The BJP needed a big-bang start to its election campaign in Uttar Pradesh and the induction of young Congress leader Jitin Prasada, who was perceived to be close to Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, may have helped it to conjure up that hype. But voters now know the cut and thrust of BJP’s electoral strategy; they have seen the crest of such an artificial wave generated by a massive exodus from Trinamool Congress leaders before the Bengal election. Suvendu Adhikari was a much bigger catch than Jitin Prasada and the accompanying media narrative about the consequences of Trinamool meltdown too was far greater than the Congress defector could whip up. The disastrous outcome in Bengal showed to the world the worth of storms in a teacup.
In fact, the BJP’s readiness to embrace defectors is showing its desperation. Their spectacular acrobatics of co-opting the likes of Congress errand boy Tom Vadakkan and Metro Man E Sreedharan in Kerala too evoked much media hype and yielded little electoral gain. Jitin, anyway, has not only lost his parliamentary seat twice, he failed to win even an assembly election in 2017.
Some people will say Uttar Pradesh is different. It is, indeed. The real big bang happened in Uttar Pradesh when Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath refused to quietly accept the diktats of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. Unconfirmed reports suggested an abortive plan to change the chief minister, apart from thrusting a bureaucrat close to Modi as deputy chief minister. Yogi thwarted these attempts with his characteristic nonchalance, triggering wild speculation about serious differences with the Modi-Shah duopoly, a situation that could adversely tell on the BJP’s campaign in the state.
If Yogi was sought to be cornered for Covid mismanagement in the state, he confronted Modi for the failures of the Central government and the performance of other BJP chief ministers in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Karnataka. Uttar Pradesh earned infamy because of the bodies floating in the Ganga and buried on its riverbanks, but no BJP-ruled state stood out as a model of excellence during the pandemic. No amount of whitewashing and diversionary ploys can erase the bitter memories of death and desperation over the past two years.
The people of Uttar Pradesh and those of Bihar were indisputably the worst sufferers during the unplanned lockdown last year and the wounds inflicted then are bound to influence voting patterns. There are fears of communal tension, expectations of dramatic diversions in political discourse and hopes of positivity emerging after the virus weakens but it would be naïve to presume that the election would be disconnected from the overall experience of the pandemic.
What is worse for the BJP is that the election is going to be more about Yogi Adityanath than Uttar Pradesh itself. The script is almost preordained: Yogi or not. The distinct style of Yogi’s governance, from encounters to the crackdown on anti-CAA protesters and threats of invoking the National Security Act against those who talked of the oxygen crisis, overrides all other aspects of politics in the state. An intolerant ruler, who responded with retributive punishment to a cry for oxygen, is bound to be judged by the voters in democracy.
There is no denying the fact that Yogi enjoys a committed vote-bank of hardcore Hindutva votaries but his performance on the economic front, social justice, as well as law and order, hasn’t been satisfactory either. The dilemma of the BJP’s central leadership is not unwarranted; it planned drastic changes in the leadership structure on valid grounds. But the RSS-BJP should have known it is not easy to deal with a rigid person like Yogi. Accidents can happen in the best-regulated systems and Uttar Pradesh is probably the first example where Modi-Shah don’t enjoy a free run.
Striking a synergy between the Central plan and the state apparatus won’t be very smooth now. Modi and Yogi would do well to patch up at the earliest by realising the critical importance of Uttar Pradesh, which sends 80 members to the Lok Sabha. After all, a beleaguered Yogi cannot dream of retaining power without the might of Modi and the RSS-BJP machinery, no matter how hard he pushes the Hindutva plank. The BJP will have to project a united face against an opposition that is fragmented and demoralised. While the Congress is still in a bad shape, the Samajwadi Party hasn’t shown any sign of getting into battle gear as yet. The less said the better about the Bahujan Samaj Party, whose leader Mayawati has been missing in action for the last five years.