Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s appointment and his subsequent decisions have been criticised by opposition and liberals alike. (AFP)
By Prashant Jha
On the day Yogi Adityanath was appointed BJP chief ministerial candidate, a close friend – who is a young successful Lucknow businessman and often my sounding board to gauge the mood of both the urban young voter as well as the business community – sent me a text message: “I feel cheated as a BJP voter. It is sad, sad day for UP.”
Three days later, over a conversation, he said that his anger had dissipated a bit. “The margin of error for BJP has gone down with this appointment. Yogi cannot afford to make a mistake. Let’s see.”
And by the end of the week, as we met during a trip he made to Delhi, he had a somewhat different approach. “What is the media doing?”, he questioned with a touch of irritation. “Give him a chance. This criticism even before he has got down to serious work is unfair.”
Even as the criticism over Yogi’s appointment and his decisions had increased, particularly among Delhi’s opinion makers and media, the sense on the ground seems to have moved into the reverse direction.
How has this happened? And what does it tell us about the great liberal dilemma on the Yogi question? There are three ways in which the Yogi appointment has trapped the opposition.
The appointment trap
Yogi’s past record, both in terms of rhetoric and action, gives enough grounds to worry about his commitment to an inclusive state, communal harmony, and the place of minorities and women in society.
It was thus obvious, and even correct, that those who consider themselves liberals would pick on these features of his political record – and critique the appointment.
Here is the problem.
That critique may not necessarily resonate with the electorate of UP, which voted for a rupture. Admittedly, they did not know that Yogi would be their chief minister when they voted. But they did believe that having ‘Modiji ki sarkar’ in Lucknow would be a break from the past – Yogi represents that change.
Whether that change is desirable or not is a matter of opinion; the fact that he represents change is indisputable. By critiquing the change, the opposition and sections of the media, to the UP voter, came across as grudging. My friend represented this phenomenon – someone who wanted change, who was not necessarily comfortable with the nature of change, but who felt that this change needed to play out.
This does not mean people should refrain from criticising his appointment and policies. It is only to flag the point that this may not necessarily be winning over the BJP voter. Instead, it may be consolidating the base further. That is the first trap.
The Hindutva-vikas trap
But is mere change and rupture enough?
BJP’s vote share in 2012 in UP was 15 percent. This went up to over 41 percent in 2014, which it was more or less able to retain in 2017. Assuming that BJP’s core base vote is actually 15 percent – for only this segment stayed with the party in one of its worst electoral performances – there is an incremental vote of 25 percent which joined the party’s ranks due to Modi in 2014 and 2017.
We have no way of distilling actual voter motivations. But conversations through the campaign trail revealed that there is no distinction between the Hindutva voter or the vikas voter of the BJP. The same voter was exasperated with poor law and order, joblessness, and was also annoyed with what he sees as the ‘pro Muslim’ politics of other parties in the fray. The lines are blurred, even if for some, one or the other element may be important.
The point is this. Yogi thrills the base – the 15 percent or more. His challenge would be not to alienate the incremental vote- and even try to sustain and expand it. A key BJP leader told us, “See, if he remains the Yogi of old, he will appeal to 15-20 percent. But if it is a new Yogi – of Hindutva plus vikas plus strong law and order plus integrity – then we may even go beyond 40 percent. That is the gamble.”
This leads us to the second trap for the opposition. If he remains dependent and driven by solely Hindutva identity based grievances and aggression, it means the base will get even more emboldened and the state will witness a degree of turmoil. If he continues with the Hindutva messaging but combines it with administrative skills, he will become stronger and more popular.
No one would want the first option to play out; the second option does not suit the critics either.
The policy trap
Take the policy step that has – again rightfully – drawn criticism, the anti-Romeo squads, as a window to understand the BJP.
A BJP spokesperson during the campaign had told us, “See how we are combining law and order and Hindutva here. The anti-Romeo squad is actually anti-Salman squad, and in west UP in particular, it conjures up the image of love jihad. At the same time, women security is a major issue and we highlight law and order with this promise.”
The critique of the anti-Romeo squad has rested on its draconian nature, its encouragement to vigilantism, and most fundamentally, its violation of individual freedom and free choice.
But BJP has quite successfully been able to project freedom as an elite obsession – as the concern of those who do not care for women safety, as the preoccupation of those who are disconnected from society. A journalist who travelled to colleges in Meerut came back with the sense that it was very popular with women students.
This is very similar to what Nitish Kumar has done in Bihar. When asked how prohibition was violating choice, the Bihar CM’s dismissive response has often been on the lines of how those in distant metros do not understand the real social problems on the ground.
BJP is similarly projecting a binary – of women safety on one side, which touches every family, versus the abstract idea of freedom, almost synonymous with irresponsibility and encouraging harassment.
And so here is the third trap. It is the duty of the opposition and liberal media commentators to critique state attempts to regulate the everyday life choices, and they must continue doing so. But each time they do it, it may only help reinforce the perception of the BJP as the only rooted party, connected to ‘real problems’ of society.
For those who believe that Yogi represents a serious threat to Indian democracy, it may be instructive to go back and introspect about the 2002-2014 period.
The same opposition figures, and almost the same set of liberal media institutions, felt the same about Narendra Modi. But after 12 years of being critiqued, Modi ended up as the most powerful man in India – through the most democratic of exercises, the elections.
It was a similar trap that opposition fell into. They critiqued the fact that someone who could not control the 2002 riots, or was even seen as complicit in it, was the CM of Gujarat. The CM projected this as an attack on Gujarati voter, the mandate, and pride. They critiqued the CM’s Hindutva plank and refused to acknowledge the Hindutva plus vikas card. The CM continued to grow stronger because of it.
This is not to suggest Yogi is another Modi. He has a long long way to go. But it is to flag the prospect that treating Yogi in the same manner as they treated Modi – and then expecting an entirely different result – may not be the smartest way to counter him. It may then be too late to escape the trap.