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Minhaz Merchant

Minhaz Merchant is the biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla and author of The New Clash of Civilizations (Rupa, 2014). He is founder of Sterling Newspapers Pvt. Ltd. which was acquired by the Indian Express group

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Modi’s UP Challenge

By choosing 44-year-old, five-time Gorakhpur MP Yogi Adityanath (a Thakur) as Chief Minister, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has put politics first: if anyone can deliver UP’s 80 Lok Sabha seats in 2019 it is Adityanath

Photo Credit : Reuters


Large mandates come with large responsibilities. Prime Minister Narendra Modi knows that the next two years of his tenure pose an even greater challenge than the last three. The newest challenge is to manage expectations in Uttar Pradesh. By appointing a polarising Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath, Modi has decided to take UP’s festering communal cauldron head-on.

For decades, the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Congress and the BSP used religion and caste to divide UP. It worked. With captive vote banks of Yadavs, Muslims and Dalits, the SP and the BSP dominated UP’s electoral politics for 15 years.

By choosing 44-year-old, five-time Gorakhpur MP Yogi Adityanath (a Thakur) as Chief Minister, Modi has put politics first: if anyone can deliver UP’s 80 Lok Sabha seats in 2019 it is Adityanath. As one BJP leader said wryly: “When you pick Yogi Adityanath to lead the biggest state, you do not have to scream from the top of the roof that you stand with the Hindus.”

By picking two deputy chief ministers from opposite sides of the caste spectrum, Modi has continued to place faith in the rainbow coalition that helped the BJP deliver an extraordinary mandate in the UP state assembly election. Dinesh Sharma, a Brahmin, will consolidate the upper caste vote leading up to 2019. Brahmins anyway vote for the BJP but Sharma as deputy chief minister will allay any fears that OBCs would dominate the administration. Keshav Prasad Maurya, the other deputy chief minister, is an OBC. As state party president, he led the BJP campaign in UP and delivered. He completes the rainbow coalition for the BJP, straddling the entire spectrum from upper castes to most backward castes (MBCs)

As a sanyasin, Adityanath’s appeal cuts across castes. He has a large following among Muslims as well. Some of his views, especially on women’s reservation in Parliament, are regressive. As chief minister, he must moderate those views. To his credit he said, after he was sworn in, that he will be chief minister for all and treat every community equally. The fact that such a pledge had to be made in the first place reflects UP’s long slide into communalism and casteism.

In this unfortunate preponderance of caste and religion in UP, one of India’s most backward states, where does development figure? It must be at the top of Modi’s agenda. A rainbow coalition of caste with Sharma and Maurya as deputy CMs and a ‘virat Hindu’ chief minister Yogi Adityanath closes the electoral circle around community and caste. But Modi knows that without development over the next two years the strategy will backfire.

The BJP has adopted in Uttar Pradesh the Congress’ much reviled, decades-long country-wide vote bank political model. What the Congress didn’t do, fatally, is follow it up with good governance and economic development. In the fullness of time, that backfired on the Congress. After 55 years in power out of India’s first 67 post-independent years, the Congress now faces several years of banishment at the Centre.

The BJP will, however, again in the fullness of time, meet the same fate if it fails to overlay its rainbow coalition of caste with development. In politics, the tide can turn quickly and without warning. What then should Modi’s priorities be – both in Uttar Pradesh and India – as the two-year countdown to the 2019 Lok Sabha election begins this summer?

Start with UP. Under the SP, goonda raj — squashed temporarily by then chief minister Mayawati in 2007-12 — returned with a vengeance over the last five years. On a road trip to Surat and Baroda last week, I asked my taxi driver, who was from UP, what he expected from the new government in Uttar Pradesh. His answer was succinct: end the Yadav-Muslim goonda raj which flourished under the SP. He said he was a Vishwakarma (an artist and carpenter caste) and craved law and order above all else. Next came infrastructure. He praised the new Lucknow-Agra expressway but bemoaned the state of UP’s rural roads, the lack of manufacturing activity, poor healthcare facilities, and an appalling educational system.

Can Yogi Adityanath and his two deputy CMs place development above deity? Modi has placed the following bet: consolidate the Hindu vote nationally in 2019 and in a dual strategy focus simultaneously on development. With both the Centre and India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, in its hands, the BJP will have no excuse if development lags in the next two years. The importance of “infrastructure” ministers like Piyush Goyal, Nitin Gadkari and Suresh Prabhu will rise. Power, roads and railways modernisation will receive laser-like focus from Modi.

Healthcare and education are the state’s other priorities. Both are in shambles after 15 years of SP and BSP misgovernance during 2002-2017. They must be fixed. Jobs and law and order are the most visible signs of a state’s progress. Here the prime minister’s various schemes for the poor and farmers will need special attention. A guardian minister for UP from Modi’s cabinet would be a good idea to monitor progress in the state.

The political impact of the tsunamic UP electoral verdict can hardly be overstated. It has guaranteed the NDA a large chunk of seats in the Rajya Sabha in 2018 when over 65 seats fall vacant. The victory has demoralised the Opposition and silenced Modi’s fiercest critics Mamata Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal.

The spectre of a nationwide mahagathbandhan in 2019 has receded. Only Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar has the gravitas to lead a combined Opposition but he too is on slippery ground, tarred by the odious company of Lalu Prasad Yadav’s two sons Tej and Tejashwi, one a minister, the other a deputy chief minister. The Index of Opposition Unity (IOU) has slipped along with dynasts like the Gandhis and Yadavs.

Post-victory Uttar Pradesh could be Modi’s sternest test. Finding a fine balance between development and deity in UP will decide the winners and losers in 2019.