Confused and conflicting signals from the Bharatiya Janata Party to its supporters in the run up to this month’s crucial Uttar Pradesh assembly polls appear to have seriously handicapped the saffron juggernaut that had swept the state barely three years ago in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

The party today is trapped between its traditional approach of polarising the Hindu vote against the Muslim minority and the new stratagem of provoking a class war between the haves and the have-nots through Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dramatic war on black money announced in early November. With only a few days left for polling in the first phase of elections, neither the old communal ploy nor the new demonetisation gambit appears to have taken off in the BJP campaign.

The absence of an emotive pitch to the voter that is normally the hallmark of the formidable Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh propaganda machine is palpable in western Uttar Pradesh where the polls begin later this week. Significantly, this is the same region, scorched by the communal flames of the Muzzafarnagar riots in 2013, that helped the BJP’s very successful campaign to polarise the entire Hindu vote in its favour some months later in the parliamentary polls. Even after the advent of the Modi regime in New Delhi, various groups allied to the RSS, helped covertly and overtly by BJP leaders, had kept communal tensions simmering in western Uttar Pradesh till not so long ago.

No communal problems

Yet despite initial fears that the region would be turned into a communal cauldron just before the state assembly to repeat the 2014 BJP triumph, there was little evidence of animosity between Hindus and Muslims to be seen during a recent road trip through several districts in the region including Muzaffarnagar and Shamli, which were torn apart by riots earlier. In fact, both communities seemed keen to forget the past and get on with their lives, stressing local civic problems and not the riots as the real electoral issues.

“The netas created the riots and all of us have suffered because of so much economic disruption. We don’t want to look back but need to move on,” declared a Hindu sweet shop owner in Muzaffarnagar city, echoing a common refrain from most members of the community across riot-affected areas.

Muslims seemed to consciously veer away from the subject of riots that killed, maimed and displaced so many members of their community. “We are worried about problems that face us today and not what happened in the past” was a common response from agricultural labourers, students and shopkeepers belonging to the minority community, when asked about the communal conflagration that had engulfed the region in the recent past.

Interestingly, in a recent television show, in which local residents in and around Muzaffarnagar participated , the entire audience, including a sizeable delegation of BJP supporters, loudly agreed that there was no communal tension in the region. Hindu-Muslim relations was not an issue in the coming polls, they said.

Tainted leaders

The BJP leaders from the region, such as Sangeet Som, Suresh Rana , Hukum Singh and Sanjeev Balyan, notorious for spreading communal tension, are on the backfoot.

Som, sitting MLA from Sardhana, is struggling in his constituency with many Hindus complaining that he had neglected the area.

Rana, MLA from Thana Bhawan, Shamli district is in trouble from various other caste groups in his constituency for favouring his own Thakur caste.

Hukum Singh, the BJP member of Parliament who created such a stir last year about an exodus of Hindus from Muslim dominated Kairana, is being criticised for choosing his daughter as the local candidate instead of his more popular nephew who is now contesting as a rebel.

Balyan, the BJP member of Parliament from Muzaffarnagar, who also happens to be a minister of state in Modi’s council of ministers at the Centre, is in a similar situation. A local BJP leader, who lives just few houses away from Balyan’s house in Muzaffarnagar city, shook his head sadly and claimed that although he had “captured” nine polling booths in 2014 on behalf of the BJP, he is unlikely to lift a finger this time beyond casting his own vote. “My own Jat community is very unhappy with the BJP so what can I do?” he lamented.

Disruption by demonetisation

The disarray among local BJP leaders and workers and their inability to polarise the Hindu voter partly stems from the confusion in the party created by the parallel strategy of pitting the poor against the rich suddenly introduced by the prime minister a few months ago. This unfamiliar politics of class war, never used by the Sangh or the BJP before, has alienated sections of their core base of traders, shopkeepers and farmers who have been hurt by the drastic disruption of cash flow. At the same time the party has simply not been able to convince the poor of the benefits of demonetisation particularly as they have emerged as the real victims of the unprecedented squeeze put on the cash economy.

Not surprisingly, the BJP is now hastily retreating from its earlier plan of using notebandi as its main weapon for the Uttar Pradesh polls. It is clearly on the defensive and at pains to claim that the sufferings caused by demonetisation were a temporary blip and are being falsely exaggerated by its opponents. The BJP leaders and workers hardly mention notebandi in their campaign pamphlets or posters and even Modi, in his public meeting in Meerut, made only a brief reference to it towards the end of his speech. At the Shukratal television audience show mentioned above, the BJP team, while countering sharp criticism of demonetisation by other participants, did not praise it but simply dismissed it as just a brief disruption that did not cause that much harm as opponents of the party were claiming.

The Jat anger

Unable to rally its supporters either on a communal plank or a war unleashed against the rich and corrupt, the BJP is facing defections from previously supportive groups, particularly the powerful Jat community in western Uttar Pradesh that had voted as a bloc for the party in the 2014 polls. The Jats are upset with the Modi government at the Centre for not doing enough to get them a good price for the sugarcane crop they grow in their fields. They are also increasingly restless about the delay in accepting the demand for reservation for their community and even more aggrieved with the way the BJP government in Haryana put down the Jat agitation in the state last year.

The disenchantment among the Jats with the BJP has led to the miraculous electoral revival of Rashtriya Lok Dal leader Ajit Singh, son of the late former Prime Minister and Jat patriarch Charan Singh. Not only is he taking away vital Jat votes but even the abrupt manner he was earlier evicted from the MP’s bungalow by the Modi’s government has become a matter of grievance and many members of his caste said this had hurt Jat pride.

So while the BJP is a contender in most seats in western Uttar Pradesh, its tentative election campaign and inability to rally more groups and communities under its banner means that the party may not get the kick start it would have hoped for in the first phase of the polls.