UP Election 2017: How Modi's campaign changed dramatically and what it says about BJP's chances

It was a remarkable spectacle in 2014. While BJP's rivals, especially in the Hindi heartland, were busy slicing and dicing data on caste equations, PM-aspirant Narendra Modi was telling rally after rally of packed audiences how he will bring achhe din. The more his rivals asked the electorate not to trust him, the more Modi talked about development. The opposition called him a 'polarising figure who will usher in riots', Modi said he will usher in vikaas.

The result was stunning. In Uttar Pradesh alone, BJP won 71 out of 80 seats. Dalits abandoned Mayawati and voted in droves for BJP's PM candidate. AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal ran a campaign of anger. Modi defeated him in Varanasi by a huge margin.

File image of Narendra Modi. PTI

File image of Narendra Modi. PTI

Writing for EPW, A K Verma analysed BJP's victory as "…it is significant that the party made electoral gains across all castes and communities and across all regions in the state. This victory signalled a paradigm shift in voter behaviour, with a preference for good governance and development pushing out the identity politics of caste and community."

Was it really a paradigm shift in voter behaviour? Was 2014 the year of enlightenment for Indian voters who suddenly realised that they had been taken for a merry ride by politicians in the name of caste and community equations? Were they eschewing identity politics and its trappings?

Unlikely. Subsequent elections have shown a depressing return to 'normalcy'. In Bihar, for instance, mahagathbandhan trounced BJP and a former chief minister who served jail time for corruption bagged the most votes.

The inescapable conclusion seems to be that in 2014 Modi had a better narrative than his opponents. To the electorate, pushed against the wall by a non-performing government at the Centre, Modi's promise of 'better days' made more sense than apocalyptic fear of riots.

BJP's early campaign script for 2017 Assembly polls promised to take off from where Modi had left in 2014. There seemed to be, despite media reports of social engineering and a soft Hindutva line, a renewed and refreshing focus on development. In early January, BJP's campaign language was one of hope, aspiration, fight against black money and a call to rise above caste equations in a mindbogglingly complex demographic.

It appeared that BJP planned to keep it simple. 'Vote for us, and we will bring vikaas'.

As Samajwadi Party, by chance or design, got sucked into the vortex of a family battle, Congress's khatias were up for grabs and Mayawati was busy playing Muslim card, Modi asked the electorate in Lucknow to rise above caste and vote for development.

"We want development of the country, better health facilities and poverty eradication. It will not happen till UP doesn’t develop. We have to change the fate of UP, only then the country will develop." In a rhetorical flourish, he added: "I say change notes, they say remove Modi. We say fight against corruption, but these parties say remove Modi. We say end the menace of black money, but these parties want to remove Modi.”

Cut to February. BJP's tone has become angry. There are less calls for development. The calls to rise above caste and community equations have lessened. From a positive campaign in early January, it has turned overwhelmingly negative. Leave alone his generals, even Modi seems to have abandoned politics of hope and aspiration for invective rhetoric. Whereas earlier he would mainly ignore rivals and focus on transformative oratory, of late he replaced it with a personalised campaign against Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi. He invented an acronym, S-C-A-M (SP, Congress, Akhilesh and Mayawati) and asked voters to teach them a lesson.

In Bijnor on Friday, he slammed the UP chief minister for clasping Rahul Gandhi's hand. "You sided with the Congress leader who has the largest number of jokes on him in Google."

In Uttarakhand's Haridwar on the same day, he advised Congress to hold their tongue or else risk getting exposed. “Mein Congress ke logon se kehta hoon: jabaan sambhaal kar rakho, warna mere paas aapki poori janam patri padi hui hai (hold your tongue, I have your entire horoscope).

Elsewhere, BJP MLA Sangeet Som was caught showing video clips of Muzaffarnagar riots, Amit Shah promised 'anti-Romeo squads', slammed SP and Congress for dynasty politics and held a last-minute mollification meeting with Jats of western UP to address their concerns. The Jats, a crucial BJP vote bank, are widely reported to be disillusioned and angry with BJP.

In short, BJP seems to have faltered on their strength. Instead of presenting the electorate with a simple yet convincing narrative, they are desperately searching for a better story to trump the one told by Akhilesh. They have been reduced to making the same mistake which Modi's rivals did in 2014 — run an anti-campaign.

Why? What changed? The answer is very simple: notebandi.

Remarkably, demonetisation reference seems to have vanished from BJP's campaign. Even Modi, whose first few rallies was centred around it, rarely picks up the topic. Party president Amit Shah told Network 18 Group Editor-in-Chief Rahul Joshi in an interview that demonetisation won’t be the issue in UP.

BJP's problem is that notebandi happened at a very wrong time for UP. What we are witnessing now is the second stage where the initial euphoria over 'fight against black money' has been replaced by voter anger at the decimation of the informal economy. This will change, for sure. All metrics suggest that India will witness a V-shaped recovery in the third stage. But till that happens, the job losses and contraction of rural economy will have its repercussions and BJP is feeling the heat.

Assuaging the anger of voters, who appear willing to teach BJP a lesson, isn't easy in such a short amount of time. The early campaign language of aspiration of hope has therefore turned into one of desperation for BJP. Modi may still be better placed when the third stage eventually arrives but until then he will have to take the likely reverses on his chin. His body language too reflects that.

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Updated Date: Feb 11, 2017 19:12:38 IST

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