Kaun Jeetega Uttar Pradesh? Looks Like a New Winner This Time
Ten years (2007-17), five elections (Assembly and Lok Sabha) and four different sets of winners. This is the most important headline coming out of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state and home to as many as 80 Lok Sabha constituencies.
This suggests a very strong democratic upsurge which is not a pleasant piece of information for incumbents. The democratic upsurge has smashed all primordial loyalties and has rendered all existing social engineering redundant.
There are some strong data points suggesting precisely the same. Let us take a look at some of them:
- Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) won an absolute majority on its own, a first after years of coalition, in 2007 because of significant support from Brahmins and Vaishyas, two social groups considered hostile to behenji’s brand of politics till then. That was considered an outcome of great social engineering experiment then. The experiment did not last long though.
- The Congress’s spectacular electoral showing in the 2009 Lok Sabha in UP was a result of the kind of support the grand old party got among privileged castes, some influential sections of the other backward classes and a large chunk of non-Jatav Dalit voters. These disparate groups, placed all over the traditional caste hierarchy, have seldom voted together. The fact that they did is a statement which was not analysed then.
- Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party decisively won the 2012 Assembly elections despite significant erosion in support among Yadavs and Muslims. These social groups, also referred to as M-Y combination, are considered traditional supporters of the socialist party. The fact that a so-called caste-based party could stitch a rainbow coalition beyond its traditional support base did not get the kind of attention it deserved.
- Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party swept the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, winning a mandate not seen in recent years in the state. Ironical as it may sound, Modi’s right-wing party was the biggest beneficiary of the process of secularisation of people’s voting behaviour (people moving beyond their primordial loyalties to vote for other candidates) in UP. Smashing conventional wisdom, the BJP won more rural than urban voters. It walked away with a large chunk of Dalit votes, a marginal second to Mayawati’s BSP, and received overwhelming support from, what is known as, most backward classes (MBCs).
- The 2017 Assembly election was a repeat of 2014 and the BJP won big despite the dreaded demonetisation. It was the same democratic upsurge, of punishing the incumbent (then the ruling Samajwadi Party in the state), at play.
People Don’t ‘Caste’ Their Votes Anymore
The democratic upsurge has ensured that people have ceased to ‘caste’ (and not cast) their votes, a euphemism generally used to denote how caste identities triumph over everything else, while deciding who to vote for. How else will you explain that?
- A large section of privileged castes switched their loyalties four times in four elections (2007-14). While a fifth of privileged caste voters (so-called upper castes) opted for the BSP in 2007, the Congress won one out of every three such votes in 2009. The same group solidly backed the BJP in 2014 and 2017.
- The BSP has ceased to be the sole claimant of a majority of Dalit votes. According to CSDS data, the BSP saw erosion of support among all sections of Dalits in the 2012 Assembly elections, and in all regions across the state. The erosion was more pronounced among women, youth, educated and urban dwellers. Suffice here to say that the aspirational sections among Dalits moved away from Mayawati in 2012 and the drift further accentuated two years later, in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
- Yadavs, one of the dominant OBC groups, have been drifting away from the SP and nearly 21 percent of Yadavs are estimated to have voted for the BJP in 2014.
Identity Politics No Longer Pays in UP
Observing these trends, social scientist AK Verma writes that “UP has seen a decline of identity politics in recent times. This could be because of three reasons. One, identity politics has served its purpose as weaker sections feel more empowered today; two, identity politics did not bring the desired prosperity to the marginalised; and three, the marginalised resent caste-based parties treating them as vote banks.”
What he is hinting at is that caste or religion as a tool to mobilise votes has lost its salience in UP. What works now is the promise of real empowerment as opposed to tokenism. The politics of identity has given way to one of hope and aspiration. Political parties therefore have their task cut out.
Given the way things have panned out in the last decade, one can safely predict the broad direction of election verdict in UP this time. Here are some of them:
- Since UP has been a nightmare for incumbents in recent years, the incumbent BJP is going to fare worse than what pollsters are indicating. Anti-Pakistan rhetoric is expected to arrest the erosion. But to what extent, we don’t know as we have entered into an unchartered territory of hyper-nationalism. The BJP’s only hope perhaps lies in milking the issue to the hilt. Will that work? It is quite premature to hazard a guess on this.
- The gathbandhan (alliance) of the SP and the BSP is going to do better than what simple addition of vote shares of the two parties suggests. It fits the criterion of untested combination UP voters have embraced in recent years. What the alliance lacks at the moment though is the perceived promise of real empowerment and the politics of aspiration.
- Priyanka Gandhi remains a wild card – untested, aspirational and charismatic. Let us recall that all the three worked wonders for Narendra Modi’s BJP in 2014. In that sense, Priyanka’s entry has the potential to change all the existing equations, if only the Congress has an organisational structure in place to make the most of it. That looks quite unlikely though, given the paucity of time before the Lok Sabha elections to make that happen.
- And finally, UP is going to see a new winner in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The high level of anti-incumbency seen in recent years makes the return of incumbent much more difficult.
Postscript: Historical data gives an indication of the shape of things to come when other variables are little changed. However, the growing chorus of going to war with Pakistan is a variable whose impact on voting behaviour remains an unknown piece in the complex election puzzle.