The state of Uttar Pradesh is key to the BJP and its long term political dominance of the country. As of now, even more than 2 years into the term of Narendra Modi and the BJP, people are satisfied with their performance; not enthusiastic, not ecstatic, but satisified. And the BJP would be fine with the electorate remaining satisfied. In the next elections to the country in 2019, they need people to feel that the Government worked and tried to make their lives better; even if they are not able to see a major change in their lives, as long as they feel that the people at the top are not corrupt, are trying hard and seemingly devoted to the job of Government, they will vote for the Government in enough numbers that the BJP will retain its Government (after all, it itself got only 31% of the vote, but that is more than adequate to defeat its rivals convincingly and especially when the Congress still remains down in the dumps). Back to UP.
The state of Uttar Pradesh was a stupendous success for the BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Except for seats for the Yadav clan and for the Gandhi clan, nobody else won a single seat – they all went to the BJP. This stupendous number of seats accounted for approx. 1/4th of the total count of BJP seats in the Lok Sabha, and one really does not need to explain the importance of this number of MP’s for getting control of the Government. The vote percentage of the BJP saw a higher trend, which was not seen in the previous state assembly elections where the BJP just managed to avoid being in the last place, coming above the Congress in the tally. The presence of Modi in the campaign and as the leader, the turmoil and polization in Western UP, the disgust with the current Government, all of these factors played a role in the impressive performance of the BJP.
Now, we are back to the situation of state elections coming up for the state in 2017. The importance of the state for the BJP has already been clear. If it is not able to form a Government, it will be a huge setback for the party and could show a worrying trend for the 2019 polls (caveat: Some supporters of the BJP who were speaking to me talked about how there is a difference between voting for the state elections vs. for the central Government; and also, how even if the SP was to come back to power, the BJP would gain since the SP Government would not do any work and also lead to more crime, which would favor the BJP when it came to elections in 2019). I consider all this slightly bunkum. The losses that the Congress suffered before their final loss in 2014 had an extremely demoralising impact on the party and showed the party that it would lose the next elections, and that too, badly.
To that extent, it is important for the BJP to show that it continues to command the support of people, especially in a strategic state such as Uttar Pradesh. Once you realize this, it is easy to understand the recent perplexing actions by the BJP. For the BJP, it is clear that they will not command as much support as they did during the Lok Sabha election, and hence they have to retain as much support as possible. An important element of this support base is that of the Dalit vote (coincidentally, this Dalit vote is even more important in Punjab, which makes the Dalit vote critical indeed). For some time now, the BJP has been pushing for cow protection, and it was important to the extent that action of vigilantes who would attack apparent cow smugglers was tolerated and the police would take no action. The party knew that the communities most involved in the after effects of cow slaughter were the Muslims and Dalits – this would mean the tanning industries, clean up of carcasses, and other related activities.
It was the action in Una which jolted the BJP. Some cow vigilantes, as usual drunk with power, caught some people carryings cows and viciously assaulted them and even shared a video of their action. The Gujarat government took no action, tolerating this; and yet this one action blew up. This became a symbol of the oppression on the Dalits, and the cry went out. The impact of the linkage between attacks on Dalits and the BJP was not something that the BJP is willing to contemplate; the need to get back the Dalit vote esnured that the Prime Minister attacked cow vigilantes (shocking them and many members of the various groups that make up the Sangh Parivar) and also ensured the exit of the Chief Minister of Gujarat (her mis-steps on the Patidar agitation also contributed to this).
In Uttar Pradesh, the BJP needs to get back the support of the Dalits, the forward castes and the trading community; it will be a challenge. The motor-mouths of the BJP have been shut down for now, but one will see a resurgence just before the election.