After India’s ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) lost the prestigious West Bengal assembly election recently, it had the Central Bureau of Investigation arrest four minister of the winning party on corruption charges.
Had the BJP won the Bengal election, one can only imagine how much more assertive they would have been. Amidst a devastating second wave of COVID-19, a BJP victory in Bengal would have strengthened the sense that the BJP is an election winning machine no one can defeat, regardless of what happens to governance and economy.
In just eight months from now, we will have a bigger test on the same count. The Uttar Pradesh state assembly election is the second most important election in India, after the national election.
If the BJP wins UP again in February-March 2022, opposition parties, forces, voters and supporters will once again go into a depression of sorts. Even after the devastating COVID-19 second wave that saw dead bodies float in the Ganga river in UP, if the BJP wins the state election, the national opposition will all but give up.
Silver lining in the all-important state
If the BJP loses UP, the gainer will be the Samajwadi Party, led by the 47 year old Akhilesh Yadav. Even if it is a coalition government, an opposition victory in UP will rev up the enthusiasm of regional parties and opposition forces across India.
Even if Rahul Gandhi remains in his slumber, regional parties will take inspiration from UP and start articulating dreams of a ‘Third Front’ national government in 2024. There will be some semblance of a political opposition.
For this to happen, all responsibility is on Akhilesh Yadav. It is not going to be a cakewalk for him. The BJP is going to try its best in UP, doing everything it can to try and make voters forget COVID Second Wave. Here are some of the many hurdles Akhilesh Yadav has to cross.
Before the 2019 general elections, the Samajwadi Party did an alliance with the Dalit-led Bahujan Samaj Party and won two impossible Lok Sabha by-polls. This gave them the over-confidence that they are going to do well in the 2019 general elections.
It also gave the BJP a reality check, and ample time to prepare a counter-strategy. The BJP swept the state. Once again, the Samajwadis are feeling smug, thinking the BJP has been made so unpopular by COVID crisis that the reins of power are going to fall into the SP’s lap automatically. Nothing is automatic in politics, you’ve got to fight it out booth by booth.
2) Make it an Akhilesh election
Akhilesh Yadav is a rare leader in Uttar Pradesh whose image is of a leader above the narrow politics of caste and religion. He also earned the praise of even those who did not vote for him, with his governance initiatives in the 2015-17 period. But he has been reluctant to encash his ratings.
Instead, he prefers to campaign in the name of the party, which is his weak point. The Samajwadi Party is seen as a party of dominant Yadavs, which alienates the lower castes, and a party of minorities, which alienates the upper castes.
The situation is somewhat similar to that of Mamata Banerjee, who is herself popular but her party in Bengal is detested. So she asks for votes in her name, not the party’s. Akhilesh Yadav’s slogan in 2017 assembly elections was “Kaam Bolta Hai” (our work speaks for itself).
For the last few months, he has been saying “Baees Mein Bicycle” (Bicycle in 2022), a reference to his party symbol. Unless Akhilesh puts Akhilesh in the slogan, he’s not going to see the bicycle fly.
An Akhilesh personality cult election is the only way the SP can create a wave in its favour, thus turning it into an Akhilesh versus Everybody Else election. Otherwise it would be a noisy multipolar election helping the BJP win by dividing opposition votes.
3) Show voters the future
Voters cast their votes as an investment for the next five years. For someone who likes to focus on governance, Akhilesh Yadav hasn’t been selling UP a vision for the future. One of the country’s worst governed states, UP, is crying for hope.
Akhilesh Yadav’s pitch to voters in the last few years has been that he’s done a lot of work (‘Kaam Bolta Hai, 2017), or that he has a good caste coalition (2019 Lok Sabha elections) or that he SP is going to return to power (‘Baees Mein Bicycle’).
Where is the vision for the next 5 years? What voters wan t to hear from Akhilesh is how he will improve their lives in the next 5 years. Instead of 2022 he should be talking about governance goals for 2027.
4) Woo the lower castes
The Muslim-Yadav dominated Samajwadi Party, like many others, has a Brahmin obsession. Yet as caste politics goes, the BJP has been sweeping UP since 2014 thanks to a complete consolidation of the lower OBCs, castes below Yadavs in the hierarchy. These are also communities which resent Yadav domination in villages.
Except this time, they also feel cheated by BJP, which made an upper caste Thakur the chief minister. So the SP has a golden opportunity to mend fences with lower OBCs but it will take a lot more than just giving them good representation in ticket distribution (which everyone will do anyway).
5) Focus on reaching the last voter
There’s a viral video of Amit Shah, currently Home Minister of India, in which he credits WhatsApp groups for the BJP’s massive victory in Uttar Pradesh in 2017.
We can bet that even today, the Samajwadi Party’s WhatsApp architecture would be less than a tenth of the BJP’s. Be it social media or party workers or news channels, the BJP has a monopoly over ‘content distribution’ or voter outreach.
People don’t even get to know what the SP or other opposition parties are saying or offering. If voters get to hear only one side of the story, that one-sided story could persuade voters to vote BJP despite economic distress, COVID mess and other reasons for disenchantment.
It’s never too late for the SP to fix its voter outreach.