BJP is losing perception battle in UP, but is anybody listening?

By: Kanchan Gupta
Updated: 23 Aug 2016 05:09 PM
Perception and reality compete for the same space in the popular imagination that determines political choices at election time. It’s for this reason that political parties are mindful of popular perception. Winning the perception battle is necessary to win the electoral war. Reality often plays a minimal role unless it is so powerful that it can be used as a weapon of overwhelming force.


The ABP News-Lokniti/CSDS opinion poll to gauge the mood in Uttar Pradesh where Assembly election is due early next year confirms this thesis. As of today, the BJP, which hopes to win Uttar Pradesh to reaffirm its dominance in the heartland, is not quite winning the perception battle. Indeed, it’s seen as losing the battle, ironically to the BSP that was wiped out in the 2014 general election, and to an extent to the SP that barely managed to hold on to its first family boroughs.


The perception that Scheduled Castes have been getting a raw deal ever since the BJP’s ascendance to power at the Centre, irrespective of the reality, has begun denting the party’s popularity among a politically powerful segment of the electorate. Scheduled Caste voters, including Jatavs and non-Jatavs, comprise 22 per cent, or nearly a quarter, of the voters. Their vote, as well as their veto, can make or unmake victory at the polls.


One of the significant findings of the survey indicates a massive erosion in the support of Scheduled Caste voters that had accrued in large measure to the BJP in 2014. Analysis by CSDS had shown that 18 per cent Jatav and nearly half of all non-Jatav Scheduled Caste voters had backed the BJP in 2014, thus boosting the BJP’s fortunes and demolishing the BSP’s prospects.The latest survey suggests Jatav support for the BJP has declined from 18 per cent to eight per cent while non-Jatav support has fallen from 45 per cent to 16 per cent. The shift that had played a signifcant role in BJP’s clean sweep of Uttar Pradesh (the party won in 73 of the 80 Lok Sabha constituencies in this State) is now in reverse swing, pulling the victor of 2014 down.


It would appear that incidents and events far away have begun to find a resonance in Uttar Pradesh. The suicide by a Scheduled Caste student in Hyderabad, the beating up for Scheduled Caste youth at Una in Gujarat, the vigilantism of thugs masquerading as ‘Gau Rakshaks’, the uncalled for abusive language of a senior party leader, the perceived pandering of ‘Upper Castes’ by the RSS (which is far from the truth) and the obsession of senior Central Ministers (who also happen to be the most visible faces of the party) with issues that tickle the fancy of south Delhi’s chattering classes and not the vast masses are all contributing to the foisting of the perception that the ‘BJP is anti-Dalit’.


The perception has begun to stick, just as the perception of the BJP as being anti-Christian had stuck before the Delhi Assembly election and the perception of the BJP as being undemocratic and intolerant had stuck before the Bihar Assembly election. ‘Church attacks’ and ‘award wapsi’ had indisputably hobbled the BJP’s prospects – to what extent is anybody’s guess.


Two other factors appear to be working against the BJP’s prospects of winning the key battle of 2017. First, rapidly rising unpopularity (referred to as anti-incumbency) of its MPs. Second, poor communications by the NDA Government – the average voter is virtually unaware of all that Modi Sarkar has done in the last two years.


Constituency-level anti-incumbency can prove to be an unmitigated disaster. Atal Bihari Vajpayee remained wildly popular even after the BJP lost the 2004 election with nearly 100 sitting MPs getting the boot. This reality was further underscored by the Congress’s wipeout in 2014.


Poor communications at the institutional level and the level of the party is emerging as the BJP’s proverbial Achilles Heel. Prime Minister Narendra Modi remains a great communicator and retains his connect with the masses. But it is absurd to expect him to be the sole communicator or carry the burden all alone.


Seven days is a long time in politics. Six months is an era. A lot could change between now and voting day, in fact, between now and the next survey three months later. Each of the three contenders – the BJP, the SP and the BSP (the Congress seems to have fallen off the electoral map of Uttar Pradesh) will exert to force that change and make it work to their advantage. It remains to be seen how BJP restrategises to deal with the emerging pollscape of India’s politically most important State.


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