Are we looking at a second BJP term in Uttar Pradesh?

Ajay Singh Bisht, popularly known as Yogi Adityanath, is about to end his debut tenure as Chief Minister (CM) of India’s most populous state. Formerly five times member of Parliament from Eastern Uttar Pradesh’s Gorakhpur district, where he also serves as the Mathadheesh (Head Priest) of famous Gorakhnath temple, is the latest Hindu Hriday Samrat. His strongly worded remarks such as Thok Denge (will shoot), Badla Lenge (will revenge) triggers a sense of masculinity or a sense of fear among people, depending on their religion, of course. His saffron robe, the title Yogi (mystic), and his persona further complement his politics.

In previous state assembly elections, which Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) won by a thumping majority, shocking all the observers, it had not declared any CM face. Pundits of politics speculated several names but Yogi was selected. His selection was another shock for many. Having no administrative experience, he was only famous for his inflammatory speeches, and for commanding his own paramilitary outfit called Hindu Yuva Vahini. Perhaps the most crucial factor in his selection was that he made even Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his henchman, India’s current Home Minister – Amit Shah, look moderate to some extent.

As the assembly elections are less than eight months due, news about internal tussle within the Bhartiya Janata Party has excited and alarmed observers of state’s politics. According to reports, Modi’s wish to nominate former Gujarat-cadre IAS officer Arvind Kumar Sharma as state’s deputy CM has caused tension between him and chief minister Yogi Adityanath. The two deputy’s of Yogi – Keshav Prasad Maurya and Dr Dinesh Sharma are both seasoned politicians, and command respect within the party. Maurya was the BJP state president when he was made Yogi’s deputy while Sharma has been known for his close ties with Narendra Modi as well as the top leaders of the Sangh Parivar. Whether or not are the reports true, only time will tell. There is no doubt that Yogi Adityanath and only him will be CM’s face in the elections ahead. As BJP relies on Hindutva ideology as a binding thread to unify the non-core caste groups under the Hindu identity, Yogi’s image of a Hindu hardliner makes him the ideal face.

The term non-core, meaning non-Jatav, non-Yadav, and non-Muslim electorates, came into parlance during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections when both Akhilesh Yadav led Samajwadi Party (SP) and Mayawati led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) teamed as coalition partners against the BJP but were defeated. The non-core accounting for about 60 percent of the total electorates in the state is the BJP’s target audience which the grand party mobilizes with a micro-managed electoral strategy and social engineering. Several election surveys have proved that non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav Dalits have voted en masse for BJP in consecutive elections since 2014, perhaps because they felt underrepresented in dominant Yadav-led and Jatav-led governments in past.

Nonetheless, BJP’s stronghold, the non-core, is akin to a boat with too many holes. In order to keep the boat afloat, those sailing it need to tap on each hole rather cautiously. The Jat community, comprising almost 27 percent of the total population in western Uttar Pradesh, who have been voting for BJP almost religiously since 2014 look rather disenchanted following the three farm bills and the protests against it. It is very likely that they might return to the young secularist Jayant Chaudhary led-Rashtriya Janata Dal. Ever since the farmers’ protest started, the Jat community has been participating in it overwhelmingly under the leadership of farmer leader and national spokesperson of Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU), Rakesh Tikait. If BJP fails to retain the support of Jats, the way to a second term is not going to be an easy ride.

Similarly, in eastern Uttar Pradesh, BJP found a partner in Om Prakash Rajbhar’s Suheldev Bhartiya Samaj Party (SBSP) in the previous election. However, just before the 2019 general elections, Rajbhar had publicly disassociated himself from BJP, ending the alliance. His party represents the Rajbhar (Bhar) community constituting around 18 percent of the Purvanchal population and wields influence in districts like Ghazipur, Mau, Varanasi, Ballia, and Maharajganj. This year, SBSP has announced an alliance with Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis e Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) and is further looking to bring other smaller parties along in a bid to form a third front government. Asaduddin Owaisi, on the other hand, is looking to win Muslim votes, cashing in on the window of distrust created by BJP’s unending persecution and the opposition party’s laziness.

As soon as Owaisi announced his plans of entering UP’s electoral contest, the news garnered excess coverage. Yogi reacted in an interview to Republic Media Network’s editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami by saying, “Owaisi is a big leader. He has a mass base in the country. […] But BJP accepts Owaisi’s challenge. I reiterate that BJP is going to form government in 2022 with a huge majority.” Several other media outlets, perhaps taking hints from Yogi himself, tried to turn the discussion into Yogi versus Owaisi. Nothing could be far from the truth. AIMIM might perform well in the election, but the fact remains that Samajwadi Party led by Akhilesh Yadav is the main challenger to BJP.

Perhaps, it would help BJP if the contest was bipolar, with Owaisi as the main opposition. That is why Yogi might have welcomed his entry. Accordingly, taking a cue from it, opposition leaders and some journalists started alleging Owaisi of helping BJP. The debunked lie used in previous elections that AIMIM is B team of BJP was brought back. One journalist, in her opinion piece, took it upon herself to prove that Asaduddin Owaisi was indeed BJP’s agent. She tried to rationalise her claim by pointing out that almost all opposition leaders are harassed, at the behest of the ruling BJP, by central government agencies like the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in order to intimidate. These agencies have never been unleashed on AIMIM’s president. Though at first look this argument looks fair but it is in fact a shot in the dark. It is similar to saying all those journalists whose names have not appeared on the Pegasus leaks are pro-government or all anti-CAA protestors who were not criminalised were BJP agents. It is but an unfair criticism.

That said, it also holds true that BJP will try to demonise Owaisi to polarise Hindu votes. It has been done in past. Just because India’s polity has underlying majoritarianism embedded in it, holding Owaisi accountable for it is unjust for many reasons. First of all, creating a monster-like image from a Muslim political figure has always been easy and more so now. Through delegitimising Owaisi, or any other Muslim political figure for that matter, what is essentially being conveyed is that this republic allows all groups and communities to form political organisations and contest elections except for Muslims. The option of creating a Muslim villain is always open and therefore it would be impossible for Muslims to form independent political organisations of their own. It reminds of what Professor Salman Saeed wrote in his best-seller book Recalling the Caliphate: Islamophobia is about making it impossible for a Muslim political identity to exist. Those making these unsubstantiated claims are only furthering Islamophobia.

Asaduddin Owaisi realises the dangers of being perceived as helping BJP and he is going to tread very carefully. Muslim community paid the most price for Yogi Adityanath’s authoritative endeavours, more often than not, without any considerable support from his main challenger – Akhilesh Yadav. This may draw Muslims closer to AIMIM, and they are to some extent, but they are also aware of the imminent dangers a second BJP term poses. In all likelihood, given the stakes, Muslims will vote en masse for Akhilesh’s Samajwadi Party (SP) despite their sympathies for AIMIM. It is possible that in some specific constituencies where chances of BJP’s victory are odd, Muslims prefer Owaisi’s party over SP. To state the obvious, it is not the Muslim vote bank as is portrayed in the media, that is going to play a crucial role. Muslims – at best – are going to supplement BJP’s defeat as supporting actors if at all it happens.

One of the lead actors in this political drama is Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). The party is at an all-time low, reduced to mere 19 seats in the state’s assembly with a 22.23 percent vote share. To put it in context, in 2007, her party formed the government with an absolute majority with a 30 percent vote share and has been declining ever since. A large chunk of its votes has gone to BJP in recent elections breaking the myth that SCs don’t vote for them. If Mayawati succeeds in retaining SC votes, it’d shrink the BJP’s vote share dramatically. Her latest stint in wooing Brahmin voters – a radical shift from BSP’s Bahujan politics to Sarvajan politics, which she successfully pitched in 2007 and won the majority, might not work this time around. She has lost trust among Muslim voters, who played a significant factor in her victory in 2007. Despite everything, Mayawati remains one of the lead actors as, without her strong candidature, there’s very little scope of decrease in BJP’s vote share which was around 40 percent in 2017 and reached 50 percent in the 2019 general elections.

Neither Akhilesh Yadav nor Mayawati has ever managed to win more than 30 percent vote share – even at their best performances. For Samajwadi Party to win, a dramatic increase in vote share that exceeds their 2012 performance, is a mighty challenge. Akhilesh Yadav has Muslims on their side and is trying to bring non-Yadav OBCs into his fold. Any increase in vote share of Akhilesh Yadav’s SP and Mayawati’s BSP means a decrease in BJP’s vote share. A second-BJP term is inevitable unless both Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati do well, although separately. As for Congress, there’s a popular saying in Uttar Pradesh: Congress in UP has more leaders but fewer cadres.

Ibn e Tariq is a political science graduate from Aligarh Muslim University