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Lok Sabha Elections 2024 | How the BJP lost UP

Lok Sabha Elections 2024 | How the BJP lost UP

UP voters have sent out a clear message. Authoritarianism is unwelcome, and they want a return to social justice. This is not an outright rejection of Hindutva, but perhaps a message on the limits of Hindutva alone.

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Last Updated : 08 June 2024, 02:06 IST
Last Updated : 08 June 2024, 02:06 IST
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In the run up to the 2024 elections, I spent some time with my colleagues, travelling through the hinterlands of rural eastern UP. Our objective was to listen to voters, not just to understand who they were wanting to vote for but to get a better understanding of what were the issues on people’s mind that could ultimately shape voting choices. How did voters see the Modi juggernaut? What were their views on the big sites of contestation that were dominating elite discourse in Delhi -- democracy vs authoritarianism, secularism vs Hindutva, caste/inequality vs growth, welfare vs jobs? 

The conversations we had were wide-ranging and it is through these voices that we can understand why UP, the home of the Hindutva experiment, chose to humble Modi. The I.N.D.I.A bloc’s success lay in channelising these narratives on the ground into the electoral landscape, wresting 43 seats, while the NDA was left with 36. Here is what I heard, and in this is my explanation for why voters chose to put the brakes (temporary, perhaps) on Modi and Hindutva.

Mandir theek hai, magar mandir se naukri nahi milegi” (Temple is fine, but the temple will not get us jobs). In January 2022, as the Prime Minister donned the mantle of the Hindu king, there was an unmistakeable sense of inevitability about the election. Hindutva had reached its pinnacle. Millions of Indians across sections of society had been mobilised to participate in this spectacle. Any questions about the implications of this near-complete fusion of religion and State, of India’s secular project, of the historical context that led to the final moment of the consecration, was drowned out by the near-total media control, dismissed as “anti-national” and voices of the “westernised” elite disconnected from India’s reality. The total media control also left a strong sense that there was broadbased democratic legitimacy for this project and this was the final step toward total hegemonic control – the 400-paar (winning more than 400 seats) project. 

But as the campaign took off and people’s voices broke through the narrative was punctured. Mandir is all very well, voters in UP told us, but where are the jobs, what about exam paper leaks, what about price rise? This wasn’t a rejection of Hindutva or questioning of the Ram temple project. It was an exhaustion with Mandir and Modi as the only offering; and with the refusal to acknowledge the consequences of this on the everyday lives of the vast majority. The deeply divisive and polarising rhetoric that became the norm through the election could not overcome this reality. 

A brief trip to Ayodhya brought these contradictions out in sharp relief. As we drove through the widened streets and rows of newly constructed shops (many had their shutters down and on them were painted Hindu symbols), people seemed anything but content. Hindutva euphoria had extracted a price from many devout Hindus. Suman Gupta, editor of the Faizabad newspaper Jan Morcha captured the sentiment in a recent interview: “People had lost their land, homes and shops to the government diktat”. Crucially she adds, “they worried that if they complained over their shop being demolished, the authorities would come and demolish their homes too for no reason.”

Implicit in this statement is the most exhilarating and unexpected story of this election – a discomfort with the growing authoritarianism. On the eve of the campaign, as the war cry of 400 paar was unleashed, two sitting Chief Ministers were jailed; this, coupled with an increasing number of “washing machine” candidates moving to the BJP, the consistent misuse of investigative agencies to target all forms of political and civil society opposition, total media control, and the growing questions about the objectivity and independence of institutions of checks and balances, particularly the Election Commission, the air was heavy with creeping authoritarianism. While the BJP dismissed the charges of democratic backsliding made by the Opposition and voices in the West, voters were beginning to ask the same questions. 

As my co-author Neelanjan Sircar and I have pointed out in our writings on the election, when asked about media, even BJP supporters would say, it speaks to only one side. Electoral manipulation, ‘washing machine’ politics, I-T/ED/CBI, were all part of the chatter in rural UP. But what really surprised us was talk of the Constitution. “The BJP wants to change the Constitution, we have to protect it. The Constitution gave us our rights, our reservations” – this was what Dalit and Yadav voters we spoke to repeatedly said. Voters were wary of remarks made by some BJP leaders early in the election that they needed 400-paar to change the Constitution. 

The Samajwadi Party and Congress were quick to harness this sentiment and bring the Constitution and reservations as the emotive issue of this election. They declared this an election to “Save the Constitution” and made it the single-most critical issue to bring democracy, caste and social justice politics back into the electoral equation. 

Crucially, it provided the glue to Akhilesh Yadav’s PDA Pichda (Backward)-Dalit-Alpsankhyak (minorities) strategy designed to broadbase the caste coalition and engineer an alliance with traditional BSP voters. This is best illustrated in Akhilesh Yadav’s statement after Mayawati unceremoniously sacked her nephew. Traditional BSP voters, he said on X, would vote for I.N.D.I.A to save the Constitution. 

To implement his PDA strategy, Akhilesh Yadav was careful to broadbase his seat distribution. Only five Yadav tickets were handed out, the rest distributed amongst other backward castes. The success of this strategy was visible in the victory of Awdesh Prasad, a Passi candidate, in the general seat in Faizabad. Voters, from OBCs to Dalits, wanted to protect their constitutional rights, and the Opposition was able to harness this sentiment into a smart electoral strategy. It is worth noting that the vacuum left by Maywati’s BSP and a credible campaign by the SP-Congress alliance that spoke in one language and gave voice to voter anxieties, created the context for this alliance to work. 

Finally, the economy. Through this decade of BJP rule, the labharthi (beneficiary) class has emerged as a critical site for political mobilisation. Welfare schemes -- free gas connection to free food grains -- were effectively used to build a direct emotive link between the voter and Modi, and paper over the bigger structural challenges confounding the Indian economy. The labharthi effect remains strong, but it was not enough. The failure to address visible signs of rural distress made voters wonder if they might be better off buying their own ration with better jobs and incomes. 

In sum, UP voters have sent out a clear message. Authoritarianism is unwelcome, and they want a return to social justice. This is not an outright rejection of Hindutva, but perhaps a message on the limits of Hindutva alone. 

(The writer is Visiting Senior Fellow for 2024-25 at Brown University, USA)

Lok Sabha Election 2024 results | Check all constituency results here

Odisha Assembly poll 2024 results| Check constituency results here

Andhra Pradesh Assembly poll 2024 results | Check constituency results here

Lok Sabha Elections 2024 | Narendra Modi's '400-paar' hopes faced stiff competition from Rahul Gandhi's I.N.D.I.A. in an election whose result came as a surprise. Track the latest coverage, live news, in-depth opinions, and analyses only on Deccan Herald.

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