Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party has cemented its grip on national politics with its excellent showing in state elections, particularly in India's most populous state of Uttar Pradesh. The BJP's stranglehold on power in New Delhi is based on its strength in the north and west of India. UP, as it is called, is the biggest prize in national politics: the equivalent of Texas, Florida and Virginia combined.
UP's voters had not re-elected a state government for decades. Now, they have given the BJP a second majority in the state assembly, underlining the fact that it is very hard to imagine anyone successfully challenging Modi when elections to the national parliament roll around in 2024. If the BJP sweeps UP's 80 parliamentary constituencies once again, a third term for Modi is almost assured.
That doesn't mean that UP's electorate is completely satisfied with the BJP's performance. The past two years have been particularly disastrous. The state suffered hugely during the delta wave in May and June last year. Inflation has been bothersome and job creation anemic. Many people – including opposition parties – assumed that widespread discontent would translate into disaffection against Modi's hand-picked chief minister, the monk-politician Yogi Adityanath.
Under Adityanath, the state government seemed as interested in demonstrating his hardline Hindu nationalist credentials as in addressing the struggling economy.
Certainly, UP's economic stagnation persisted during his term.
The economist Santosh Mehrotra, using government data, has pointed out that the state's output grew at barely 2 percent a year from 2017 to 2021, compared to almost 7 percent for the five-year tenure of the previous government. In fact, the job-creating manufacturing sector shrank after growing 15 percent in the previous term. Youth unemployment is so high that the state has begun to see job riots.
Even so, the BJP won with a comfortable margin. Was it simply Adityanath's image as the hard man of Hindutva?
That's only part of the explanation. Many analysts assume that the age of populism in which we live is one in which identity politics can be trumped only by class or economic interests. Thus, if faced with a resurgent white nationalism, you might want to talk about "millionaires and billionaires," or about the struggles of the middle class.
In Uttar Pradesh, the opposition ran a strenuous campaign devoted to the errors of the government, the state of the economy and the disastrous handling of the pandemic. Yet they discovered on counting day that even angry citizens do not necessarily blame their populist leaders for mismanagement.
What those who think economics trump identity seem to forget is that successful populists ensure that voters look at every issue from the point of view of "us and them."
In UP, everyone suffered in the delta wave and through the job crisis – but at least, Hindu nationalists might say, they did not suffer worse than other groups due to government neglect. Who knows what might have happened under the other guys, who don't have our interests at heart?
Similarly, there may not be enough jobs to go around. But at least, if government jobs open up, Indians of the "right" religious and caste background will not find themselves at the back of the queue. For economists and analysts, deprivation is absolute. For populists and their voters, it's all relative.
In UP, enough voters decided that Adityanath's representation of muscular Hindutva directly implied that he would be the most watchful steward of their interests. Even if the outcomes were unsatisfactory, nobody else – no politician less committed to the majoritarian cause – would do better at protecting them in particular.
Adityanath's mandate to rule the 200 million people of UP thus offers lessons for those aiming to challenge populists in other places, large and small. Simply focusing on economic outcomes isn't enough. Leaders skilled in the use and misuse of identity politics will insist that they alone can solve problems, even those they have created, because everyone else is corrupt or working for the enemy.
These populists can effectively steer blame elsewhere – to minorities, to outsiders and foreigners, to an entrenched elite. They can and will do this – and will remain relevant – until the very source of their power, the divisions in society that strengthen and support them, are directly targeted and addressed.
Mihir Sharma is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi and head of its Economy and Growth Programme.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement.