Lucknow, March 8: The Uttar Pradesh Assembly Elections 2017 began well. For the first three phases of elections, the narrative was civil, the attacks were on policies and their implementation, the rhetoric mellow. As the fourth phase came, the strategies of political parties turned on their heads. The rallies started to appear slugfests where leaders exchanged body shots, many times below the belt. The attacks got very personal and the jibes started having communal undertones. The main campaigners for most of the political parties including BJP, BSP, and SP resorted to divisionary tactics and toxic commentary. From wooing voters, the strategies took a sharp U-turn as they focussed on spoiling games of rival parties. The development agenda took a back seat. Communal rhetoric and personal commenting gained currency. What led to the shift of narrative by political parties?

When the political parties embarked on their respective campaign trails, they had a few concrete issues and achievements to talk about. However, the long drawn electoral war proved the issues would be inadequate to keep the audience engaged.

The BJP-led Central government’s demonetisation move was supposed to be make-or-break for all the parties. In the initial phases, SP’s alliance partner Congress’s Vice-President Rahul Gandhi concentrated on demonetisation at his rallies as he slammed the Modi government for the move. “In a country, where most transaction are on cash, and the majority of the population are without access to banking services, the decision to suddenly remove 86 percent of currency in circulation without adequate preparation and consultation has been a fundamental failure of policy design,” he had said in a seminar. He said in a public meeting that Modi had broken the backbone of the economy and that it was a personal decision. He also focussed on jobs and the issues faced by the farmers.

Samajwadi Party President Akhilesh Yadav, in his first rally, said that demonetisation was against the poor and farmers. “Have you heard anywhere in the world that overnight currency is demonetised… Money is never black or white; transactions are black,” the Hindustan Times had quoted him. He also centered his campaign around the large infrastructural projects his government completed including the Lucknow-Agra highway and Lucknow Metro.

The Bharatiya Janata Party campaigners led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah sought to gloss over the demonetisation move, saying only the corrupt had problems with the move. They tried to get their message across that demonetisation had brought black money to banks and it would have long term benefits. The BJP leadership was extremely critical of the Rahul-Akhilesh partnership. The first personal attack was launched by Amit Shah, who took a sharp jibe at Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi, saying ‘one troubles his father, the other troubles his mother’.

However, soon after the third phase of elections, the political parties suddenly pressed on the gas. Prime Minister Narendra made a shocking comment, alleging discrimination by the SP government on a communal basis. (Also read: Uttar Pradesh Assembly Election 2017 Results Predictions: Journalists Prannoy Roy, Rajdeep Sardesai, Barkha Dutt predict the outcome)

“Agar kabristan me bijli hai to shamshaan me bhi honi chahiye. Agar Ramzan mein bijli aati hai, to Diwali me bhi aani chahiye, bhedbhav nahi hona chahiye (If there is electricity in the graveyard and during Ramzan, it must also be available in a crematorium and during Diwali. There should be no discrimination),” PM Modi had said.

After this comment by Prime Minister Modi, ostensibly made to consolidate Hindu votes, the discourse completely changed. The BJP leaders defended the comment by saying that he just promised equal treatment to all the religions. They said that the prime minister was talking about ‘sabka saath, sabka vikaas’. Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav said in response that while he was talking about laptops and smartphones, they (PM Modi) were talking about ‘shamshan and Kabristan’. Mayawati largely remained away from the BJP-SP duel in this particular thread of communication.

PM Modi was not the only BJP leader who sought to consolidate Hindu votes. BJP’s prominent Hindutva face Yogi Aditya Nath also engaged in the toxic commentary. He said at a rally that if Samajwadi Party came to power, ‘kabristan and Karbala’ would be constructed, but if the BJP came to power, Ram Mandir would be constructed.

Amit Shah also joined the party with a polarising comment. This is what he said in a rally in Gorakhpur: “Ye Uttar Pradesh ki janata is baar ke chunav mein is Kasab se mukti paa le. Main phir se bolta hu Uttar Pradesh ki janata is baar ke chunav mein is Kasab se mukti paa le. Kasab se mera matlab kuch aur mat nikaliyega. Kasab se mera matlab hai — KA se Congress, SA se Samajwadi Party aur B se BSP (In this election, people of U.P. should get rid of Kasab. I say it again, people of U.P. should get rid of Kasab. Do not take any other meaning when I say Kasab. What I mean by KASAB is — KA for Congress, SA for Samajwadi Party and B for BSP).”

There are two possible reasons for BJP’s sudden change in strategy. The party wanted to ascertain whether there was any wave in favour of any party and whether the Muslims were favouring any particular political party. After three phases of polling, no poll pundit could confirm consolidation of Muslim votes. It was a big advantage for the BJP as it was banking on the division of Muslims votes. When the community didn’t show any inclination towards any particular party, BJP smelled opportunity. By using soft Hindutva, they tried to bring the Hindu vote together. They hoped to win using their two-pronged strategy–consolidating Hindu votes and dividing Muslims votes.

The other reason is that the last four phases had regions that are traditionally BJP bastions including Gorakhpur, Ghazipur and Varanasi. There are predominantly Muslim constituencies as well including Azamgarh. The demographics in the region were in harmony with BJP’s poll strategy.

UP Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav was not behind in making controversial comments. He took an insulting jibe at BJP leaders, ostensibly at Amit Shah and Narendra Modi, as he urged Amitabh Bachchan not to campaign for the ‘donkeys of Gujarat’.  It seems Uttar Pradesh CM Akhilesh Yadav didn’t want to be perceived as a meek leader who couldn’t exchange blows for blows. The leader who only talked about development thought it fit to hit the BJP below the belt. Another reason may be that he wanted to be perceived among the Muslims as a leader who can take on Modi and Shah in their own way.

Meanwhile, apart from appealing for votes to the Muslim community, Mayawati also launched sharp attacks against the BJP and the Samajwadi. She directly called Amit Shah an ‘atanki’.

“Aaj apney desh mein Amit Shah se bada yehan koi aur bhi Kasab nahin ho sakta hai, arthaat aatanki nahi ho sakta hai (There cannot be a bigger Kasab, meaning a terrorist, than Amit Shah in our country now),” she said.

She also spoke at length about the family feud in Samajwadi Party, saying the party was divided and appealed to the Muslim community to not waste their votes by trusting the Samajwadi Party.

In the last phase, PM Modi took on all his opponents in one strong jibe.

“Bua (Mayawati), Bhatija(Akhilesh), and Bhatije ka yaar (Rahul Gandhi)” were the most troubled after demonetisation,” Indian Express quoted him as he was speaking at a rally in Jaunpur.

The reasons for making these comments vary from party to party. However, the reality is that these comments fit well in their respective poll strategies. March 11 would reveal whether their strategies worked or not.