Caste, Community and Currency to Decide the Uttar Pradesh Swing

The electoral fortunes of Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be decided by the way the voters swing when Uttar Pradesh goes to polls, in seven instalments spread over 40 days in the 80 constituencies.

This populous state in the Hindi belt, where the ruling BJP held sway over 71 Lok Sabha seats in 2014 with two more won by local ally Apna Dal, witnessed another sweep by the saffron brigade in the assembly elections that followed two years later. By installing firebrand leader Yogi Adityanath as Chief Minister, the BJP then blew the clarion call of Hindutva.

However, there have been subtle yet clear indications of an undercurrent ebbing and flowing in recent times with the Samajwadi Party (SP) winning Phulpur and Gorakhpur, the latter being the fortress of Yogi. In addition, the BJP also lost sitting MP from Bahraich, Savitri Bai Phule, to the Congress via a defection earlier this month.

There was a further jolt to the ruling regime when the SP and BSP surprised many political pundits by announcing a pre-poll tie-up that has now extended to four states. But more about that later on; first, let’s look at how the numbers stack up from the last elections.

In 2014, the BJP and allies bagged 73 out of 80 seats, with a vote share of close to 41%, while the INC (2), SP (5) and BSP (0) had a vote share of 7.5%, 20% and 22.5% respectively, with the last-named having the highest share of votes but no actual wins. Arithmetically, the SP and BSP vote share should be more than that of the BJP in this election and even a tacit understanding with the INC can worsen things for the BJP.

Also, in the assembly elections, the vote shares witnessed considerable change as the SP and BSP together accounted for 45% vote share against the BJP’s 39%, with the INC actually dipping to about 5%. Poll pundits argue that seat-sharing isn’t as easy as adding up vote shares as there is the issue of party functionaries actually working with each other to ensure victory of the common candidate.

Therefore, one can expect two scenarios here – the first is where one accounts for lack of coordination whereby the alliance loses vote share, and the other is where the two parties work seamlessly. In the first case, pollsters believe the BJP could lose as many as 15 seats to the coalition while in the second the loss could be close to 40 seats. And, there is also the anti-incumbency factor to account for, given the noise about growing distrust between the Adityanath regime and the bureaucracy.

On its part, the BJP has played its cards well, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi choosing to stay put at Varanasi, thus making a statement about the importance of the Uttar Pradesh electorate in his government’s bid for a second term. Public conversations are centered around issues that the BJP hopes will remain over the next 45 days – from the Balakot strikes to rural welfare programs around power, gas connections, toilets, housing etc. Talk of unemployment and agrarian distress are pushed aside with the view that Modi needs another five years to fix these.

One thing is quite clear. That Modi is vastly popular, especially among the young voters. who describe him as one of these: decisive, honest, beyond castes or epitome of new India. And the rest of them claim that there is no alternative to him among the opposition dispensation. Be that as it may, there are some stormclouds in the offing, the first being the long duration of the elections in UP that allows for equations to change.

The SP-BSP combine is a formidable challenge as it rules over three substantial vote banks of Muslims, Yadavs and Dalits, which mathematically constitute half of the total electorate in as many as 47 of the 80 constituencies. If the transfer of votes is smooth, even Modi’s popularity may not be able to overcome the sheer arithmetic.

To add to this melting-pot is the entry of Priyanka Gandhi as the flagbearer of the Congress in the state. Though given charge only of Eastern UP, the fact remains that Priyanka’s is busy connecting with women voters across the state. She and brother Rahul have also been temple-hopping to portray their Hindu credentials, a point that has at the very least irritated the upper-caste leadership of the BJP in the state.

Now comes the twist in the tale. That Akhilesh Yadav has sucked up to Behenji to consolidate their vote bank is quite obvious. What if the former CM were to subtly promote Congress behind the scenes where the BSP is contesting? This tactic was used by the BJP and JDS in Karnataka during the last assembly polls, though it was the Congress’s masterstroke of offering leadership to HD Kumaraswamy that scuppered the BJP’s best laid plans.

Suffice to say that the theatre of the absurd has every chance to play itself out in Uttar Pradesh and none of the political parties will leave anything to chance. For Modi, his return to power depends on minimizing any losses from the 71 that BJP won last time. For the rest, the strategy will be to snatch away as many seats as possible.

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