The political narrative in India is always in a state of flux. The significant Uttar Pradesh State elections are no different. For long a cauldron of the most vicious form of caste and communal politics, the state could be moving towards a more class-based voting pattern that can upend the way politics has played out till now. This is not to say that the dynamics of the past are going to be unshackled in a hurry; however, the movement even if slight could make the difference between winner and loser, the BJP or the Samajwadi Party, the two most likely contenders to form the government.
In many ways Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s demonetisation bombshell in November has hastened the process of change, by pressing notebandi as pro-poor, whether BC, OBC, dalit, or upper caste, favouring the tax-paying salaried middle class and as anti rich, trader, middlemen and agents such as property dealers who have vitiated society by promoting dirty cash. The government machinery disseminated in multiple methods the same message: demonetisation trapped the corrupt and wealthy who misuse their influential positions to siphon off black money that rightfully belongs to the people via the government. The ubiquitous mobile phone, smart or otherwise, has been positioned as a lethal weapon in the hands of the masses, the Brahmastra, to destruct the evil and mighty by enabling cashless transactions. It is unclear how exactly this works rationally, except making it easier to pay an Uber fare or a kirana purchase; at the same time the poor employed in millions by the informal sector are perhaps the most distressed by demonetisation. But this hardly matters provided the communication is woven right has been the belief of the establishment. The power is in the message, not the substance.
It did seem for a while that Modi was running away with the neatly packaged class-narrative, until Akhilesh Yadav emerged. In many ways, Akhilesh in 2017 is what Modi was three to four years back: taking on the old guard that ruled the BJP in the form of ageing leaders such as LK Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Yashwant Sinha, Arun Shourie.
They were figuratively upgraded as margdarshaks but literally shown the door. Modi successfully spun the acche din motif around growth and governance to become the new ruler of the Delhi Durbar. Akhilesh is doing the same in UP, except in the Yadav family political enterprise, he has had to flush out satraps within the family in the form of envious uncles, ambitious cousins and scheming sisters-in-law. His father is crafty and inscrutable as ever. It is still not clear who Mulayam Singh Yadav is backing.
Did he play his cards in such a way that he could be outmanoeuvred by his son, while at the same time appear to be on the other side? Nobody will know, unless Mulayam like Karan Johar or Rishi Kapoor decides to spill the beans in a Khullam Khulla book, which is very unlikely. Akhilesh, meanwhile, is drumming up the same themes that were deployed by Modi in 2014 to ride to absolute power, growth and governance, to good effect and emotional connect with the masses. It is often said that the Indian electorate ponders carefully before voting, but, not without putting his or her heart also into it.
There is an innate recognition of good versus evil, which is what makes innumerable serials on Ramayana or Mahabharata so popular. In the past Indira Gandhi carefully cultivated the protector of the poor persona; even Manmohan Singh won votes for the Congress Party in 2009 by putting his job on the line over the civilian nuclear deal with USA; the late Jayalalithaa had the masses rooting for her due to well-delivered welfare schemes, including Amma canteens. By taking on the thugs and criminals in the party, a clean youthful image working in his favour, Akhilesh has the momentum going for him. The SP-Congress tie-up provides the kind of protective umbrella that will appeal to Muslim voters. Another big plus for the ballooning Akhilesh persona is the absence of a BJP leader of substance at the state level to challenge him head to head.
Modi cannot be CM and PM at the same time given his travel schedules; the nitty gritty of managing UP, a nation within a country, is a humongous task. Meanwhile BSP supremo Mayawati needs to re-invent herself. Details about her family bank accounts are unseemly; her track record as a good administrator who controlled lawlessness will not be enough; the symbolic statues of the past will count for nothing when her primary opponent promises much more. The UP battle is still wide open. The BJP has to get its strategy right by keeping it simple. Perhaps, Modi has overcomplicated his role. As in cricket, he needs to go back to the basics, play with a straight bat in the V and focus on the twin platforms that have worked in the past: growth and governance.
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