The Saffron Coup

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282. That is a gain of 171 seats for the BJP over 2009. Yet, a little after 4 PM, a beaming Amit Shah, Narendra Modi’s most-trusted aide, singled out Uttar Pradesh to thank the voters in the state from “the bottom of his heart”.

Other states have backed the BJP more single-mindedly. Rajasthan, for example, gave the party a vote share of more than 50 percent and all of its 25 seats. But it was UP that turned the Modi wave into a tsunami. But for those 71 seats the BJP bagged in the state, the landmark of single- party majority after three long decades since the late Rajiv Gandhi rode a sympathy wave in 1984 would not have been achieved.

By all means, the BJP needed to add at least 90 seats to its modest 2009 tally of 116 to have a fair shot at forming a government this summer. The Assembly polls in December 2013 gave the party the much-needed confidence in five states. But barring Rajasthan, where it had won just four seats in 2009, there was not much scope of improving its 2009 tally, when the party won 44 out of 70 seats in Madhya Pradesh (29), Chhattisgarh (11), Gujarat (26) and Himachal Pradesh (4). It turned out that a sweeping Modi wave earned the BJP 44 extra seats in these five states with a gain of 21 seats in Rajasthan alone. Still, the party needed at least another 50- odd seats to make the cut.

While the pan-India swing earned the BJP additional seats across the country — notably seven each in Haryana and Delhi, thanks to a vote split between the AAP and the Congress — the major gains came from Maharashtra where it won 23 against just nine in 2009. The party hung on in Bihar and Karnataka where the tally actually slipped from 32 to 28 (NDA) and 19 to 17, respectively. The BJP could not be more thankful to UP for the 61 seat boost that made the mandate for Modi overwhelming.

The BJP’s stunning show in UP is nothing short of a miracle given that the party came fourth in the 2012 Assembly polls. Most exit polls gave the BJP 46-56 seats in UP. But the eventual harvest of 71 exceeded even the News 24-Today’s Chanakya’s generous estimation of 67 seats. This is one of those rare occasions when a party’s tally of MPs (71) in a state far exceeds the number of its MLAs (50).

What made possible the BJP miracle in Uttar Pradesh? The anti-incumbency factors against the SP in the state and the Congress at the Centre definitely helped. The high-flying campaign by the party’s embedded IT cell and the thorough groundwork by the RSS complemented each other. But more importantly, the party succeeded in consolidating a pan- Hindu vote base by weaning away the OBC vote from the BSP and the SP.

A day after the election on 12 May, Shiv Prasad Tiwari was travelling from his Amethi home to Pratapgarh to attend duty at a RPF post. On board the Lucknow- Varanasi Intercity Express, he was emphatic about a Modi sweep. “Har jaati khsetra se samarthan hai (there is support from every caste segment),” he insisted, adding that the BSP would pay the price for flirting with the Muslim voter. “They will lose their Dalit vote base and the Muslims will not leave their Mulayam so easily.” Indeed, it turned out to be a double whammy for Mayawati.

Minutes later, Hari Mauriya, travelling by the same train, described himself as a “turned BSP voter”. This time, Mauriya has voted for Modi and also instructed his entire village in the Pratapgarh constituency to do the same. “Some young boys might have voted like they wanted to. But 90 percent (of the villagers) followed my instruction. I thought about it. Everybody is rooting for Modi ji and we can’t be left out. Maybe we will vote for the BSP in the next (Assembly) polls if the BJP does not deliver,” he reasoned.

In the days before the counting, a number of local BJP functionaries in eastern UP explained how the party succeeded in winning over OBC voters across the state. Early in April, they claim, it became apparent that the RLD and the BSP were losing their core votes in their traditional bastions such as Muzaffarnagar, Kairana, Nagina and Baghpat in western UP to the BJP. From the results, it is evident that the Jats left Ajit Singh’s RLD and a considerable number of Dalit voters abandoned Mayawati for the BJP in the aftermath of last year’s Muzaffarnagar riots.

What further helped the BJP was the fact that the other parties fielded Muslim candidates in the Muslim-dominated seats such as Rampur or Moradabad. Together, the SP, the BSP and the Congress had fielded 44 Muslim candidates for the 80 Lok Sabha seats in the state. Of the 44 candidates fielded by these three parties, only 16 were in the direct contest and all lost out to their BJP rivals. The eventual split of the minority vote offered the party a virtual walkover even in seats where Muslims voters accounted for more than 40 percent of the electorate. This trend was evident even in eastern UP where the impact of the riots did not alienate the bulk of minority voters from the SP.

In fact, this has been a longstanding caste puzzle that both the Congress and the BJP wanted to crack since the 1990s, when the post-Mandal politics saw the emergence of several strong regional contenders for OBCs and, in some cases, the entire non-‘upper’ caste Hindu vote, in UP and Bihar. It alarmed the two national parties who faced marginalisation in the heart of the Hindi heartland.

Earlier, while representing the interests of the ‘upper’ caste elites, the Congress used to manage its numbers through a coalition of extremes by co-opting the ‘harijans’ and the minorities. Together, this combination of ‘upper’ caste Hindus (17.6 percent in 1931 when they were last enumerated) voting with people from the Scheduled Castes (14.6 percent in 1971) and minorities (16.5 percent in 1971) outnumbered the vast middle population of the Hindu OBCs (43.7 percent, according to the Mandal Commission in 1980).

On the other hand, the BJP, and its earlier avatar, the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, represented the urban Hindu middle class and had a predominantly ‘upper’ caste leadership. It joined the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s Ram Janmabhoomi movement to create a larger Hindu constituency in the late 1980s and snatched a significant chunk of the ‘upper’ caste Hindu votes from the Congress. Then both the national parties ran against the regional upstarts — the RJD, the SP and the BSP — who consolidated the non-upper caste Hindu votes.

It is worth remembering that both the Congress and the BJP were initially non-committal about the Mandal Commission’s recommendations till PV Narasimha Rao had to implement the same and the BJP ventured into “social engineering” by appointing ‘lower’ caste functionaries (such as Uma Bharti) across the organisation. By the turn of the last century, the Congress managed to grab 35 percent of the OBC vote while the BJP claimed 20 percent. By 2009, the BJP climbed to 27 percent and the Congress slipped to 31 percent. This time, Modi’s OBC card has trumped all his political rivals.

Fighting for the middle space of the OBCs this time, the Congress came up with a supplementary manifesto to promise a 4.5 percent quota for backward Muslims in the existing OBC reservations, and extension of SC status to all Dalit minorities, including Muslims and Christians.

Modi, on the other hand, positioned himself as a Modh Ghanchi, an OBC subcaste, while campaigning in Bihar and UP. A giant portrait of Lord Ram formed the backdrop of his stage in Faizabad in the last week of his campaign, where he appealed the voters to let the lotus bloom in “the land of Shri Ram”. When he warned that “vote bank, communal and caste-based politics have ruined the country”, he was actually calling for a consolidation of Hindu votes across caste lines.

Ironically, the more the Congress pandered to the minorities, the more it allowed the BJP to peddle the threat of a minority vote bank to scare Dalits and OBCs in joining a pan-Hindu vote base. Mayawati could have been the biggest challenge for the BJP in UP but she also overplayed the Muslim card.

The result is a phenomenal rise in the BJP’s vote share in UP, from 18 percent in 2009 to 43 percent this time. The BSP turns out to be the biggest loser, as its share has slid from 27.42 percent to 19.3 percent. The SP has lost a little over 1 percent of its 2009 share of 23.26 percent. The Congress, of course, is decimated in the state like almost everywhere else with a loss of 11 percentage point down to 7.5 percent in 2014. Ironically, the grand old party still managed to take two seats in its family pocket boroughs, while Mayawati returned empty-handed with a vote share two-and-a-half times larger.

The promise of development a la Gujarat was a big factor in this BJP sweep. “Everybody wants to vote for the winner. They don’t know anything about Gujarat or its development but the media overdrive fuelled by the BJP created a constant buzz. People felt they would be left out if they don’t join the bandwagon. It was a great publicity drive that gathered momentum, and finally its own life, with each passing day,” says Punam Prasad, an AAP functionary in Varanasi.

Be it Lucknow, Pratapgarh or Varanasi, a number of voters this correspondent spoke to, proudly claimed they voted for the BJP but most searched for words to explain why. The answers ranged from “everybody is saying that Modi is the man to back” to “he is the only one who can turn things around”, including one “his speeches gives one confidence”. Then there was the TINA factor, thanks to his much-discredited political opponents.

“We have given everybody a chance. Be it Congress, the SP or the BSP, every party has failed us either here or in Delhi. This has to be Modi’s turn. Aab ki baar…” a youth broke into sloganeering with his cheerful group outside Banaras Hindu University in the afternoon of the counting as Modi gained an unassailable lead of over three lakh votes. A couple of his friends sported saffron bandanas and Modi T-shirts. They were headed for celebration at a roadside gathering nearby. “Check my Facebook page for our photos posted on the day of the election. Some more tomorrow,” one of them shouted as they rode away on their motorbikes.

The day before the counting, a core member of the BJP’s Varanasi IT cell explained how it employed more than 9,000 individuals to “manage the social media campaign” in UP alone. “We operated from a separate office in Varanasi, away from the crowded campaign headquarters. We worked the Twitters and Facebooks and those media sites. On election days, we helped voters at booths find their names on the electoral roll,” he explained.

The other big difference this time was the open involvement of the Sangh members, claimed a number of BJP workers. “They strengthened the campaign at the ground level and played a vital role to get the voters out on the days of election,” said Swaroopam Dwivedi, a lecturer and a BJP functionary in Varanasi, outside the Pahariya mandi where counting was on. “In my opinion, the credit (for the landslide verdict) should go more to the Sangh than Modi. What a unique combination of Hindutva and development it was.”

At the BJP’s Varanasi campaign headquarters at Swastik Sevashram, a multistoried apartment in the Rathyatra area, it was time for firecrackers and gulaal by early afternoon. The loud and lusty cheers for Modi peaked every time a TV camera was switched on and supporters posed happily. A senior functionary who shared the party’s internal calculation — a victory margin in excess of four lakhs — the previous evening, flashed a vindicated smile before sounding an unlikely warning. “Look around. The expectation is too high.” Then, he reassured himself. “But given the sorry state of the infrastructure in the state and Varanasi in particular, it will not take much to impress.”

Arvind Kejriwal and his team conceded defeat early in Varanasi on Friday as it became evident that “the Patels who even campaigned for the AAP did not vote for the party”. For all the hype, the party managed only 1 percent vote share in the state, marginally higher than 0.7 percent that went to NOTA. Two of its top contenders, Shazia Ilmi (Ghaziabad) and Kumar Viswas (Amethi), lost their security deposits.

In the evening, a gracious Kejriwal thanked Varnasi for all the love it gave him and his team. Day before the counting, a tea vendor at the far corner of the Assi ghat was effusive in his praise for the “educated cultured man fit to be an MP, if not a PM”. But he accepted he voted for the BJP. “I have respect for Kejriwal. He sat right here and said he did not come to win but to defeat Modi. I was touched but not quite sure. Maybe (I’ll vote for him) the next time when we know more about what he wants to do.”

BJP supporters celebrated at the famed ghats since the afternoon on the counting day. As some made rounds shouting “har har Modi”, doting elders smiled and reminded a few enthusiast tourists that only the locals and not outsiders were allowed to improvise Varanasi’s trademark chant. In the evening, small tired groups gathered on the stairs. Three young BJP workers from Ramnagar across the river approached this reporter for detailed results from across the state.

“More than Muslims here, now Pakistan and China will be scared,” one of them smiled disarmingly. Why, was Modi going to fight a war? “No, no, he need not. But they (neighbours) will know they cannot take us for granted anymore,” he explained quickly. His friend nodded in agreement before adding: “And there will be riots no more. They (minorities) won’t just dare.”

Weren’t they looking for jobs, development? “Of course, there will be good work all around, also employment, and prices will go down. We will see better days,” assured the third friend. “But how can one serve the country unless one serves one’s own religion uncompromisingly?”

The author is an independent journalist

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