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BJP’s litmus test in Uttar Pradesh

BJP’s litmus test in Uttar Pradesh
If the opinion polls are to be believed Narendra Modi’s man-Friday has delivered what many thought an impossible task, that of putting back BJP to its position of 1996-1999 period in the largest state of Uttar Pradesh. More than the opinion polls the signs of discomfort in the Congress camp also indicates that BJP is on a come back trail in the state. Former cricket captain Mohammed Azaruddin has expressed the desire to shift from Moradabad, his present constituency, to West Bengal. Congress desperation to win over Amethi strong man Sanjay Singh is another sign of nervousness in the Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s family borough. Narendra Modi’s well-attended rallies, too, indicate popular interest in BJP. True, these are just signs indicating success of Amit Shah in reviving BJP fortune in the state. But there are many a slip between the cup and the lip; more so in politics.

Uttar Pradesh, the largest state of the country sends 80 members to the Lok Sabha. BJP was at its peak in 1998 when it won 57 seats in UP in the parliamentary polls. Since then, however, its graph has gradually declined. BJP’s performance was consistently poor in the state assembly election of 2007 and 2012.The party could win only 51 and 47 seats respectively in a state where it once had its own government. Shah and his team have worked at the grassroots to reverse the trend. The key message that is coming out now seems to be exciting for the party. For the students of political communication in India the apparent turn around of BJP fortune in UP is an interesting case to study. Narendra Modi took the risk. Defying all sane advice of senior leaders and party sympathisers, Modi brought in Amit Shah, his former controversial junior Home Minister as his campaign committee chairperson in UP. Amit had several baggages. He was seen as the schemer in Gujarat, a staunch supporter of right wing Hindu faith and certainly a divisive figure. He had been mired in several controversies. For such a person to come and spearhead BJP cause in UP, a state with large Muslim population was viewed as another mad project of Narendra Modi. How would an outsider with controversial record feel the pulse of the voters in UP, wave the magic wand like he did in Gujarat and change the game for the party? The detractors of Modi were secretly pleased, the supporters had their fingers crossed.

Shah is known in the BJP circles as a master strategist. This is because he has proved his mettle in Gujarat. But Gujarat is more homogeneous and less complex electorally than UP. Even politically UP has two strong regional parties – Mulayam Yadav’s SP and Mayawati’s BSP. More important the Congress family has their family boroughs in the state. BJP had created a position in the state but that was when Mayawati was still learning the ropes of politics and Congress was confused over the Ram Janmabhumi issue. But Shah’s task is far more complex in 2013-14. He cannot use Ram Temple even as a footnote, forget about as a key message. Both he and his mentor Modi are branded as religious jingoist. Development plank of Gujarat would find few takers among people accustomed to live amidst poverty and riots. When Shah came to UP nobody would have aspired to take his job.

What did he do? If the opinion polls and on ground signals prove correct BJP revival in UP will end up as a case study for the researchers. One would recall how the UP chief minister Akhilesh Yadav had quietly swayed the voters in favour of SP when a high profile campaign of Rahul Gandhi to do the same failed. Political campaign is all about touching base with the electorates in their daily struggle for existence. The ordinary people live resigned to their fate. But they, too, nurture hopes, that of living in peace in search of a brighter tomorrow. They trust someone, get disillusioned and then move over to other option available, again to be disappointed. They side with anybody who offers them a sympathetic ear. Examples are Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal sweeping out a 35-year long Left rule in the state. She had been with the people. The fledgling Aam Admi Party also tasted success in Delhi. Clearly political communication is all about reaching out to the voters in their daily battles in life. 
Shah used the same oft-used trick to revive BJP prospect in UP. He sent party workers to villages to interact with voters. Any political organizer knows that the real strength of a party lies in its booth level communication. This wins the party more votes than a frankly speaking on a TV channel can deliver. Booth is the unit where the voter comes and if party workers and leaders are active there, they will know each and every voter and this in turn will help in motivating them to vote for the party. Shah equipped each booth with 11 to 100 workers. He also created an effective feedback system to monitor the progress made the workers. Senior leaders became coordinators and paalaks (caretakers), in-charge of campaigning and other election-related activities, across UP. 

The steps energised grassroot party workers. They can connect both with themselves and the public at large. These grassroot committees also ensure that people register as voters. The agenda is clear – only good governance and development can secure common man’s future. There is a synergy of messages – what Narendra Modi preaches, state and district level leaders echo and booth level workers repeat. There is thus a uniform key message flowing from BJP in UP.

But it is too early to predict the impact of the campaign. Rallies deliver people, not votes. Articles can make the leaders happy but do not fetch vote. Opinion polls are exciting and meant for arm chair TV debates but do not ensure votes. Only in May Shah will know if he has been successful.

The author is a communication consultant
Sugato Hazra

Sugato Hazra

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