On December 30, 2016, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Chairman of the Samajwadi Party, expelled his son, Akhilesh Yadav, from the party. Just one day later, the expulsion was rescinded and Akhilesh Yadav was reinstated. Akhilesh Yadav, the charismatic Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP), had begun to throw his weight around in the party, something to which the party elders—Akhilesh Yadav’s own family members—took strong exception. With the Election Commission set to announce election dates in UP, there is precious little time for the Samajwadi Party to address all of the factionalism in its party. Who knows what will happen next? While newspapers will naturally focus on the unfolding drama in the Yadav family, the most obvious beneficiary of this political chaos is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The appeal of the BJP is not tied to a highly popular state-level political leader, unlike its major competitors Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party. The BJP will seek to win the UP election based on a combination of caste calculations and the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his policies. In a state with such complex regional dynamics, it would be an extraordinary achievement for the BJP to win the UP election on its national appeal.
The Importance of Uttar Pradesh to the BJP
UP is the most populous state in India, and as such, it has a disproportionate impact on national electoral results. Out of the 543 seats in India’s lower house (the Lok Sabha) 80 seats are elected from UP. In the 2014 national election, the BJP nearly swept the state, winning 71 of these seats (with coalition partner Apna Dal winning two more). Simply put, without the seats in UP, neither the BJP nor its National Democratic Alliance would have enough seats to form government.
But UP is not just important in numerical terms. Despite a thumping victory in the 2014 national election, state elections over the past two years have not been kind to the BJP. Seven states or union territories, Assam, Bihar, Delhi, Kerala, Puducherry, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal, went to the polls over this period, and the BJP only emerged victorious in Assam. The election in UP offers the BJP an opportunity to reverse this trend.
A key feature of Modi’s tenure as Prime Minister has been the consolidation (and centralization) of power within the BJP. For instance, while accounts vary about who knew about the massive “demonetization” underway in India, there is little doubt that the decision was made by a coterie within the party with almost everyone else in the dark. While this centralization has yielded benefits in terms of Modi’s personal popularity, it has caused problems during state elections. The BJP’s state units have at times seemed discordant with the party at the center, especially in the recently concluded Bihar and Delhi elections, leading to big electoral losses. Even in the BJP’s victory in Assam, it’s hard to assess how well the party would have performed without reaping the benefits of high profile defections from opposing parties, especially the immensely popular Himanta Biswa Sarma from Congress. The UP election offers an opportunity for the BJP to show that it can win a major state election under Modi’s party centralization.
The Interplay Between National and State Politics
Akhilesh Yadav is the type of political leader that has given the BJP fits in recent elections. Whether it be the Nitish Kumar-Lalu Prasad Yadav combine in Bihar or Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, recent state elections have been captured by state-level charismatic leaders associated with highly visible development projects and benefits schemes. Akhilesh Yadav, possessing a charismatic appeal that rises above the usual caste calculus of a Yadav political leader, fits this model to a tee; he is associated with, among other things, new expressways in the state, the Lucknow metro project, and a popular program distributing laptops to students. But the tumult within the Yadav family may hurt his chances this time. With the leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party, Mayawati, also reeling under allegations of corruption and increased scrutiny on personal assets, the BJP has a golden opportunity to win the UP election without explicitly projecting a charismatic state-level face for the party.
The received wisdom in Indian politics is that India’s states are so socially and culturally differentiated that strong state-level party units replete with popular state-level political leaders are required to win state elections. Furthermore, ruling coalitions in the Lok Sabha must be cobbled together while being mindful of these state-specific interests. Indeed, there are a number of regional parties in the Lok Sabha that have no national aspirations as such but use their positions as coalition brokers to extract benefits from the center for their own states. If Modi’s BJP can succeed in consolidating and centralizing power within the BJP while winning a number of state elections (and a large number of seats in the national election), one may have to reconsider this received wisdom.
In order to understand the impact of party centralization, one must ascertain the extent to which voters differentiate between state and national politics and which level (state or national) plays a dominant role in shaping political preferences. That is, to what extent do voters look at national or state issues when casting a vote in state elections? Since coming to power, Modi’s version of the BJP has aggressively sought to define political debate in the country in national terms, whether fighting black money and corruption (as in demonetization) or simply branding opponents as “anti-national.” Perhaps this “nationalizing” of political debate in India will allow the BJP to win state contests on national issues like corruption (as seems to be the BJP’s strategy in UP). If voters distinguish between national and state politics, this strategy may even allow the BJP to strengthen its grip on power at the national level while losing state elections.
The upcoming election in UP will go a long way in helping us understand the evolving relationship between state and national politics in India. While it is easy to get lost in every twist and turn of the UP electoral season, a close look at the UP election may help in comprehending broader structural transformations in Indian politics.
Neelanjan Sircar is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.
India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI.
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