Cover story: Uttar Pradesh

Arithmetic of success

Print edition : March 31, 2017

Uttar Pradesh BJP president Keshav Prasad Maurya celebrates with supporters on March 11. Photo: PTI

Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav and Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi during a rally in Allahabad on February 21. Photo: SANJAY KANOJIA/AFP

Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati at an election rally in Jaunpur. Photo: PTI

The BJP’s communal narrative during campaigning and its superior organisational machinery were key factors behind the saffron party’s thumping victory in Uttar Pradesh.

RIGHT through the long campaign and the seven phases of polling in Uttar Pradesh, sections of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leadership had steadfastly maintained that the election to the State Assembly hinged on simple electoral arithmetic. The refrain went thus: “Three years ago, during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP had successfully forged a pan-Hindu electoral identity that fetched the party 42.30 per cent of the total votes polled and a massive victory in terms of seats. The average loss that the BJP has suffered in the 11 State Assembly elections after 2014 is about 10 percentage points. Even if a similar loss of votes occurs in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP would be the number one party in terms of vote share, at around 32.30 per cent. In the electoral system of India, where the concept of first past the post is the norm, this vote share will be sufficient to get a majority.”

As it turned out, the results in Uttar Pradesh underscored the strength of this electoral arithmetic logic. Significantly, the loss of the BJP vote share from what it was in 2014 was not to the tune of 10 percentage points but just 2.6 percentage points. The party garnered 39.7 per cent of the votes. This was, unambiguously, an insignificant vote share loss and practically held together the pan-Hindu electoral identity that the saffron party had crafted in 2014. The phenomenal scale of the victory of the BJP and its allies, 325 seats out of 403, of which the BJP accounted for 312, the Apna Dal (Soneylal) for nine and the Suheldev Bhartiya Samaj Party four, was also in keeping with this retention of vote share. In 2014, when the BJP won 71 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in the State, it had led in 328 Assembly segments.

On the other hand, the Samajwadi Party (S.P.)-Congress combine, the main challenger to the BJP and its allies, could rustle up only 28 per cent of the vote share—the S.P. got 21.8 per cent and the Congress 6.2 per cent—which, incidentally, was less than what they had obtained in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, when they had fought separately. Three years ago, the S.P. had 22.20 per cent and Congress 7.50 per cent.

Thus, in spite of coming together, the combine cumulatively lost 1.7 percentage points from its 2014 vote share. In other words, not only was there no value addition from the coming together of the two parties, but it actually led to a decline in the core vote base of both the parties. The combine ended up with 54 seats, the S.P. winning 47 and the Congress seven, registering the lowest-ever tally for both the parties in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the S.P. won five seats out of 80 and the Congress two; together they led in 57 Assembly segments. Once again, it is more or less a repetition of the 2014 electoral trend for these parties too. Interestingly, the third major force in the State, the Dalit-oriented Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), actually increased its vote share from what it had in 2014, but still ended up losing big time. Its vote share rose to 22.2 per cent from 19.6 per cent in 2014. Still, the party could only win 19 seats, its second-lowest tally in Uttar Pradesh. Its lowest tally was in 1991 when it won 12 seats, at a time when the party was still considered to be building up its mass base. The results upset the perceptions that dominated the election scene throughout the long-drawn-out process. After the final phase of polling, the dominant view, even within the BJP, was that the State was headed for a hung Assembly. Scores of State-level BJP leaders who shared this view were concerned that the electoral arithmetic factor cited by sections of the party was not that solid on the ground as it was in 2014. Their argument was that the pan-Hindu electoral identity did not have the same emotional intensity as it had in 2014, essentially because there were no widespread communal riots as there were three years ago. Some of these leaders had called up scores of journalists and political observers, including this correspondent, even on the day and night prior to the counting, to share this concern. In this background, many of them were actually mystified at the thumping victory. However, this was in contrast to the doubts over the results expressed rather angrily by the BSP’s supreme leader, Mayawati, who said the electronic voting machines had been tampered with and that contributed to the BJP’s huge success.

However, beyond this sense of befuddlement and anger, there are several tangible factors that led to the BJP’s comprehensive victory. Three key factors among these were the ability to retain a Hindutva communal narrative throughout the campaign, the supplementation of this through the advancement of post-truth pronouncements and exercises from the party machinery, including top leaders, and finally, the deployment of a superior organisational machinery.

Although widespread communal clashes had not erupted in the State in the run-up to the election or when polling was held, the BJP and its associate outfits in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar successfully retained a communal narrative through a number of stratagems and ploys which had manifest concrete expressions. These were advanced at different levels, starting with grassroots door-to-door campaigns and building up to communally charged exhortations and utterances from the top BJP and Sangh Parivar leadership, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah.

Throughout the elections, BJP squads spread across the State in door-to-door campaigns across Hindu households, propagating the view that a victory for the S.P.-Congress alliance or the BSP would be a triumph of the Muslims and an assertion of the minority community’s social and political control. The killing of a Jat youth in western Uttar Pradesh’s Bijnore district on February 10, a day before the first phase of polling, was also used to escalate this propaganda throughout the next four weeks. Leading all this was Modi and Shah themselves through their multifaceted rhetoric, touching upon issues like “kabaristan versus shamshanghat” and electricity supply to Hindu and Muslim festivals, and also the creation of acronyms like “KASAB” to club the Congress, the S.P. and the BSP. This campaign reached its post-truth highs when Modi branded the recent Kanpur train derailment an act of jehadi sabotage when even the National Investigation Agency (NIA) had emphatically ruled out this possibility.

The traction for this campaign came essentially from the Hindutva-oriented social engineering that the BJP had built up among the non-Yadav Other Backward Classes (OBC) and Most Backward Caste (MBC) communities and the non-Jatav Dalit communities. This long-standing project, which sought to forge a social and political alliance against the Yadavs, who form the core support base of the S.P., the Jatav Dalits, the core support base of the BSP, and Muslims, attained concrete and massive dimensions in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. It was with that election that the BJP was able to do away with the image of being an upper-caste Brahmin-Bania-Rajput party.

The communities thus rallied included OBC castes such as Kurmis, Shakyas, Lodhs and Pals, MBC castes such as Mauryas, Nishads and Rajbhars, and Dalit communities such as Pasis and Valmikis. Informal estimates state that these communities cumulatively account for nearly 25 per cent of the population of Uttar Pradesh across 38 caste blocs, with over 200 sub-castes and groups. Economically, these communities are classified as landless labour class. The landowning OBC Yadav community accounts for approximately 9 per cent and the economically upwardly mobile Dalit Jatav community for approximately 10 per cent of the population. While both the S.P. and the BSP have conventionally sought to supplement their core vote base with the Muslims, the BJP built up this OBC-MBC-Dalit coalition as a sort of Hindutva force opposed to the Yadav, Jatav and Muslim communities.

In the run-up to the 2017 Assembly election, the general belief within the political firmament of the State was that this coalition as well as the original upper caste combine may not solidly stay behind the BJP for a variety of reasons. These included a possible consideration of the governance track record of the Akhilesh Yadav-led S.P. government, which had been accorded a growing rate of approval even by significant sections of the MBC communities in numerous public surveys through the last three years of his governance.

Another perception was with regard to the impact of demonetisation on the economy in general and the rural economy and agriculture in particular. In the early days, it was evident that sections of the Bania (trader) community were upset with the demonetisation move. Also, sections of the Brahmins and Thakurs had expressed their resentment to the prominence given to the non-Yadav, non-Jatav OBC-MBC-Dalit communities in candidate selection, with a total of 223 seats accorded to them. The fact that the BJP had not been able to project a chief ministerial candidate was also perceived to be a limiting factor. It was an understanding of these factors that caused apprehension among some sections of the BJP even on the day before the counting. However, as it turned out, the BJP leadership, particularly Modi and Shah, succeeded in creating a narrative that not only sustained the Hindutva rhetoric but also portrayed the Central government’s steps, including demonetisation, as pro-poor initiatives. This helped further consolidate the coalition. The blatantly anti-Muslim Hindutva rhetoric was particularly helpful in bringing back the disgruntled upper caste communities and sections of the Jats and Dalits who were seen to be shifting allegiance to the Ajit Singh-led Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) and the BSP respectively.

Appreciation of the Akhilesh Yadav government’s performance became less important as polling neared, primarily on account of the S.P.’s alliance with the Congress. It became more and more evident through the poll process that the anti-Congress perception that reigned dominant during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections was yet to subside completely. The combine was expected to help consolidate Muslim votes but the limitations of perception and organisation failed to ensure it.

The allotment of as many as 105 seats to the Congress meant dropping close to 60 S.P. candidates. Many of them contested as rebels. A similar situation developed within the Congress too. Many Congress aspirants fought as rebels, bringing down the chances of both the parties. Cases in point are seats like Shamli and Lucknow Central. In Shamli, former Congress MLA Pankaj Mullick was allotted the ticket. He got 40,365 votes and S.P. rebel Manish Kumar 31,824 votes. The seat was won by the BJP’s Tejendra Nirwal by securing 70,085 votes. In Lucknow Central, the BJP’s Brijesh Pathak won by securing 78,400 votes. The S.P.’s Ravidas Mehrotra got 73,306 votes while the Congress’ Abdul Mahroof Khan got 12,921 votes.

There is also the S.P. leadership’s admission after the electoral rout that the BJP’s booth-level management was superior. Over and above all this, the feud within the S.P.’s first family, involving party founder Mulayam Singh Yadav and his son Akhilesh Yadav, also damaged the party in strongholds such as Kannauj, Badaun, Etah and Etawah districts. The party lost all four seats in Etah, five of six seats in Badaun, two of three seats in Etawah, and two of three seats in Kannauj. Prof. Sudhir Panwar, the S.P.’s defeated candidate from Thana Bhawan, said that while all the limitations of the combine must have contributed, it was the BJP’s success in bringing about communal and casteist polarisation, especially among sections of OBCs and Dalits against Yadavs and Muslims, that tilted the results in its favour.

The results could, in the medium term, pose challenges to the BSP’s ability to hold on to its core Dalit vote base. Although it boosted its overall vote share, the party could win only two of the 84 seats reserved for Dalits. It was also trounced in most of its traditional seats. It could not win even a single seat of the nine in Agra, considered to be the Dalit capital of Uttar Pradesh. This traditional BSP bastion had given the party six seats even in 2012, when it was voted out of power.

Dalit-dominated districts such as Sitapur, Sonbhadra, Auraiya, Jalaun, Fatehpur, Barabanki, Chitrakoot and Kaushambi also signalled a move away from the BSP. More importantly, only five of its 100 Muslim candidates won, raising questions about the Dalit-Muslim brotherhood that the party was actively promoting during campaign. This aggressive Dalit-Muslim campaign, however, is estimated to have led to the defeat of the S.P.-Congress campaign in as many as 35 seats.

Discussions within the S.P.-Congress combine as well as sections of the BSP are increasingly revolving around the absence of a Bihar-style grand alliance ( mahagatbandhan) as a key factor in the phenomenal triumph of the BJP. Once again, plain electoral arithmetic is cited to buttress this point. “The S.P.-Congress combine has 28 per cent of the vote share, the BSP 22.2 per cent. Put together, it is a massive 50.2 per cent. In the first-past-the-post electoral system, a mahagatbandhan could result in the mother of all electoral sweeps,” S.P. leader Shakir Ali said. The BJP leadership, however, is of the view that such a grand alliance will never happen in Uttar Pradesh, essentially because of Mayawati’s inability to fit into coalition politics.

As things stand now, these discussions are not expected to result in concrete measures in the near future. In the meantime, a jubilant BJP is moving ahead with the task of government formation with evident efforts to strike a balance between the different sections of its Hindutva support base, ranging from upper castes to non-Yadav OBC-MBC communities and non-Jatav Dalit communities. As outgoing Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav said in his last press conference in office, the State is looking forward to see how best the BJP takes forward the agendas of economic development and sustaining social and communal harmony.

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