deadly Covid waves. The Bahujan Samaj Party and the Congress have both declined so substantially that this election felt like the first bi-polar election since at least 1991. The Samajwadi Party had so much going for it, and yet lost. Here’s why.

No social engineering

The BJP’s dominance over Uttar Pradesh comes from an alliance of the upper castes with all OBCs (the middle castes) except Yadavs. The Yadavs are a core vote base of the Samajwadi Party.

The non-Yadav OBCs, said to be around 35% population, are the kingmakers in UP. Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself comes from this strata of society, albeit from Gujarat. These communities resent the dominance of the Yadavs, and that has been a big part of their affinity to the BJP. In fact, the BJP has been working on these communities since the early ‘90s.

In 2017, the BJP projected an OBC leader, Keshav Prasad Maurya, as their local face in the state, leading people to believe he was the chief ministerial candidate. After the party won a massive 312 of 403 seats, they made an upper caste leader, Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister.

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At this point, the Samajwadi Party needed to have used the opportunity to create a new connect with the lower OBCs. Doing so would have needed raising issues dear to them, wooing their leaders and workers, expanding the party into their neighbourhoods, honouring their icons, and so on. One heard, in between, the SP supports the building of a statue of a Brahmin leader but no such effort for lower OBCs.

In short, the SP needed to do what is known as “social engineering”. For example, it could have created ‘bhaichara’ or ‘brotherhood’ committees between various castes within the party. The SP thought simply giving more tickets to lower OBCs would be enough. But the BJP does the same, you know.

The SP could have done a mass agitation demanding a caste census or even a sub-quota in reservations for lower OBCs, but any such bold move from the SP was not forthcoming.

With the apparent decline of the Dalit-led Bahujan Samaj Party, Akhilesh Yadav also had an opportunity to woo Dalit voters. Incidents like the race and murder of a Dalit woman in Hathras could have been the moments to do such an outreach but Akhilesh Yadav allowed Priyanka Gandhi to steal the show on such occasions.

Akhilesh Yadav doesn’t believe in permanent campaign

Samajwadi Party leaders blame the pandemic, Covid restrictions and the BJP government’s eagerness to take criminal action against dissenters as the reason why it was not very proactive in taking on the Yogi Adityanath government.

Rural voters were blaming the Yogi government for holding panchayat elections during a deadly Covid second wave. Urban voters were blaming the Yogi government for shortage of oxygen and hospital beds.

There have been many high-profile incidents of crime. But none of this moved the Samajwadi Party to put up any strong campaign or agitation that would go beyond tweets, press releases and press conferences.

Even within the Samajwadi Party, people would wonder why Akhilesh Yadav never seems to leave Lucknow. Yet the issue is not so much about ‘hard work’ or travelling the districts. It is about a mindset that believes campaigning is what you do only when elections are 2-3 months away. The BJP believes in permanent campaigning. Every single day, the BJP wants to win the war over the voter’s hearts and minds.

The result of this lack of permanent campaign is that Akhilesh Yadav has eroded his own political capital. People were talking about SP more than Akhilesh. In the BJP’s case, the conversation centred around Modi and Yogi.

Poor positive campaign

The BJP’s campaign focused around free ration and a decrease in crime. It was also very negative, attacking the Samajwadi Party over ‘dynasty’ and dog whistle attacks over ‘terrorism’. But door-to-door, it was about free ration and crime.

The Samajwadi Party’s campaign was more negative than positive. It focused on why people should not vote for the BJP, targeting inflation and unemployment. Its promises, like 300 units of free electricity, could not even become a matter of debate.

The BJP didn’t even feel the need to respond. Whether it was Akhilesh Yadav’s speeches or the Muslim-Yadav supporter on the streets, the sentiment was against BJP but not for SP’s promises.

In 2017, the BJP’s promise of a farm loan waiver was part of the reason why they were able to create a groundswell in their favour. Recently, Tejashwi Yadav’s repeated promise of 10 lakh jobs made Bihar elections 2020 too close for Nitish Kumar’s comfort. In UP this last month, there was no promise by SP that could make voters switch from BJP.

Absence of last mile communication

If the Samajwadi Party’s promises didn’t reach the voter, it’s not just because Akhilesh Yadav’s speeches didn’t dwell enough upon them. It’s also because the party did a poor job of reaching out to voters. Its party cadre strength is a fraction of the BJP’s. 

It doesn’t do enough ground activity to catch media attention and then blames the media for not giving it space. Its social media networks are a small echo chamber.

The SP had enough time to fix this — seven years now — but they have made little progress. The party was able to create an impression of strength by showing large numbers of people attending Akhilesh Yadav’s rallies. But Omicron restrictions took that away.

This gave the BJP an advantage thanks to its 20 workers per village, social media dominance and easy media coverage.