The election scene is heating up in Uttar Pradesh. Top leaders across parties have swung into campaign mode. The War of words between top contenders has also escalated. Rallies, yatras, inaugurations, ghoshna patras (declarations), announcements have become the order of the day. As it’s often quoted in the Hindi heartland, ‘chunavi mahaul’ (election atmosphere) is slowly developing.
Initial opinion polls suggest that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is ahead, with an aggressive Samajwadi Party (SP) making it a bipolar contest. However, the SP seems to have hit a ceiling and needs to add one or two key voting segments to make the final push. Yogi Adityanath is leading the Chief Ministerial race, followed by Akhilesh and Mayawati. Congress also looks like it’s improving on its 2017 performance.
What Can Help the BJP?
Five years of anti-incumbency, inept handling of the COVID-19 crisis, farmers’ protest, economic distress due to the pandemic, the exit of OP Rajbhar from the alliance – all of these point towards the fact that the BJP’s vote share in 2022 could decline. Initial surveys, however, show that the BJP is more or less maintaining its 2017 vote share of 40%.
The opening up of the economy with a decline in COVID-19 cases, good progress on vaccination, some voters considering COVID-19 as an ‘act of god’, the repeal of farm laws and a formidable social coalition consisting of upper caste, non-yadav OBCs and non-Jatavs/Dalits, is helping BJP neutralise some of the above issues.
Three factors are helping the BJP maintain its vote share:
Division of votes: BJP is benefiting from a split of the opposition votes. Mayawati, though weakened, is still holding on to her core Jatav/Dalit vote bank. Priyanka has rejuvenated the cadre with an eye on 2024. Congress gaining a couple of percentage points is likely to hurt the Samajwadi Party. Smaller parties like the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) and the Bhim Army led by Chandrasekhar Azad could also wean away a section of minority and Dalit votes.
Loss of Rajbhar compensated by Nishad – OP Rajbhar’s party has left the National Democratic Alliane (NDA) and has joined the SP alliance. Rajbhars, comprising 3% to 5% of the state population, have considerable clout in Eastern Uttar Pradesh. The BJP, in a damage control mode, has compensated for this by inducting the Nishad Party, which enjoys similar clout in the region.
Loss in state elections vs general elections – It’s often stated that the BJP loses vote share in state elections vis a vis general elections. Data show that BJP has lost support across all states since 2019. In relative terms, on average, the BJP has lost 20% vote share in state elections. This also points to the BJP settling at a 40% vote share in Uttar Pradesh. (Lok Sabha vote share of 50% x 80%).
The Underdog Effect
However, can the BJP improve on its 2017 performance and get more support from the people of Uttar Pradesh? Many would doubt that – with so much happening, how can the BJP increase its vote share beyond the current 40% in this scenario?
In our love for the underdog (the underdog effect), if the game is one-sided, then it is not nearly as entertaining. We mostly believe that in an election contest, the front-runner vote share is capped, and it can only go downhill from here.
Two examples here set the context:
In the 2019 general elections, the SP and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) formed a Mahagathbandhan. Most analysts predicted that the two combined have a higher vote share than the BJP (44% vs 40%) and would make a big dent in the BJP tally. The BJP swept the state as it increased its vote share from 40% to 50%, which nobody saw coming.
In the West Bengal state elections, the Trinamool Congress and the BJP were locked in a tight contest, with 44% and 41% vote share in the 2019 general elections. Here again, most analyses predicted how the BJP could bridge this gap. But in the end, Mamata scored an even bigger victory than 2016, as the Trinamool increased its vote share from 44% to 49%, which, again, nobody saw coming.
So, the possibility of the BJP increasing its vote share in 2022 vis-à-vis 2017 cannot be ruled out.
A Trinamool-Like Victory?
Three factors can help BJP increase its vote share:
Polarisation of Hindu votes – The opinion polls show SP gaining some momentum. The Jat-Muslim combination in Western Uttar Pradesh, combined with small alliances sealed, is helping the SP double its tally as per initial surveys. The BJP also has now upped the ante of its Hindutva project, raising the Mathura and Kashi temple dispute resolution after the victory in Ayodhya. The Kashi Vishwanath corridor’s inauguration on December 13 could set the tone for the campaign in the next two months.
The Repeal of farm laws – It has the potential of smoothening the anger of farmers, especially Jats, who have been favouring the party in the recent elections, both state as well as national. The repeal will help the party contain the damage in Western Uttar Pradesh. Its candidates and leaders, who were facing protests locally and unable to campaign in villages now, can do the same. Even before the repeal, BJP was getting a 40% vote share in surveys. So, from here, it should increase due to the repeal.
Bipolar contest – The weakening of the BSP is not only going to benefit the SP but also the BJP. A section of the Jatav/Dalit votes of BSP could move towards the BJP, while Muslim, Yadav, upper-caste support of BSP could veer towards the SP and the Congress to some extent.
Not to forget the fact that Uttar Pradesh was one of the few states post-2014 general elections where BJP actually managed to more or less maintain its vote share. In 2014, it recorded a 43% vote share, while in 2017, it managed to win 40% votes.
Can the BJP pull a Trinamool in Uttar Pradesh? Only time will tell.
(The author is an independent political commentator and can be reached at @politicalbaaba. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)