The recent by-elections in Phulpur and Gorakhpur, which resulted in a decisive loss for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party candidates, continue to be held up as an example of a rising opposition, and a weakening of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
To be blunt, a BJP loss in Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Maurya’s constituencies is quite an embarrassment, particularly for the latter as he, and his predecessors have held onto to Gorakhpur for nearly thirty years. Thus, we cannot unequivocally state that the election results had nothing to do with the BJP’s appeal. In all likelihood, there may be some aspects of fatigue or unhappiness with the party, and how they operated these two constituencies.
However, if we only listened to Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati, we would conclude that the “secular forces” have triumphed over the “communal” BJP, and voters have rejected Modi’s right-wing Hindutva agenda.
Nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, the elections tell us that the Hindutva strategy works quite well. After all, Yadav and Mayawati stole a page from the BJP to win these two districts.
Let me explain.
The BJP’s success in 2014, and thereafter, can be largely attributed to the party’s consolidation of all Hindus across all castes. The traditional view that the BJP only appealed to upper caste Hindus was shattered as the party made successful inroads into lower-caste communities. For the BJP, this was the only option to deny regional parties from monopolizing select vote banks, which until then, precluded the BJP from winning national elections on their own.
Grouping of Different Castes
Hindutva, as a campaign strategy, really boils down to unifying all Hindus by promoting a common set of policies and ideas. You can disagree with these policies, beliefs, slogans, and messages, but for the purposes of elections, this is the essence of the strategy. Accordingly, rather than appealing separately (and perhaps exclusively) to upper caste, Other-Backward Castes (OBC), Dalits, and so forth, the BJP leverages Hindutva to turn all Hindus into one giant vote bank.
As a result of this strategy, 2014 broke the previously held view that coalition politics were inevitable in India due to the regional parties, which divided the electorate along demographic lines making it hard for any one party to obtain a majority in parliament. By consolidating all Hindus, the BJP dented the political strategy of regional parties and put Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (SP), and Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in a fix – their business model was questionable.
The Uttar Pradesh (UP) election in 2017 further corroborated the above view as the SP failed massively.
Learning from both instances, Yadav shunned a tie-up with Congress for the Phulpur and Gorakhpur by-elections. As evidenced in 2017, Congress was not, and likely is not able to bring any particularly Hindu demographic to the polls. So what is the value in an alliance with them?
BSP on the other hand can bring out the Dalit vote, which SP lacks. Hence Yadav decided to join Mayawati. Now this may seem obvious and simplistic, but we should look between the lines to see what this alliance really means.
A New Campaign Strategy
As noted, the previous strategy of parties like the SP and BSP to divide demographics and deny any one party from crossing the 50% threshold is no longer tenable when one party, the BJP, is able to appeal to multiple demographics at once. Instead, the SP, BSP, and other regional parties are trying to unite groups across Hindu demographics rather than split them, which is in fact the essence of Hindutva at a campaign level and what made the BJP successful.
Granted, SP and BSP will likely not draw support from upper caste Hindus, but that’s a separate point. In by-elections it does not matter as much due to low voter turnout.But the broader point is intact, the SP and BSP are learning from the BJP and using the same strategy – unite Hindus to win. Thus, whether Yadav wants to admit it or not, his so-called secular forces are starting to copy the so-called communal BJP.