Throughout the seven phases ofpolling to the Assembly election in Uttar Pradesh, held in February-March, the question uppermost in the minds of political practitioners and observers in the State was the following: “The Samajwadi Party (S.P.) is surging ahead, making big gains in terms of mass appeal, but has this generated the critical mass to defeat the well-oiled political and organisational machinery of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its associates in the Sangh Parivar and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA)?” The supplementary, as if to justify the question, pointed to the huge majority (322 seats in a House of 403) that the BJP and its allies garnered in the 2017 Assembly election, followed by the observation that the BJP would have to lose 125 seats to be ousted from power. As it turned out on March 10, counting day, the S.P. and its allies were not able to generate the critical mass to depose the Adityanath-led BJP government despite making major gains in terms of seats and vote share. In the process, the Adityanath government created history by becoming the only one in 37 years to get a second consecutive term in the country’s most populous State.
The BJP and its allies won 273 seats, down 49 from the 322 they got in 2017, and this despite an increase of 3.65 percentage points in terms of vote share. The vote share of the NDA this time is 45 per cent, with the BJP alone contributing 41.29 per cent. The S.P. and its allies—the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP), the Mahan Dal and the Janwadi Party (Socialist)—raised their seats tally to 125 from 52 on a vote share of 36.1 per cent. The S.P.’s own vote share went up by a whopping 10.26 per cent, from 21.8 per cent in 2017 to 32.06 per cent this time.
Why the S.P.-led alliance failed to best the NDA’s tally despite the massive increase in its vote share is a topic of discussion in political circles in the State. While several factors are being highlighted, the central point revolves around the performance of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Dalit assertive political force that ruled Uttar Pradesh between 2007 and 2012 with a single-party majority. The BSP could win only one seat this time; its vote share plunged by 9.35 percentage points, from 22.23 per cent in 2017 to 12.88 per cent this time. Dalits make up 21 per cent of voters in the State, and in the bipolar election this time, with Mayawati sending mixed and confusing signals throughout the campaign, the Dalit vote split.
There were murmurs of a deal between the Dalit-oriented party and the BJP national leadership to help the BJP covertly in the election. The context of the deal according to most political activists and observers irrespective of political and ideological orientation was the corruption cases against Mayawati and members of her family. The BSP and the BJP have, of course, denied the rumour. However, it cannot be denied that the sharp decline in the BSP’s vote share is a stark phenomenon of the 2022 election. At its peak in 2007, it had garnered 30 per cent of the vote share and won 206 seats. This went down to 19 per cent vote share and 80 seats in 2012. These election results must be a wake-up call for Mayawati, who has inherited the legacy built by Ambedkar and Kanshi Ram.
Mixed signals from the BSP
Clearly, the mixed signals from the BSP was the key factor that made this election a bipolar contest. Along with the BSP, the Congress too got decimated. It had a pathetic vote share of 2.4 per cent, though it managed to win two seats. Priyanka Gandhi, general secretrary of the party in charge of Uttar Pradesh, did run a spirited campaign, but her organisation simply could not handle the pressures of the electoral battle. She made all the right noises—leading from the front with a pro-women campaign and holding more rallies than Chief Minister Adityanath—but, clearly, these were not enough to win the election. Advocates of identity politics such as the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen and the Azad Samaj Party led by Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan were also reduced to insignificance.
To sum up, the election was marked by significant gains for the S.P.-led alliance, but in the end the saffron party won despite the farmers’ movement, the migrant crisis, unemployment, the stray cattle menace and the mismanagement of the pandemic. Nationalism and Hindutva were its trump cards that largely diffused the anger of the people over the above-mentioned issues. Distribution of free ration was another factor that helped the NDA return to power.
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Both the S.P. alliance and the BJP-led NDA increased their vote share in all the important political regions—Awadh, Bundelkhand, Purvanchal (consisting of eastern and north-eastern Uttar Pradesh), Rohilkhand and Doab (consisting of parts of western and central regions of the State). While the BJP’s rise was in single digits across the regions, the S.P. alliance consistently scored above 10 percentage points in all regions. The BJP’s lowest rise was in Bundhelkhand at 0.29 percentage points while its highest was in the north-east at 6.19 percentage points. As for the S.P. alliance, the 15.23 percentage points rise in the east was its highest among the regions, while its lowest rise, of 10.17 percentage points, was recorded in Doab. Significantly, the S.P. alliance lost 21 seats by a margin of less than 3,000 votes and nine seats by less than 1,000 votes. In 69 seats the S.P. candidates’ losing margin was less than 10,000 votes.
The general impression among political observers is that the S.P. alliance did not make the deep electoral penetration that was expected of it in western Uttar Pradesh, which was the core area of the year-long successful farmers’ agitation against the three controversial Central farm laws. Indeed, the S.P.-RLD combine did well in the western Uttar Pradesh districts that were the epicentre of the farmer agitation—Muzaffarnagar, Meerut and Shamli. Of the six Assembly constituencies in Muzaffarnagar, the RLD won three—Budhana, Purqazi and Meerapur—and the S.P. took one—Charthawal. The Budhana seat was wrested from a key BJP leader, Umesh Malik.
In Shamli, the S.P.-RLD alliance won all three seats. The RLD’s candidate won the Thana Bhawan seat, defeating the BJP heavyweight Suresh Rana. The seats of Shamli and Kairana were also won by the RLD and the S.P. respectively. Effectively, in Shamli district, which experienced communal violence during the Muzaffarnagar riots and which actively participated in the farmers’ protests, the alliance won all the seats. Of the seven seats in Meerut, the S.P. won three and the RLD one. The BJP won the rest. The S.P.’s candidate managed to wrest the Sardhana seat from Sangeet Som, the riot-accused BJP bigwig.
Some Assembly constituencies, such as Nakur in Saharanpur, Dhampur and Nehtaur in Bijnor, and Bilaspur, witnessed a tough fight, with the BJP candidate winning by a mere hundred votes. Out of eight seats in Bijnor, the S.P. won two and the BJP six. In Budaun, the S.P. and the BJP got three each. The much-talked-about Jat-Muslim social engineering did not follow through in many of the western U.P. districts. In Saharanpur, out of six seats, the S.P. won two and the BJP the rest. Similarly, in Baghpat, the RLD could win only one seat out of four, with the rest going to the BJP. Districts like Bulandshahr and Ghaziabad witnessed a clean sweep by the BJP. This mixed result is at the core of the perception that the S.P. alliance’s penetration was not deep enough in western Uttar Pradesh.
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Swaraj Abhiyan leader Yogendra Yadav, who was part of the leadership of the farmers’ agitation, pointed out that it would be wrong to state that the farmers’ movement, which was largely concentrated in western Uttar Pradesh, failed. It succeeded to the extent that it made the 2022 Assembly election look like a contest. Before that, it was expected to be a clean sweep for the incumbent BJP. It was after the farmers’ movement and the consolidation of a number of the most backward caste communities behind the S.P. that the election became a bipolar contest between the S.P.-RLD alliance and the NDA.
In the run-up to the campaign, the S.P. was criticised for being slow off the blocks. The party launched its campaign pretty late in the day and the delay of those few months might have cost the S.P. dearly. The traditional Muslim-Yadav, or M-Y, formula worked well for the S.P. and in Muslim-dominated regions such as Rohilkhand or north-western U.P., the S.P.-RLD combine went neck-and-neck with the BJP-led alliance. The S.P. candidates Mohd Nasir and Mohd Yusuf Ansari won decisively from Moradabad Rural and Moradabad Nagar, defeating their closest rivals from the BJP. Azam Khan of the S.P. continued to rule the roost in Rampur, winning the election from behind bars.
The trend of the M-Y formula played itself out in parts of eastern Uttar Pradesh and Avadh as well. The onslaught of the Hindutva wagon led by Adityanath united Muslims behind the S.P. to the exclusion of the Congress and the BSP. The consolidation of castes such as the Jats, Gujjars, Tenis, Kashyaps and Mauryas also seemed to favour overwhelmingly the S.P.-RLD in western Uttar Pradesh. This is significant because Jats had moved to the BJP after the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013. The RLD, which is primarily a party of Jat farmers, won eight seats out of the 33 it contested. In 2017 it won just one seat. In what might be an indication of the reversal of a trend wherein proponents of communal politics in the area were rewarded, several leaders who were accused of instigating violence during the riots, including Sangeet Som, Umesh Malik and Suresh Rana, lost. Mriganka Singh, whose father Hukum Singh was instrumental in spreading the hoax of a Hindu exodus from Kairana, also lost. Pradeep Kumar Singh of the RLD defeated Ramveer Upadhyay of the BJP from the Sadabad seat of Hathras, yet another district which was in the news and saw the opposition rallying together against the BJP. Of the three seats in Hathras district, one each was won by the BJP, the S.P. and the RLD.
Surprise result in Lakhimpur Kheri
Lakhimpur Kheri—ground zero for the opposition after a Union Minister’s son allegedly ran his vehicle over farmers at a rally in Nighasan, killing and injuring many—threw up a surprise result. All of the eight Assembly constituencies of Lakhimpur Kheri went to the BJP. The failure of the farmers’ movement to dent the BJP’s electoral fortunes in the area was attributed to the fact that it is a Hindu upper caste or Brahmin stronghold. The agitating farmers belong to the Sikh community and are in a minority. Besides, the Minister’s son was also arrested in the matter, mitigating some of the anger that was expressed in the aftermath of the incident.
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Purvanchal, the far-eastern stretches which comprises Gorakhpur, the core political base of Adityanath, was another region that presented many keenly fought seats. A rejig of caste equations that was the outcome of serial defections of OBC leaders and OBC-centric parties from the NDA to the S.P.’s stable made it an intriguing and fiercely fought contest.
In pure arithmetic terms, Purvanchal appears to be evenly divided between the NDA and the S.P. alliance. The NDA won 29 and the S.P. 31. But when one factors in the NDA’s 2017 sweep of 41 of the 61 seats, the electorate’s disillusionment with it becomes apparent. In 2017, the BJP clinched 34 of 61 seats, while the Apna Dal (Sonelal) and the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP, now a member of the S.P. alliance) were successful in four and three constituencies respectively. The stellar performance was attributed to the NDA’s deft social engineering that was successful in attracting small backward and Dalit groups. But much water has flowed since 2017 to wreck that game-changer social coalition.
The Rajbhar factor
A key element of the S.P. alliance’s improved performance is the churning of the Rajbhar voters, who owe allegiance to Om Prakash Rajbhar’s SBSP. The Rajbhars are an influential community in Balia, Ghazipur, Jaunpur, Mau, Azamgarh and Deoria districts. In 2017, the SBSP contested eight seats as an ally of the BJP and won four. Om Prakash Rajbhar became a Minister of Backward Welfare of Uttar Pradesh in the Adityanath administration. However, in the post-2019 era, the relations between the BJP and the SBSP soured, and by December 2021 Om Prakash Rajbhar had joined hands with Akhilesh Yadav, exhorting his target audience with a “khadera hobe”, or “drive-them-out”, slogan.
The BJP sought to counter it by making overtures to Rajbhar leaders in the SBSP. It was successful in wooing the SBSP’s Lucknow district president Babban Rajbhar. Babban, who had recently separated from the SBSP to form the Maharaja Suhaildev Sena, merged the outfit with the BJP. However, the election outcome confirms that the BJP was unable to arrest the shift of the Rajbhar votes. In Ghazipur, for example, the BJP was routed. Within the Ghazipur Lok Sabha constituency, once a bastion of Manoj Sinha, Lieutenant Governor of Jammu and Kashmir, there are seven Assembly constituencies. The S.P. and the SBSP trounced the BJP in all seven seats. This included the Ghazipur Sadar candidate Sangeeta Balwant Bind, who is a Minister in the Adityanath government. In the Zahoorabad Assembly segment, Om Prakash Rajbhar registered a definitive victory over the BJP’s Kali Charan, polling 45,632 votes more than the latter. In Jangipur, Saidpur and Zakhania constituencies, S.P.-SBSP candidates defeated their BJP rivals by a considerable margin of over 35,000 votes. In 2017, the BJP, then in alliance with the SBSP, had won three seats.
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The BJP’s election upset came despite the party taking credit for development initiatives such as the Baluaghat river bridge over the Ganges in Chandauli, which connects the eastern districts and the soon-to-be-functional Tarighat-Ghazipur road-cum-rail bridge, which would make Ghazipur the nerve centre of a commutation network connecting Bihar, Bengal and Nepal. It is clear that caste arithmetic prevailed over aggressive marketing of development work. The repercussions were widespread. For example, in Sirathu in Kaushambi district, Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya lost to the S.P.’s Pallavi Patel.
Besides its alliance with the SBSP, the S.P. also tied up with the Mahan Dal and inducted local satraps such as Swami Prasad Maurya in order to secure the Maurya and Kushwaha votes. Dara Singh Chauhan was also brought into the fold to attract votes of the Lonia (also known as Nonia) caste. But the BJP’s attempts at social engineering were fruitful, too. For example, in Mirzapur, a kurmi bastion, the BJP’s alliance with Anupriya Patel’s Apna Dal (Sonelal) and the Nishad Party worked wonders. The alliance swept all five seats. The BJP won in Mirzapur Sadar, Chunar and Marihan, whereas the AD(S) won in Chhanbey and the Nishad Party in Majhawan. The AD(S) won 12 seats in all, and the Nishad Party six. In pockets of Purvanchal, Mayawati’s low-key campaign meant that the BJP was able to nibble through the Dalit votes. This together with Narendra Modi’s campaign blitzkrieg in Varanasi in the fag end of the election helped the BJP. The BJP won all eights Assembly segments in Varanasi, from where Modi is a Member of Parliament. Modi also addressed rallies in Deoria, Sonbhadra and Ballia, which is believed to have assuaged the voters’ resentment against the BJP.
Overall, belying the very popular discontent against inflation and lack of jobs, the government’s generous sops and cash incentives to the poor helped the BJP. An interaction with several low income group families across Ghazipur and Jaunpur revealed that they were inclined to overlook the Adityanath government’s lapses. “He is giving us free ration ever since the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in March 2020. He has built roads,” villagers pointed out. The government’s pro-poor schemes such as Ujjwala and Awas Yojana were a big draw, too. Clearly, the BJP combined welfare schemes with Hindutva and nationalism to hold on to its sway even as the challenge from the S.P. alliance has become more formidable than ever in the past six years. The presence of a forceful opposition in the Assembly holds the promise that the government would be compelled to show greater accountability to the people and uphold democratic norms, key governance components that were conspicuous by their absence during the last five years.