Cover Story

Amit Shah Has Cast(e) the Vote

PR Ramesh is Managing Editor of Open
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Battlefield UP


WHEN RENOWNED BENGALI WRITER and activist Mahasweta Devi died last month, BJP President Amit Shah was among the first to tweet his condolences. Shah also pointed out that her Hajar Churashir Maa and Aranyer Adhikar were his favourite books, evoking surprise among his detractors as well as supporters.

Those who know him well knew it all along: contrary to popular perception, Shah is an avid reader of Indian writers. Besides, at his Gandhian mother’s behest, Shah has read the entire works of Mahatma Gandhi. He is prone to quote extensively from Chanakya’s Arthashastra. “His reading has shaped his worldview and influenced his political decisions. He lives and breathes politics,” says an RSS leader of Narendra Modi’s closest aide.

As the BJP heads for the polls in India’s most populous— and defining—state next year, what he hopes will offer him an edge are his artful ways in fighting elections, drawing on lessons from his favourite texts and using his familiarity with regional literature to grasp how societies behave in different parts of the country. His political rivals too concede that he is the one they fear most in the BJP. He is, after all, a man who, with unerring instinct, has won every one of the 40-plus polls at different levels that he’s contested since he entered politics. Despite a few electoral setbacks, the most resounding one being in Bihar, even his worst critics don’t deny him the credit for steering his party to unexpected glory in Uttar Pradesh in the 2014 General Election, delivering 73 of the state’s 80 Lok Sabha seats.

Shah is battle ready, again, bringing to the chess table his famed political acumen, his understanding of the state’s complex caste and community dynamics, and his impressive managerial skills. Driving him, almost like a man possessed, is not just the fact that the BJP’s fate in UP will have cascading electoral effect on other poll-bound states such as Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Punjab, but that what befalls his party in that key state will have a crucial bearing on the way it approaches the next General Election, due in 2019, with Modi at the helm.

Reason, shrewd number crunching, a highly sensitive caste calculus and incisive tactical electoral manoeuvres are some tools that Shah has adopted to lure UP back into the BJP fold again, for the first time after the 90s. In the past two decades, the party has largely been relegated to urban pockets while the SP and BSP (‘Rahu’ and ‘Ketu’, according to Shah) took turns to stride Colossus-like across the state’s pollscape. Today, national parties such as the BJP and Congress are seen as me-too players in UP’s electoral fray of 2017. Shah, however, is busy crafting a strategy to give the BJP a definitive advantage.

Out-of-the-box tactics have already been brought into play by the BJP in UP, reveal party leaders. The plan is to aggressively position the BJP as the top contender for power and pit its campaign directly against the more popular of the two regional outfits. At a strategy meeting on UP some weeks ago, the BJP President came up with the proposal that a ground survey be conducted in the state every four months in the run up to March 2017, when polls are likely, so that the BJP’s approach is responsive in real time, based on these. This was a bold move aimed at freeing the party—for the first time—from the straitjacket of a linear poll campaign tied inextricably to the party manifesto. At the national level, the BJP has been a pioneer at making optimum use of social media to buttress and webcast its worldview for an expanding and younger vote base. For the first time in UP, a social media outreach programme by MPs and state party leaders has been flagged as an intrinsic part of the poll strategy. Shah has asked them to garner anywhere between 25,000 and 50,000 ‘likes’ in order to earn their spurs in this important effort.

SP and BSP are like ‘Rahu’ and ‘Ketu’ that are eclipsing the development of UP. The state should get rid of both

A seminal part of Shah’s winning electoral strategy for the BJP, as seen in earlier instances, has been as much to proactively spoil the rival party’s chances as to boost its own. “He has a mind that is constantly calculating, evaluating, strategising,” says a BJP leader from Gujarat who narrates the story of how Shah promised Modi during their RSS days that he would one day be Chief Minister of the state. For its 2002 Assembly polls, the leader recalls that Shah systematically went about wooing and propping up disgruntled Congress leaders who hadn’t been re-nominated to contest specific seats. This, after having first identified constituencies where the BJP appeared to have a good chance. The plan worked. And how! For the first time in decades, the Congress stood utterly debilitated. The BJP never looked back.

When Shah was first appointed the leader in charge of UP prior to the 2014 elections by Rajnath Singh, even he himself didn’t expect it. He thought he would be put in charge of a smaller state. UP’s own BJP leaders, who had allowed the party to lie moribund in the years between the Ayodhya developments of the 90s and the Lok Sabha elections of 2014, were bristling with scepticism, even hostility.

Some hadn’t even heard of Shah before the appointment. But that changed completely after the BJP swept the state in what was once considered an impossible feat.

For Shah, those in the know contend, poll statistics are not just dry, flat numbers; they are three-dimensional entities that he works to make his precision-targeted plan succeed. He also makes it a point to be eminently accessible to workers on the ground. In Sarkhej in Gujarat, which he represented in the Assembly several times, virtually everyone had his phone number and referred to him as ‘Amitbhai’. “Accessibility and micro-management are complements when it comes to Shah. His electoral strategy for the BJP, at whatever level, is known to be customised and unconventional. The ‘one size fits all’ formula is unacceptable to him and he tends to pay close attention to the nuances and details of caste equations in different regions and sub-regions prior to framing a winning poll tactic,” says an RSS leader familiar with the way Shah works.

That inclination to micro-manage caste coalitions had worked well, for instance, in helping the Kurmi leader Sonelal Patel’s Apna Dal—formed in 1995 as a breakaway from the BSP after Mayawati’s government in UP collapsed—win the Mirzapur and Pratapgarh seats in the 2014 General Election in alliance with the BJP, jettisoning its earlier leaning towards Muslims. While working out a plan to woo Kurmis in eastern and western parts of UP, Shah got Patel’s lieutenants to give him access to advisors, some of them in their late seventies, and then consulted and coordinated efforts with MBC (lower OBC) leaders of the erstwhile All India Pal Mahasabha, the Yuva Prajapati Samaj and the Kashyap-Nishad- Bind Samaj. This painstaking attention to caste detail paid off for the BJP, points out the RSS man, adding “every caste counts in the BJP’s concerted bid to rise to the electoral pinnacle in UP, and every vote in each caste counts”.

SP has been working for just one community, and when the BSP was in power, it worked only for itself

Shah has his task cut out for him. After the mobilisation of voters by the VHP’s Ashok Singhal and Moropant Pingle as part of the Ayodhya movement, the BJP’s state leadership had failed to inspire and consolidate the party’s ‘natural’ vote base. The rise of the SP and BSP led to the further marginalisation of the BJP, except in urban pockets, even during the period Atal Bihari Vajpayee was Prime Minister. Nor did the central BJP leadership make focused efforts to chart out sustainable, long-term ties with either of the two regional parties. From time to time, relatively charismatic leaders such as Pramod Mahajan were despatched to Lucknow, but beyond routine meetings in the state capital, their presence failed to engineer a revival of BJP fortunes in UP. The party’s prospects were dismal—until Shah entered the picture in 2014.

Acutely aware of the role of caste and community in UP politics, Shah spent long hours at the time with Kalyan Singh, former Chief Minister and one of the luminaries of the Ayodhya movement, picking up the finer details of the socio-political scenario. Babuji, as he refers to Singh, gave Shah invaluable insights into UP’s caste dynamics. It was Singh who had managed to get MBCs back into the BJP fold in large numbers during the 1991 polls. The party had first expanded its base to these lower OBC castes after the Shilanyas in Ayodhya, a foundation stone ceremony for a Ram temple there. This movement also saw dominant agrarian castes, besides Jats and Gujjars, rallying around the BJP. The sharp and simultaneous decline of the Congress as a political force in UP had led upper castes away from it and towards the BJP. In all, the party’s profile stood transformed from that of an ‘urban Bania party’ to one with an expanded vote base of MBCs, Jats, Gujjars, Rajputs and Brahmins. According to a senior party leader in the state, Mulayam Singh Yadav may be the only regional politician other than Kalyan Singh who has an accurately vast understanding of the complexities of caste equations in UP. Not surprisingly, Shah, himself an exceptional student of politics, chose the most able teacher in the pack.

Sections experiencing marginalisation at the hands of the Congress, SP and BSP are rallying around the BJP

HOW BADLY THE BJP had slipped since the Ayodhya movement of the 90s and how much of a challenge it is for Shah to engineer a UP victory was clear in the numbers put out by the Election Commission in its report on the 2012 Assembly polls: the BJP forfeited its deposit in 57 per cent of the seats it contested, while the Congress lost its money for failing to cross the minimum vote threshold in 67 per cent of the constituencies it fought. The BJP victory strike rate was 11.8 per cent, compared to the Congress’ 7.8 per cent. In recent times, both these parties have done better in Parliamentary than Assembly polls in the state. While the BJP took a stunning 73 of its 80 Lok Sabha seats in 2014, the Congress too had fared reasonably well in the state in the Parliamentary polls of 2009, winning about one-fourth of them. In direct contrast, the BSP swept the Assembly elections in 2007 while the SP trounced all other parties in 2012. Both these regional parties achieved power with majorities in the 403-seat Vidhan Sabha. This is the pattern that Shah plans to overturn dramatically.

Before the BJP decision to aggressively stake its claim to power in Lucknow, it was the Mayawati-led BSP that was seen as poised to gain from anti-incumbency sentiments against the SP government of Akhilesh Yadav. What Shah is counting on, in part, is that the BSP has lost considerable appeal since its high point in 2007 when it formed a government on its own.

Shah’s main strategy is to set a stage where the principal fight is directly between the BJP and the BSP, pushing the SP and Congress to the margins. The recent outburst of BJP leader Dayanand Singh against Mayawati alleging that she was ‘selling’ BSP tickets to the highest bidders is an indication that she is the focus of the party’s attacks. Even the ‘gau rakshak’ controversy, in the wake of incidents of cow vigilantism, has led to a caste polarisation with the BSP’s main vote bank of (mostly Jatav) Dalits on one side and upper-castes on the other. While cow politics may result in Dalit-Muslim solidarity, since both groups are at the receiving end of it, the playing of the ‘bahu-beti’ card—about keeping Hindu women ‘safe’ from an alleged ‘love jihad’ waged by Muslims—is observed to have had the effect of rallying together upper castes, MBCs and other non- Yadav OBCs in favour of the BJP.

Working well to the BJP’s advantage is also the fact that a ‘mahagathbandhan’ or grand alliance of the sort crafted in Bihar to defeat the BJP is fundamentally doomed to failure in UP. This is borne out by recent history. While the BSP, back in 2007, did succeed in creating a social coalition of upper castes (especially Brahmins) and Dalits in the state, an alliance of OBCs and Dalits has proved to be an entirely more brittle proposition. When an attempt was made through an alliance of the SP and BSP in the early 90s, it proved to be short lived, wracked by social dissonance at the ground level.

It was in 1993 that, in a bid to check the rise of the BJP, the state’s two big regional parties got together. The handshake between Mulayam Singh Yadav and Kanshi Ram, aimed at an expansive OBC-Dalit-Muslim combination to defeat the BJP, was accompanied by telling slogans such as ‘Miley Mulayam-Kanshi Ram. Hawa Ho Gaya Jai Shriram’, suggesting that the partnership would overcome the BJP’s Ayodhya appeal, and Kanshi Ram’s ‘Jiski Jitni Sankhya Bhaari, Uski Utni Bhagidari’, which spoke of power as a function of mass—read lower caste—support. In truth, however, the numerically strong MBCs, Prajapatis, Rajbhars and Pals were denied their fair share of governance authority by the SP and BSP. Over time, MBCs moved towards the BJP, expanding its base and caste contours. The anti-BJP alliance of the SP and BSP managed to win only 176 seats compared to the BJP’s 177 in the polls that year. It formed a government with the support of the Left parties, Janata Dal and Congress. The inherent contradictions of the Dalit-OBC caste alliance began to show up within a short while. There was no resolving the social conflict between Yadavs and Dalits, with the latter seeing the former as even bigger oppressors than upper-castes, and the deal fell apart.

THE STORY GOES that it was to discuss such social friction on the ground that BSP leaders invited Mulayam Singh over for a conference. Singh landed up, but only to face humiliation. There were just two chairs in the room, and on both sat BSP leaders: Kanshi Ram and his protégé Mayawati. Rather than be left standing all through the parleys, the SP chief departed, and that was the end of the grand experiment.

The relationship between OBCs and Dalits has by and large been one of the oppressor and the oppressed, making it that much more difficult to envisage a lasting alliance. In an article on the difficulty of forging such a social coalition, writes social scientist Yogendra Yadav: ‘The politics of various social groups and communities such as Dalits, Adivasis, OBCs and Muslims is articulated in isolation, if not in opposition, to one another. Ever since the SP-BSP coalition collapsed, there has been no fresh attempt to forge a Dalit-OBC alliance. If anything, OBC parties like the SP have campaigned against the SC/ST Atrocities Act. Nor has there been a serious effort to forge a Dalit-Adivasi alliance in any part of the country. Similarly, the alliance of Muslims with some dominant OBC communities remains contingent on political tactics. The politics of social justice lacks a language to expand beyond its core social constituency. The BSP’s much-publicised Brahmin- Dalit alliance is an instance of the limits of this language.’

In the 1996 Assembly elections, the BSP managed to rake in 95 seats. The BJP retained its 176 seats. However, its anxiety to enlarge its support base prompted the BJP to ally with the BSP. By 2004, the BSP was on the rise, winning 19 seats in that year’s General Election. A few years later, in the Assembly polls of 2007, the BSP managed a 30 per cent vote share and got an impressive 200-plus seats to form a government in Lucknow. This was achieved on the strength of a ‘sarvajan’ (literally, all people) combination. ‘Sarvajan Hitay’ became the party slogan after it toned down its stridently anti-upper-caste messages of earlier years.

The BSP, however, has found itself unable to recover its 2007 popularity. It has been on the slide ever since, despite then CPM General Secretary Prakash Karat naming Mayawati as the possible candidate for the post of Prime Minister after the Left party snapped ties with the UPA in 2008. In the 2009 General Election that followed, the BSP could win only 20 of UP’s 80 Parliamentary seats. And in the 2012 state polls that ushered in Akhilesh Yadav, son of Mulayam Singh, as the state’s youngest Chief Minister, the BSP slipped to 80 seats in the Assembly. The 2014 Lok Sabha elections left the BSP even more battered, with the Modi wave too strong for it to bear. While Mayawati’s party got one-fifth of all votes polled in UP, mainly from loyal Jatav voters, it failed to win even a single seat, leaving it the largest loser of the General Election.

OF ALL CONTENDERS in UP, the BJP is perhaps best placed to draw the goodwill of MBCs. In 2002, the then Chief Minister Rajnath Singh constituted a committee headed by Hukum Singh to re-examine the reservation policy. The report of the committee had recommended carving out a quota for MBCs from the larger OBC quota. The plan could not be implemented as the BJP lost the subsequent election.

It is worth bearing in mind that MBCs have never been a composite group. The varied castes within this group have intense differences.

Shah’s strategy for a significant BJP upswing in UP, riding on the emotional and electoral high of the party’s first-time win in Assam several weeks ago, depends to a large extent on a resurgence of support from MBC castes. “In 1991, the MBCs and upper castes came together. The attempt now is to recreate the 1991 situation when upper castes and MBCs came together to buttress the party,” says a senior minister in the Government who hails from the state. In the 1990s, the saffron party had seen a meteoric rise in its fortunes across north, central and west India. In UP, its performance was also spectacular. In 1991, the BJP captured power in the state for the first time by getting 211 seats on the back of a 33 per cent vote share, up from 7 per cent in the 1989 Assembly polls.

As part of a well laid-out plan, the BJP has recently roped in Swami Prasad Maurya, a prominent MBC leader who has switched over from the BSP. The election of Keshav Prasad Maurya as the state party chief was also a move to consolidate MBC support against Yadav hegemony. Adding to the BJP’s hope of this being a winning card is the reading that MBCs as a community are non-receptive to both regional parties this time round. In 2007, MBCs had backed Mayawati, but she credited Brahmins for her party’s victory and gave many of them plum posts. Despite announcing a power-sharing formula in the government based on numerical strength, she did not live up to her promise. In 2012, MBCs backed Mulayam Singh, but once again, credit for the victory was accorded to a Muslim consolidation in the SP’s favour. Come 2017, the BJP hopes to tap this disillusionment. And Shah is leaving nothing to chance as he sets out to make the most of mounting MBC resentment.