Modi’s BJP Faces an Uphill Battle in India’s Most Populous State

By Dr Pradeep Taneja
Academic Fellow, Australia India Institute

In an interview with India’s state-run Doordarshan television network on Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “I can say this publicly that the BJP will perform better than last time in Uttar Pradesh.”

For this prediction to come true, Modi's party - the BJP - will have to win more than the 70 seats (out of 80) it won in 2014 from India’s most populous state. Uttar Pradesh sends 80 members of Parliament to India’s lower house, the Lok Sabha – more than any other state. It is said that the path to power in Delhi goes through Lucknow, the state’s capital. In other words, to win government at the national level, a party must win in UP.

It is not surprising then that many of India’s leading political pundits are focusing their eyes on this critical state for it would determine the fate of the Modi government. Underscoring the significance of the state, Modi himself is again contesting the election from the holy city of Varanasi in UP, even though he is a Gujarati and has hardly spent any time in the city. He is also campaigning vigorously throughout UP.

Mr Modi’s powerful Home Minister Rajnath Singh, a former Chief Minister of UP, is the BJP candidate from Lucknow. Despite Modi’s hyper optimism, things are not looking so good for the BJP in UP this time around. There are a number of reasons for this.

First, unlike in the last election when the BJP faced a fragmented opposition, the two main opposition parties in the state, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party have set aside their bitter rivalry to forge an alliance with the sole objective of defeating the BJP. The Congress Party, which led India’s freedom struggle and had ruled India for much of the post-Independence period, was also expected to join the alliance but was in the end left out of it for complex reasons.

Although the Congress lacks a major ally in UP – where it held political sway for several decades after independence – it is almost certain to join forces with all the other anti-BJP parties in the country should the BJP and its allies fail to win a majority come May 23. The top leaders of the Congress, the mother-son duo of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi are also contesting seats in UP, though Rahul has decided to enter the race from Kerala as well (Indian law allows a candidate to stand for more than one constituency).

In the 2014 election, the Gandhis were the only two seats the Congress had managed to retain from UP, with the Samajwadi Party winning five and Bahujan Samaj Party none. Such was the effect of the Modi wave when the BJP ran on issues such as corruption, development and governance. The BJP repeated its performance in Uttar Pradesh’s state elections in 2017, when it won three-quarters (312 out of 403) of the seats in the state legislature. However, it is unlikely to be able to repeat its past performances in the current national election.

Second, Muslims who make up nearly 20 per cent of the state’s population are unlikely to support the BJP because of the divisive political agenda, inflammatory language and retrograde policies of its Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath – a saffron-clad temple priest who was appointed to the state’s top job by the BJP’s central leadership. Adityanath had been a BJP parliamentarian from UP for nearly two decades when he was parachuted into the Chief Minister’s office in 2017.

Meanwhile, the BJP hopes to clinch the votes of young Muslim women in UP because of the party’s strong support for a bill banning the practice of Triple Talaq, which allowed Muslim men to divorce their wives by simply repeating the word Talaq (divorce) three times. While the BJP hailed the passage of the bill last December as "a historic step to ensure equality and dignity” of Muslim women, its opponents saw it as a polarising tactic to divide the Muslim vote.

Third, the BJP government in Uttar Pradesh has done little to develop the state’s moribund economy and boost employment. With more than 200 million people, UP is one of the least developed states in the country – its economy growing at the paltry average annual rate of 3.1 per cent between 1994 and 2017, even as India as a whole became the world’s fastest growing major economy. At 68 per cent, the state’s literacy rate is also one of the lowest in the country.

Together with Bihar, Uttar Pradesh has been described as a “huge blank space” on India’s growth map. Adityanath, the fiery and bigoted monk who has now been Chief Minister of the state for more than two years, has demonstrated little understanding of economics. The BJP lost two by-elections last year in the state, including Adityanath’s former Lok Sabha seat from which he had to resign when he was dispatched to UP as the Chief Minister.

Finally, one of the worst economic policies of the Modi government – demonetisation – which suddenly withdrew 95 per cent of all banknotes from circulation, hit the poorest in UP the hardest. They are unlikely to prioritise religious bigotry and sloganeering over economic security for themselves and their children when they go to vote.

If the BJP fails to win at least 50 of the 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh, it will struggle to form government in Delhi again.

This could lead to an unsteady coalition led by either the BJP or by a combination of regional parties with the help of Congress. Either way, political instability may be in store for India for some time to come.

Banner image: India's Prime Minister, Nahrendra Modi, prays in a village in Uttar Pradesh, 2019. Credit: Nahrenda Modi.


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