BJP’s Class Card
Will the party’s attempt to drive a wedge between the rich and the poor work?
IN MAY 2014, WHEN NARENDRA MODI became prime minister in a landslide victory, several commentators compared him to free market icons such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. With Modi’s slogan of “minimum government, maximum governance”, he was taken to be a messianic moderniser, a neo-liberal who would unleash unparalleled privatisation, free market liberalisation and deregulation.
Today, halfway through his first term as prime minister, he confounds both his conservative admirers and liberal detractors when they discover a radically different Modi—a prime minister who describes the demonetisation drive as redistributive justice, as a class war unleashed against the corrupt elite flaunting their black money. The enigmatic Modi echoes Indira Gandhi who, in her Garibi Hatao (eradicate poverty) avatar, used her executive power to nationalise 14 banks in one broad sweep. Indira Gandhi did it to silence and purge ‘the Syndicate’, her conservative critics within the Congress. Modi proletarianised himself with a revolutionary rhetoric to undercut an Opposition that charges him with running a suit boot ki sarkar (government of the rich).
In Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s phrase, Modi is carrying out a “passive revolution”, using state power to reshape a hegemonic role for the prime minister, by disrupting old ruling class coalitions and attempting to build an “organic coalition” with the masses. Will such
new strategies disrupt the traditional caste and class allegiances and fetch votes in UP and other states?
DEMONETISATION IMPACT IS THE KEY
The answer to that question may lie in the timing of the demonetisation drive. It was three months before the five assembly elections in 2017, particularly the bellwether state of Uttar Pradesh. The humiliating defeat for the BJP in Bihar in 2015 meant that the stakes in neighbouring UP became very high. UP has also become symbolically important for Modi since he became an MP in 2014 from the key constituency of Varanasi. A defeat in this key state would mean the unravelling of the PM’s mystique of being the prime vote-getter for the party, crimping his ability to carry out reforms in the remaining years of his tenure. Conversely, a victory in UP in 2017 would bring the 2019 Lok Sabha elections within the BJP’s reach and build momentum for Modi’s return as prime minister for a second term.
The demonetisation drive was, therefore, unleashed as a political strategy to expand the BJP’s support base, mainly in the Hindi heartland, by creating a class divide to override the previous identity divide of religion and caste. In 2014, Modi used the economic development plank to come to power and win 71 out of 80 seats in UP. In 2017, Modi again projects himself in radical economic terms, but as the messiah of the poor fighting the venal elite. According to some political analysts, Modi’s purpose has always been to replace ethnicity with class and vikaas (economic development). Caste divides have helped regional parties like the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party win one election after another in UP ever since 2002. The BJP has been out of power in the state for the past 14 years. Modi likes to compare it to Ram, Sita and Lakshman’s 14 years of vanvaas (exile).
Will the gamble of demonetisation work in UP? BJP state president Keshav Prasad Maurya seemed confident and told india today: “The notebandi [demonetisation] campaign is directed at destroying the corrupt big traders and their fat wealth and helping the poor masses.” Maurya believes that with the twin planks of demonetisation and surgical strikes on terror launchpads in PoK, the BJP is poised to get over 300 seats in UP.
That’s why BJP president Amit Shah, while addressing the party’s national executive on January 6, stressed that “demonetisation was a pro-poor measure”. And the BJP, well aware that the currency ban has led to short-term pain for the aam aadmi, has decided to gamble with declaring demonetisation and the surgical strikes as the party’s main plank for the assembly elections in the five states, including UP. The two issues, BJP leaders believe, are a potent combination: while surgical strikes bolster patriotism and
nationalism, demonetisation, despite being criticised as bad economics by most economists, may yet prove to be good politics.
Demonetisation, after all, shifts the BJP’s agenda from a past obsession with Hindutva issues, such as gau raksha (cow protection) and mandir, to core economics and corruption-free development, thereby marginalising the fringe elements of the Sangh Parivar. Moreover, if Modi’s bumper Parivartan rally on January 2 in Lucknow is anything to go by, he could use the forthcoming Union Budget as a force multiplier for the BJP in the state, with announcement of sops and subsidies for the poor.
CLASSES VERSUS MASSES
The ground reports on Modi’s demonetisation gambit are mixed. Meet Brajesh Kumar, the pradhan of Pandit Purwa village in Colonelganj tehsil, Gonda district. Kumar had been officially charged, after regular complaints by labourers that he withheld their MGNREGA wages for months. Once demonetisation was announced, Kumar paid all the labourers in advance up to Holi of 2017 in old Rs 500 and 1,000 notes.
The happy labourers withdrew their complaint against Kumar. All the labourers of this economically backward region love demonetisation. As one of them put it: “A godsend from heaven right before Holi.”
In the other neighbouring districts of eastern UP, such as Kushinagar, Ballia and Mau, the investigation department of the income tax unit of Lucknow has frozen over 500 Jan Dhan accounts where over Rs 10,000 was credited overnight. Labourers who got the money in their Jan Dhan accounts were thrilled when the prime minister announced at a rally that nothing should be returned to those who had deposited black money in Jan Dhan accounts.
Hari Singh from Aminabad in Lucknow runs a wholesale dealership in medicines. He would pay regular commissions in cash to six doctors, anywhere between Rs 30,000 and Rs 1 lakh a month, for prescribing medicines from his shop. Demonetisation, he claims, has destroyed him. Since he can no longer pay commissions to the doctors, they have ceased to generate business for him. Sales are down. “Modi’s notebandi has ruined me. I have no food to eat these days,” claims Singh.
In Lucknow, this is the wedding season, but despite the cash crunch caused by demonetisation, lavish pandals decorated with chandeliers, lights and reams of flowers dot the city. Alcohol, gilauti and tunday kebabs and a gala dinner await hundreds of guests invited to such weddings. At one such wedding, an ardent BJP supporter confesses, “The party has lost the plot. With surgical strikes, the BJP had united the country and become the number one party in UP. With demonetisation wreaking havoc in the local economy and dividing the country, the BJP has lost its initial edge in the polls.”
Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav believes that demonetisation will prove a disaster for Modi and the BJP in the upcoming polls. He told
india today: “The entire informal sector industry in cities like Moradabad, which dealt in cash, has been destroyed. Agriculture has been badly affected all over the state.” Asked if the SP had been affected politically, he joked: “We are thrilled since it has compelled us to return to our cycles [SP’s poll symbol] since there is no cash to buy petrol or diesel.”
Despite Akhilesh’s confidence, the results of a major pre-election survey done by india today-Axis may gladden BJP supporters. The poll suggests that the projection of demonetisation as a class war against the venal elite and the BJP’s neo-Mandal politics may give it greater dividends in the forthcoming assembly polls. The survey, carried out in December in four states (UP, Punjab, Goa and Uttarakhand) of the five going to the polls in February-March, has predicted the BJP as the frontrunner in three of these states. The party is poised to form governments in three (UP, Uttarakhand and Goa) of the four states polled in the survey, with only Punjab projected to fall to the Congress party.
In UP, the survey predicts, the BJP is likely to get 206 to 216 seats out of 403, above the halfway mark of 202. The survey also asked voters to respond on key issues, such as demonetisation and development. Over three-quarters (76 per cent) of those surveyed in UP said demonetisation was good, although 58 per cent admitted they had faced problems because of the move. Demonetisation seems to be good politics, a vote-getter for the BJP, the survey shows.
BJP’S NEW SOCIAL ENGINEERING
The radical shift from neo-liberalism to redistributive populism by the prime minister has not come with the demonetisation drive alone. Modi has also restructured the BJP’s political sociology by reconfiguring its caste arithmetic through large-scale social engineering. The stranglehold of Brahmins and Baniyas in the party hierarchy is now history.
Politics is a game of strategic interaction, whereby one’s move on the chessboard is greatly influenced by that of the opponent’s. So to combat the Mandal-inspired Third Front politics in the Hindi heartland, Modi has adopted the new Mandal avatar. During fierce political competition, the optimum strategy is to defeat your opponent by co-opting his best strategy. As a result, half of the BJP chief ministers and a majority of its newly elected presidents in the states are from the OBC community.
Modi’s January 2 rally in Lucknow showcased key OBC leaders. Among them were Uma Bharti, cabinet minister and MP from Jhansi; former BSP leader Swami Prasad Maurya, who defected to the BJP; Anupriya Patel, Apna Dal leader and the youngest minister in Modi’s cabinet; and the BJP’s UP president, Keshav Prasad Maurya. They are all part of the non-Yadav-OBC coalition that the BJP is attempting to forge, particularly in the economically backward eastern UP region.
However, the BJP still lacks a chief ministerial face in this crucial state, the same blunder it committed when it lost the 2015 assembly election in Bihar. As in Bihar, most political advisors handling UP for the party are from outside the state. A Bihari versus bahari (outsider) divide had doomed the BJP in 2015. Will the imposition of outsiders on the state’s politics alienate the people of UP too? Aware of such a danger, the BJP has, of late, begun replacing leaders from outside with locals.
Modi, though, remains critical to the BJP’s success in UP. He is neither afraid to use his bully pulpit role as prime minister to tame unregulated business through income-tax raids—again an Indira Gandhi throwback—nor is he shy of announcing a slew of populist measures, such as the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana for free LPG cylinders, Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana, or financial inclusion for the poor via Jan Dhan bank accounts. The BJP is busy using sops and subsidies to bag votes, exactly as the Congress and the other regional parties did in the past.
A caste break-up of the vote share by the india today-Axis survey for UP shows that while the BJP is likely to retain 61 per cent of upper caste voters (its traditional votebank), its popularity among the non-Yadav-OBCs (particularly the Kurmi,
Maurya communities) is a high 53 per cent—better than all contending parties. The BJP’s penetration among the OBC community in UP, minus the creamy layer of the Yadavs, is the singlemost important reason behind its soaring popularity in 2017.
It was the OBC communities that had brought the BJP to power for the first time in UP, between 1991 and 1992, and later between 1997 and 1999, under the charismatic OBC leader Kalyan Singh. Rajnath Singh, as UP chief minister between 2000 and 2002, had tried to implement the quota-within-quota formula of social engineering, which ensured affirmative action for these ati pichhra (extremely backward castes, EBCs), minus the creamy layer of Yadavs. However, in the last 14 years, especially between 2002 and 2014, the BJP had gradually lost the OBC votebank, leading to the party’s decline in the state. It is precisely this 14-year power hiatus in UP that Modi hopes will end in 2017 with its samajik samrasta (social churning) as the new electoral mantra.
BSP, SP FORMIDABLE CHALLENGERS
Yet while the pre-election survey appears positive for the BJP in UP, the party faces a formidable challenge both from the BSP and the ruling SP. On January 2, when the Supreme Court declared that eliciting votes in the name of religion and caste would lead to an election being declared null and void, BSP leader Mayawati, a quintessential protester, summoned a press conference in Lucknow to declare her community-wise candidate list: her party had given 87 tickets to Dalits, 97 to Muslims, 106 to OBCs and the majority 113 to the upper castes. In contrast to the BJP’s attempt to junk upper caste supporters in favour of OBCs, the BSP, a Dalit party, was ironically luring the upper castes by giving them the maximum tickets, followed by OBCs, Muslims and
Dalits. When asked if the upper castes would abandon the BJP for the BSP, BSP spokesperson Sudhindra Bhadoria replied: “Is there space for the upper castes in a newly Mandalised BJP? What choice do the upper castes have other than allying with Behenji [Mayawati], who welcomes them with open arms?” Will Muslims abandon the SP? “What choice do Muslims have in western UP after the Muzaffarnagar riots?” retorted Bhadoria. Confident of its Dalit base, the BSP is busy stitching a new rainbow coalition of upper castes, Most Backward Castes (MBCs) and Muslims.
The india today-Axis pre-election survey shows that 14 per cent of the Muslim voters and 15 per cent of the OBC voters, minus the Yadavs, support the BSP even before the distribution of tickets. If Mayawati, with her higher seat allocation to the MBCs and Muslims, is able to change the caste arithmetic and the algebra of alliances, can she beat the BJP and the SP, as she did in 2007? That remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, given the possibility of a pre-poll alliance between the Congress and the Akhilesh Yadavled SP, the survey figures provide an alternative narrative. The SP’s projected vote share of 26 per cent and the Congress’s 6 per cent add up to 32 per cent—1 per cent below the BJP’s projected vote share of 33 per cent. However, in a game of alliances, the product is more than the sum of its parts, as seats tend to grow exponentially vis-a-vis the vote share. A united SP in alliance with the Congress is a formidable combination that could well arrest the BJP’s surge in the state. Akhilesh Yadav termed it as a “right combination for securing 300 seats”.
Asked what would be the modality of the united SP-Congress coalition, Congress legislature party leader Pradeep Mathur said: “A very simple formula with no hiccups. In the first round, the Congress would get seats according to its sitting 28 MLAs. In the second round, according to the number of seats where Congress stood second in 2012. The third round would require some friendly negotiations; same formula for the SP’s seat distribution.”
After his success at defeating the BJP, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar had said that only a Biharstyle mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) across the ideological spectrum can stop the BJP’s surge in 2017. The BJP gains from any and all disunity in the secular camp, like from the division of votes between the SP, BSP and the Congress in UP.
In a multi-cornered contest, only a united Opposition can stall the BJP’s expansion in UP. The survey predicts that a united SP, in alliance with the Congress and Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal, can arrest the rising tide of the BJP. If the SP-Congress-RLD coalition fails to materialise, can the BSP arrest the BJP’s surge? The BJP’s inroads among the OBCs are not matched by its penetration among the Dalit voters. According to the survey, 68 per cent of the Dalit voters are loyal to the BSP. Only 15 per cent of Dalits, mainly from the Pasi and Khatik castes, support the BJP.
Since campaigns are still to unfold on the ground and major alliances yet to be worked out, such questions remain open. In the final analysis, the Opposition parties must realise the import of Nitish Kumar’s warning: united we stand, divided we fall.
BJP SUPPORTERS AT PM MODI’S PARIVARTAN RALLY IN LUCKNOW ON JANUARY 2
PRIME MINISTER NARENDRA MODI WITH TOP BJP LEADERS AT THE JANUARY 2 RALLY IN LUCKNOW