Ahankar and aham (arrogance and ego), are responsible for our defeat in Uttar Pradesh,” said a BJP MP and senior leader from Western UP after the surprise setback in Lok Sabha byelections in Phulpur and Gorakhpur seats. BJP has 71 MPs in Parliament from UP and 311 MLAs in the Assembly in Lucknow, but it is hard to find a legislator who is usefully engaged by the party, said another MP from Awadh region.

While refusing to speak on record he said, “Our party is ruling in 21 states or is part of an alliance which covers 70% of Indians, but we don’t have a political avenue to respond to the needs of more than 1,300 MLAs, most of whose ambitions have been thwarted. The fact is that most BJP legislators feel ignored and unappreciated. A crucial message of the Gorakhpur defeat is that the enormous power that the BJP gained in 2014 did not percolate down to its loyal cadres.” 

Logo ke kaam nahi ho rahe hai (people’s issues are not being addressed). Tell me, how is it possible that a lady (Mayawati) with just 19 seats can defeat a combative leader like Yogi, who is supposed to have the backing of 311 MLAs? The injured egos and frustrations of BJP’s lower rung leaders helped carve the SP-BSP victory,” claimed a BJP MLA who has been feeling frustrated.

While analysing the defeat in UP, a senior Cabinet minister in the NDA government said, “The direct effect of SP and BSP’s possible alliance is that we have an uphill task for 2019. It’s a challenging situation, because in 2014 we got 42.3% of votes and our ally Apna Dal got 1%, while SP got 22.2% and BSP got 19.6%. Congress got 7.5% of votes. Obviously, if SP, BSP and Congress combine against BJP, we will be 43.3% versus 49.3%. We will need around 8% to10% more votes (around 50% to 52% votes needed) to win the same number of seats that we won in 2014 and that is a major challenge.”

In view of SP-BSP’s possible alliance, caste will be the main theme in the electoral battle for UP’s 80 Lok Sabha seats, in 2019. To counter the challenge from a united opposition, the BJP will rely on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s charisma and the Hindutva card. But as the supreme leader of the ruling party, PM Modi will be dependent on the image of the UP government, on Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s performance and the party’s election machinery. So his dependence on factors outside his control will be much more in 2019 than in 2014. In this, the political system that has evolved in the last year in Lucknow will prove to be a major hurdle.

There is much dissension within the state unit of the BJP. Yogi himself is, in fact, a rank outsider in the BJP. He is not even from the RSS. Thus far, he has never relied exclusively on the BJP machinery. In spite of contesting on a BJP ticket, he has always depended on his own private “army”, the Hindu Yuva Vahini to win elections. He worked to his advantage the Gorakhnath Muth’s historic reputation.

Since he has become CM, Yogi’s interactions with MPs, MLAs and party workers have been formal and minimal. He lacks a well organised Chief Minister’s Office, which can function as an effective power centre. His two Deputy Chief Ministers are banking on their respective caste-bases and serving their caste-lobbies. Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya is a disgruntled man, as he believes he lost the chance to become CM because of Yogi’s manoeuvres in New Delhi after the victory.

Dinesh Sharma, another deputy, provides a shoulder to the powerful Brahmin lobby, which has a serious grouse against Yogi, who is increasingly viewed as a “Thakur” leader. Adding to the lack of cohesion is Sunil Bansal, the party general secretary, who has created his own sphere of influence since he is close to BJP seniors and the RSS.

In the past two elections in UP, Amit Shah ensured BJP’s victories by skilfully choreographing caste equations, while knitting together the non-Chamars, non-Yadavs, Bhumihars, upper caste Thakurs and Brahmins. This time in Gorakhpur, the formula fell flat, with Thakur voters remaining passive as they were not interested in backing a Brahmin candidate. 

The low voter turnout of 43% in Gorakhpur and 38% in Phulpur, is a clear indication that BJP’s traditional voters are sulking.

The byelection defeat has drastically pruned the flab from Yogi Aditynath’s image. In his defence, Yogi supporters claim that he is unable to be the team leader because he finds his wings have been clipped. When the issue of the appointment of the DGP came, Yogi wanted O.P. Singh, but the Central government took a month to approve the name, affecting Yogi’s image as a powerful leader. Even for the mayor’s post in Gorakhpur, Yogi wasn’t allowed to choose a candidate.

Yogi’s camp claims that he became an MLC by requesting Samajwadi Party MLC Yashwant Sinh to resign along with three others. Yashwant Sinh is close to don Raja Bhaiya. Apparently, Yogi promised a Rajya Sabha seat to Sinh, but the party gave the seat to Ashok Bajpai, one of the founders of SP.

For the byelection in Gorakhpur, Yogi had, apparently, sent three names, that of a Brahmin, a Dalit and an OBC, all closely connected to the temple. Yogi supporters claim they would have assured the victory of any of these three. But the Brahmin lobby in Gorakhpur got Upendra Shukla as candidate. Upendra Shukla is close to Shiv Pratap Shukla, Minister of State for Finance in the Central government. Shiv Pratap Shukla and Yogi have never got along and have been engaged in turf wars.

A local BSP leader’s father, Harishanker Tiwari, a Brahmin and a strongman, who was raided soon after Yogi came to power, made certain that Shukla wouldn’t win by ensuring a division in the Brahmin vote.

The common complaint from BJP leaders is that in the government and in the party too many cooks are spoiling the UP broth. There is constant flow of advice from Delhi—from the party office; from the home ministry; and also from the Prime Minister’s Office.

In fact the party, the PMO and the CM often do not seem to be on the same page.

PM Modi likes to spring surprises, but this time the regional satraps, Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati, sprung a surprise by keeping under wraps their decision to fight jointly until the last week of the election. This element of surprise contributed to BJP’s strategy going haywire.

Many party insiders in Lucknow say that it will be a mistake to read the defeat in the byelections as a matter of simple arithmetic—of adding up the supporters of SP and BSP. The defeat was, also, because of people’s mood against the government. Many BJP MLAs and MPs repeat the phrase, “Logo ke aakrosh ne haraya (people’s anger defeated us).” For instance, the construction sector is paralysed, but Yogi took his own time to understand the issue of short supply of raw materials.

A BJP MP pointed out that “When one talks about SP-BSP being a smart tie-up they actually mean Muslims, Jatavs and Yadavs coming together. Muslims were never with the BJP. Jatavs and Yadavs are a formidable force when they are lined up together with the Muslims, but this exclusive position is in just around 20 Lok Sabha constituencies. In rest of the constituencies, multiple factors work. In Western UP, in particular, such caste combinations often do not work because of long standing caste rivalries. Also, once caste politics, as presented by Mayawati and Akhilesh comes into play, the counter inter-caste rivalries also work and consolidate for the other side.”

When asked if the NDA could lose as many as 50 of its 73 Lok Sabha seats in Uttar Pradesh, if SP and BSP voters stayed united, the BJP leader argued, “In plain arithmetic, SP plus BSP can be two plus two, but Lok Sabha elections are emotional events and nationwide emotion at play on the eve of elections will work, ultimately.”

The byelection defeat has also reasserted the importance of PM Narendra Modi. “The Modi card overtly and the issue of Hindu identity covertly will remain the twin templates to fight the SP-BSP’s caste war in UP,” said the BJP leader.

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