BJP’s Class Card

Will the party’s at­tempt to drive a wedge be­tween the rich and the poor work?

India Today - - INSIDE - By Ajit Ku­mar Jha

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?


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.


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.


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.


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.




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