NEW DELHI — "Ab ki baar, phir Modi sarkar," declared Vijay Bahadur Pathak, the Bharatiya Janata Party's general secretary in Uttar Pradesh.
"Do you know why? The BJP will win simply because there is no other party that works harder than the BJP and no leader that works harder than Modi ji," Pathak said, as he spoke of the grassroots-level campaigning that BJP workers had been carrying out in UP — the country's most populous and politically significant state — months ahead of the 2019 general election.
The senior BJP leader said that political rivals like Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav were no match for Modi, who had addressed his first election rally on June 28 in the eastern district of Sant Kabir in UP, while the so called gatbandhan (the anti-BJP alliance) was still sorting itself out.
"People see other leaders taking vacations and personal trips to foreign countries, but they see Modi working every day of the year," he said. "So, even if there are a few things that the BJP is yet to deliver, they know the man at the top is always working."
Modi's critics beg to differ. The question is whether Modi's charisma and public messaging can assuage anger over his failure to deliver the two crore jobs he had promised while campaigning for the 2014 national election. Another question is whether Hindu mobilization in his name can beat the caste consolidation of Dalits and backward classes that comes with the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) joining forces in UP.
SUBSCRIBE AND FOLLOW POLITICS
Get our top news delivered to your inbox every morning, Monday to Friday. Newsletters may offer personalized content or advertisements. Learn more
The BJP has lost three by-elections in UP after Mayawati's BSP and Akhilesh Yadav's SP decided to work together in Phulpur, Gorakhpur and Kairana, but party workers wonder if the traditional foes can survive an entire election campaign.
The 2019 election is no longer going to be cakewalk for the BJP, and Modi is leaving no stone unturned in to usher in — as Pathak puts it — "Modi 2.0" in UP, the state that sends the highest number of lawmakers to Lok Sabha.
Yet an analysis of the content of his speeches and public appearances over the past month and a half offers a glimpse of the ruling party's election strategy for 2019 and indicates that the campaign for 2019 has begun in earnest.
The BJP will win simply because there is no other party that works harder than the BJP and no leader that works harder than Modi ji.
Five weeks, five visits, seven speeches
In the past five weeks, Modi has visited UP five times, launching projects worth thousands of crores, addressing a farmers rally, and claiming a number of achievements: building roads at twice the speed than any previous government, providing free gas connections to four crore women, including 80 lakh women in UP, and constructing more than one crore toilets in the villages of UP.
Critics have contested these statistics.
The BJP is banking on four schemes to appeal for rural votes: the Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana, which provides financial assistance to poor families to construct houses, the Ujjwala Yojna, the central government scheme which provides free cooking gas connections to poor families, the Saubhagya Yojana, which provides free electricity connections to poor families, and the construction of toilets in villages under the Swach Bharat Abhiyaan.
The prime minister has also hailed the BJP's campaign against triple talaq, while lashing out at the Opposition for blocking the bill that criminalizes instant divorce and prolonging the suffering of Muslim women. This bill is widely regarded as draconian even by Muslim women activists.
Inaugurating the Sant Kabir Academy in Sant Kabir Nagar on June 28, Modi said, "Muslim women, despite threats, are demanding an end to triple talaq, but these political parties that only care about votes are stopping the passage of triple talaq bill in Parliament."
Inaugurating the world's largest mobile phone assembly plant in Noida on July 9, Modi said that the number of mobile manufacturing units had increased from two to 120 in the past four years, and had provided employment to four lakh people. The new Samsung facility, he said, would employ a 1,000 more people.
Inaugurating the Purvanchal Expressway in Azamgarh on July 14, Modi accused the Congress of being the party that favored Muslim men. "I read in the newspaper that the Congress Party president, Shriman naamdar, has said that Congress is party for Muslims. I want to ask the naamadar of the Congress Party whether Congress is a party just for Muslim men or for women. Is there any respect for Muslim women?"
I want to ask the naamadar of the Congress Party whether Congress is a party just for Muslim men or for women. Is there any respect for Muslim women.
Speaking in his own constituency of Varanasi on the same day, Modi said that 200 projects worth ₹21,000 crores has been approved for the cleaning of the Ganga and to ensure that waste from the cities is not dumped into the river. "The work to clean the Maa Ganga, from Gangotri to Gangasagar, is going on at a rapid pace... The government wants the sewage plants to function properly for at least 15 years. This will take time but you will see the results soon."
Addressing a farmers rally in Shahjahanpur on July 21, Modi spoke of his government's decision to increase the minimum support prices for 14 crops grown in the kharif season to 50% more than cost of production.
Launching projects worth ₹60,000 crores in Lucknow on July 29, Modi said that industrialists, like farmers, contributed towards nation building and he was not afraid to be seen with them. "When your ideas and intentions are clear, you are not tainted by standing with anyone. Mahatma Gandhi's character was pure but he never had any problem living with the Birla family."
In his speeches in UP, last month, Modi repeatedly attacked the so called gatbandhan, an amalgam of national and regional parties, which are planning to join forces against the BJP.
In Sant Kabir Nagar, Modi said, "The greed for power is so much that the people who had imposed emergency at that time and those who opposed it then are today walking together shoulder to shoulder to grab the power."
In Shahjhanpur, he said, "Jab dal ke saath dal milte hain to dal dal ho jaata hai. Aur jitna jyada dal dal hota hai, utna hi accha kamal khilta hai." (The meeting of different parties makes quicksand. A lotus blooms in quicksand).
Aur jitna jyada dal dal hota hai, utna hi accha kamal khilta hai.
UP is a make or break state for the BJP.
In the national election in 2014, with Modi as its prime ministerial candidate, the BJP and its allies won a stunning 73 of the 80 seats that UP has in Lok Sabha. Even in the throes of the Ramjanmabhumi movement, the BJP managed 51 seats in the 1991 national election.
In the 2017 state election, with Modi at its helm, the BJP won a stunning 325 of 403 Assembly seats. In the 1993 state election, in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition, the BJP managed 221 seats.
Anything short of a stellar performance would be a blow for the BJP and for Modi, who raked in 5,16,593 votes in Varanasi, almost double the combined votes of the SP, BSP, Congress and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in 2014.
Local observers say that Modi has a head start on the so called alliance, which is yet to take shape either at the national level or in UP. If Modi were to move the general election forward — as some rumours suggest, the anti-BJP front could find itself in a shocking state of unpreparedness.
BJP's Pathak refused to say whether the SP and BSP combine had rattled the BJP, but he admitted that his party was strategizing keeping in mind a future alliance. "A win is a win and a defeat is a defeat," he said. "We know there is a problem and we can fix it."
While Kairana and Phulpur are not traditional BJP bastions, Gorakhpur was Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath's constituency since the late nineties. Some BJP workers attribute the by-poll losses to the poor voter turnout in all three constituencies, Phulpur (38%), Gorakhpur (43%) and Kairana (54%). Despite its loss in Kairana, the BJP won two of the five Assembly segments in the Lok Sabha constituency.
Ramesh Dixit, a political science professor at Lucknow University, said, "Modi can see the writing on the wall. They have not delivered on employment, manufacturing, industrialization,people are angry, farmers are angry. Communal polarization doesn't work beyond a point. People see through you."
"The BJP is a afraid. You will Modi spending a great deal of time in UP," he said.
Communal polarization doesn't work beyond a point. People see through you.
The SP and BSP combine is formidable, but even though the two parties have together beaten the BJP in three consecutive by-polls, there is still a question mark over whether they can forge an alliance that survives the general election.
Requesting anonymity, an SP lawmaker said, "The alliance is only word of mouth right now, there is nothing clear cut. But the deal will happen and it will be successful because the anger against the BJP is real. Crores must have been spent on Modi's visit to Lucknow, but the day after he left, it rained for just one day and the city came to a standstill because of the water logging. It was a very bad scene and people are angry."
The lawmaker added, "The alliance needs a face to go up against Modi. The people that I speak with say they want a new face, a fresh face from the Congress."
The people that I speak with say they want a new face, a fresh face from the Congress.
BSP's Chandrabhan Singh Patel, the former lawmaker from Manikpur in the Bundelkhand region, said that party workers were awaiting orders.
"We will do as the national leadership decides of course, but right now, there is not even talk of a gatbandhan," he said. "Why do we need a gatbandhan? People have seen through Modi's jumla. The BSP can beat BJP on its own."
The BSP, in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, did not win a single seat, while the SP won five seats in Uttar Pradesh.
The BSP's vote share dropped from 27.42 percent in 2009 to 19.63% in 2014, while the BJP's rose from 17.5 percent to 42.34 percent. The SP's vote share dropped from 23.26 percent in 2014 to 22.35 in 2009.
Why do we need a gatbandhan? People have seen through Modi's jumla. The BSP can beat BJP on its own.
Carrots and sticks
The BJP leadership at the Centre is likely to use the carrot and stick approach to drive a wedge between Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav.
Party workers talk of the leverage that Modi may have over their bosses. They are also worried about BJP poaching leaders to make them appear dysfunctional and disunited.
If the SP and the BSP manage to stick together, there are other obstacles, including divvying up the Lok Sabha seats, convincing workers to campaign for their traditional foe, and getting voters to transfer their votes.
The BSP and the Congress have already fallen out over seat sharing for the Madhya Pradesh Assembly election.
Given that it is a Lok Sabha election in UP, it might be easier for the regional parties to work out a seat sharing arrangement, but the real test is a two-way transfer of votes.
Mayawati is more likely to get her vote bank, the deprived and marginalized Scheduled Castes, to vote for the SP, a party of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) dominated by the Yadavs. Akhilesh Yadav might find it harder to convince the Yadav community, who wield considerable power in the state, to vote for the BSP.
Success of the alliance will boil down to voters believing in it. It could be a tough sell, given that the only thing the motley crew of parties have in common is beating the BJP.
History of feuding
The recent history of the BSP and SP is riddled with feuding.
It was in 1993 that the SP and the BSP came together for the first time to stop the BJP from coming to power in UP. Mayawati pulled out of the alliance in 1995, triggering the "guest house incident," which involved SP workers assaulting her inside the Meerabai Guest House in Lucknow. What followed was two decades of bad blood between the then SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati.
Between 1995 and 2002, Mayawati became chief minister three times with the support of the BJP. Then in 1999, when the Vajpayee government fell at the Centre, Mulayam Singh Yadav famously ditched the Congress after its then president Sonia Gandhi declared, "We have 272 and more are coming." In the 2017 Assembly election, the Congress and the SP alliance came a cropper.
Dixit, the politics professor at Lucknow University, believes the two regional parties can push past their differences. "Mayawati did not got to Gorakhpur and Phulpur, Akhilesh Yadav did, but BSP workers were campaigning for SP. Akhilesh Yadav did not got to Kairana, but SP workers were campaigning for the RLD."
Dixit added, "When people are angry, they are going to find any excuse to beat the BJP. The 2014 vote was not for Modi but against Congress. The 2019 vote will be against the BJP."
The 2014 vote was not for Modi but against Congress. The 2019 vote will be against the BJP.
Ashutosh Misra, also a political science professor at Lucknow University, believes the SP and BSP are vulnerable to incentives from Centre.
"What has the BSP gained from working with the SP in the past few months. Just one MLC seat. So, who is benefitting?" Misra asked, hinting at allegations against Mayawati of selling tickets during elections. "Anything that Akhilesh Yadav can offer, Modi can offer more of," he said.
Anything that Akhilesh Yadav can offer, Modi can offer more of.
In Azamgarh, Modi referred to a widely discredited article in an Urdu newspaper, which said that Congress president Rahul Gandhi had called the Congress "a pro-Muslim" party in a meeting with Muslim intellectuals.
"This is has been doing the rounds for the past two days. I can't say I'm surprised. When Manmohan Singh was prime minister, he said that Muslims have the first right over natural resources. Fine, if you want to call the Congress party, congratulations, but I want to ask whether the Congress party is only a party for Muslim men," he said.
Analysts are divided over how BJP will communalize the election, at which stage of the campaign and its impact.
There are some who believe that "informal" polarization is already afoot. Over the past few months, the BJP has raised several polarizing issues like building a Lakshman statue in front of a mosque in Lucknow, demanding reservation at Aligarh Muslim University and protesting a portrait of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, which went up in the 1930s.
Misra, the political science professor at Lucknow University, said, "Communalization is shamelessly and aggressively on social media thanks to the BJP, but a formal articulation is likely to come closer to the election. They are keeping the powder key dry."
"But when it comes, when they decide to go for the kill, it will be Modi and Amit Shah who decide," he added.
On the other hand, PK Srivastava, a historian at Lucknow University, believes that BJP will not have to expend a great deal of time and energy in communalizing the electorate. "It is already done. It has been happening since the eighties and now it is complete. The middle class in UP is thoroughly communalized."
Also on HuffPost India: