About a year ago, hardly anyone would have expected the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections to turn into a close contest.
But now, it is very difficult to dispute that there has been a clear increase in support of Akhilesh Yadav's alliance and that the 2022 election have been much closer than previous Assembly election or the last two Lok Sabha polls.
The main question is: Have the SP and its allies done enough to pull off an upset in this election?
A key aspect that has often been ignored—both by SP's critics and even supporters—is enormity of the challenge before the party.
While supporters fail to acknowledge how difficult it is to defeat the NDA, critics fail to acknowledge the significant rise the SP and its allies have achieved during the course of the campaign.
There are three aspects to the challenge in front of the SP-led alliance.
1. The Required Rate for the Samajwadi Party
It is a bit tricky to identify the SP's base line to calculate the swing that it needs to win the state. This is because its alliances have changed significantly since the last Assembly election.
In 2017, it fought in alliance with the Congress while now it is contesting in alliance with the Rashtriya Lok Dal, Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party, Pragatisheel Samaj Party (Lohia), Mahan Dal, Janvadi Party (Socialist) and the Nationalist Congress Party.
Its overall vote share in 2017 was 21.82 percent but it had contested 311 out of 403 seats. Along with the Congress, it's vote share was 28 percent.
For a seat-wise analysis, we are considering the SP and Congress as one entity in 2017 as they fought in alliance. This means that in seats that SP had left for the Congress, we are considering votes secured by the Congress as the SP's base in that seat.
In seats where the two parties were in a friendly fight, we are considering only the SP's votes and not those of the Congress.
This may not be entirely accurate but it is the closest way to estimate the swing SP requires in each seat compared to 2017.
According to this, we can divide UP's 403 seats into four types based on SP's deficit.
Seats SP + lost by a margin of over 20 percent (Total: 129)
Seats SP + lost by a margin of 10-20% percent (Total 124). The SP would approximately need a swing of up to 10 percent in its favour and an equal swing against the winning party to win these seats.
Seats SP+ lost by a margin of under 10 percent (Total 96). The SP would need a swing of up to 5 percent in its favour and an equal swing against the winning party to win these seats.
54 seats won by the SP (47) and its erstwhile ally, the Congress (7).
This clearly shows that SP can reach in the vicinty of 150 seats if it retains its 47 seats and if there's a 5 percent swing in its favour and an equal swing against the winning party in those seats.
But getting from 150 to the halfway mark of 202 would be much tougher as it would mean winning a little less than half of the 124 seats it lost by margins of 10-20 percent. This would mean a swing of close to 10 percent in at least 50-60 of these seats.
Now, a part of the SP's gains would be coming at the expense of the BSP and Congress due to increasing bipolarity while some would be at the expense of the BJP.
Therefore not the entire 5 percent gain of the SP would be at the expense of the BJP. Given this scenario, the required rate to reach 150 may be higher than the 5 percent swing.
According to projections done by Rahul Verma and Vaibhav Parik for India Today:
If half of SP's vote share gain comes at the expense of the BJP, it may need a total vote share rise of 9.4 percent to just about cross the majority mark.
If three fourths of the SP's gains are at the expense of BJP, then it would need an overall vote share increase of 8.1 percent to get a majority.
If one fourth of the SP's gains are at the BJP's expense then it would need a massive swing of 11.2 percent to cross the majority mark.
It is not clear how much of SP's gains are coming at which party's expense. But ground reports do suggest that a big chunk of SP's gains are among Muslim voters at the expense of the BSP and the Congress. Therefore it may not be very easy for the SP to get three fourths of its growth at the BJP's expense.
Broadly, it seems that the SP may need at least an 9-10 percent rise in vote share to defeat the BJP.
Now, is such a rise possible? Let's look at some past precedents from UP.
2. Historical Precedents
In 2012, the only poll that the SP won with a clear majority, the party had a positive swing of 4 percent compared to the previous election.
It would now have to get double that swing at least.
Such swings are difficult but they have happened in the past in Uttar Pradesh.
In 2007, the BSP got a simple majority due to a 7 percent swing from the previous election.
Of course, the two most dramatic swings in Uttar Pradesh in the past three decades have been for the BJP.
Between the 1989 and 1991 elections, the BJP's vote share increased from 11.6 percent to 31.5 percent.
Then between 2012 and 2017, the party's vote share increased from 15 percent to 39.7 percent.
Both happened in unique circumstances—the first due to the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, and the second due to a combination of factors such as increased communal polarisation after the Muzaffarnagar violence as well as the changed electoral equations after Narendra Modi's ascent as PM.
The 2007 BSP rise is also not a very applicable case for SP in 2022 as that period didn't have the kind of one-party domination that has existed since 2014.
The BSP won that election securing a little over 30 percent of the votes as its main rival SP was at about 25 percent. The positions almost got reversed in 2012.
The political scenario in 2022 is very different as there is clear dominance of one party.
The SP is presently up against the NDA that got close to 42 percent votes in the last election.
Actually, an interesting past case in this respect is period between 1985 and 1989.
The Congress fell from a vote share of 39.3 percent in 1985 to 27.9 percent in 1989. On the other hand, the Janata Dal secured a vote share of 29.7 percent in 1989, up from 21.4 percent of its predecessor Lok Dal in 1985. This rise led to Mulayam Singh Yadav's first term as chief minister.
But the important part about this election is that the Janata Dal wasn't the only party that ate into the Congress' vote share. The BJP took away a sizeable chunk of upper caste votes and the newly formed BSP took away many Dalit votes.
The lesson from this is that a party can be brought down from a near 40 percent vote share in UP if its base is being eaten away by multiple entities and not just one.
In addition to that, this took place along with a national decline of the Congress between 1985 and 1989 and the Mandal and Mandir movements that happened in this period.
The BJP of 2022 isn't as fragile as the Congress of 1989. It did face a big mass movement - the farmers protest against the Modi government's farm laws in 2020-21. But its impact in UP has been restricted to the sugarcane belt in Western UP. Unlike Mandal or Mandir, it didn't have a state-wide appeal.
Whether SP succeeds in achieving a 9-10 percent swing would depend on the success of Akhilesh Yadavls attempted social coalition.
It is more or less certain that a big portion of Muslim voters have moved from the BSP and Congress to the SP-led alliance.
The SP may now get well over 50 percent of the community's votes, something it didn't receive even during its 2012 victory.
Then the alliance with the RLD may also be giving it a sizable share of Jat votes in West UP.
The main question is whether its move to win over non-Yadav OBCs has succeeded or not.
The SP has brought on board OBC leaders like Swami Prasad Maurya, Dara Singh Chauhan, Ram Achal Rajbhar, Lalji Verma and allies like Om Prakash Rajbhar to win over this base.
However, its success is still unclear. It appears to be operating more at a seat-by-seat level than a pan-state level.
Reports suggest that in some areas, some of these communities are concerned about Yadav domination and not just upper caste domination and this may affect SP's chances in a few pockets.
In fact, the party is said to be having better luck getting Pasi Dalit voters to shift in parts of central and Eastern UP, compared to non-Yadav OBCs.
The bottom-line here is that consolidation of Muslim votes, shift of Jat votes and some incremental gains among other communities based on candidates may be enough to get SP to cross 30 percent votes overall but it won't be enough to defeat the BJP.
Why SP's Rise is a Big Deal
We spoke of historical precedents earlier and how they give an indication of how difficult the task is for SP.
However, the party is more or less certain to break a few past precedents.
Since 1996, no two parties have crossed 100 seats in Uttar Pradesh. The number two party has consistently been below 100 seats in the last 25 years.
Pre-poll surveys suggest that the BJP and SP will be above 100 seats this time.
In its 30 year history, the SP has never crossed 30 percent of the vote share in Uttar Pradesh, even when it came to power in 1993, 2003 and 2012. Surveys again indicate that this may change.
At a time when the BJP has been steamrolling the Opposition parts of the Hindi heartland, this is no small achievement.
What's also significant is the political situation in which the SP has managed to pushback against the BJP.
Throughout the campaign, the BJP and some elements of the media have tried to draw Akhilesh Yadav into a debate over Ram Mandir and Hindutva but he has deftly managed to side-step these landmines.
To Yadav's credit, at least in his speeches and interviews, he has managed to keep the focus on his main campaign plank: jobs and the economy.
But beyond his own speeches, it is not clear how much Yadav has been able to shape the entire campaign narrative. The SP did get a bit handicapped due to a late campaign.
A drawback that the SP seems to be facing on the ground is that while many voters are upset with the BJP due to the lack of jobs, losses during the COVID-19 lockdown, the stray cattle menace and price rise, but not all are convinced that the SP represents the solution to these problems.
Some say it may have done better had if the SP had become active soon after the COVID-19 second wave that ravaged UP.
While a section of voters do acknowledge that Akhilesh Yadav may be a better option from the jobs point of view, another section accuses SP rule of being associated with poor law and order.
Not all may buy this belief but it has no doubt played a role in constraining the kind of surge that the SP needed to win this election.
Amidst these obstacles, if SP rises from 47 seats to 140 or so, it would still mean that the party has tripled its seat share and if it crosses 30 percent votes, it would have secured its highest ever vote share.
This is no small achievement for the party. But a majority is a much tougher ask. It's not impossible, but the tough odds need to be acknowledged.