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UP poll will decide which party is irrelevant: Congress or BJP

by R Jagannathan  Feb 23, 2012 13:21 IST

#BJP   #BSP   #Congress   #S&P   #UP Elections 2012  

If there is one prediction that can be made with some degree of certainty about Uttar Pradesh, it is this: no party will win a clear majority on its own.

This leads to a corollary: if no one gets a majority, we will either have to see former rivals jumping into bed together (BSP with BJP, or SP with Congress?, or the party which is closest to power will be using money power to break MLAs from more vulnerable rivals.

Assuming this conventional wisdom plays out for real, we are going to see crores spent on horse-trading after 6 March.

Women wait to cast their vote at a polling booth in Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh. AFP

It is time to challenge conventional wisdom. But before we do that, let us first enunciate what is the current conventional wisdom.

Reading from news reports in TV and print, these are the observations that emerge:

One, Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party has been drawing huge crowds. The SP could thus emerge as the single-largest party after the election. In fact, a BJP minister from Madhya Pradesh has endorsed this claim.

Two, Mayawati, by common consensus, seems to be losing out, though she retains her core Dalit vote. Since Dalits constitute nearly 21-25 percent of the electorate, this means she will at least be No 2 in the post-poll hierarchy, if not No 1.

Three, Rahul Gandhi’s obsessive campaigning in Uttar Pradesh may not get his party the gaddi, but it is sure to improve its performance this time. The question is whether it will be the No 3 party after SP and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) or the fourth – below the BJP.

Four, the big question-mark is about the BJP. The party seems more disorganised and confused compared to the other three, and has inducted a former CM from a neighbouring state (Uma Bharti) to lead the battle. In 2007, the party got just 51 seats after Mayawati’s 207 and SP’s 97. The question is whether the big fuss it has made about the Muslim quota will get it OBC votes on the rebound.

Net-net, the conventional wisdom is that the BSP and SP will be fighting for the top two slots while the Congress and BJP for the bottom two.

This writer believes that Uttar Pradesh will throw up a completely different answer that will not entirely be based on caste and religious calculations.

There are two reasons why.

First, five years of Mayawati has helped Dalits both in terms of empowerment and economic performance. This means there could be a new Dalit middle class emerging in Uttar Pradesh, and their interests may start converging with their class counterparts among other castes. The Dalit monolith may be about to crack – which is why even Rahul Gandhi is having a go at it.

Second, the history of electoral politics tells us that castes, even when they vote as castes, work out their own alliances to maximise their share of power. This makes caste both relevant and irrelevant. Relevant, because your clout depends on how many votes your caste has; irrelevant, because in a first-past-the-post system, even small castes count. If it is no longer safe to presume that all Dalit castes, or all OBC castes, or all upper castes or all Muslims will vote en bloc, it is even less safe to presume that any caste combo will take a party over the top. All votes are going to be split.

In fact, the standard caste aggregation arithmetic has not been working for quite a while now, but we have failed to notice it because of Uttar Pradesh’s four-cornered contests – where 30 percent is enough to win almost any seat.

A little bit of caste and religion numbers will tell you why the standard presumption does not work.

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The following is the rough break-up of various castes in UP. The figures are not fully authenticated, but are not wildly out of whack either.

Dalits: 22-25 percent

Upper castes: 10-12 percent

Muslims: 18-19 percent

OBCs: 39-40 percent

Middle castes: 4-5 percent

Others: 3 percent

The figures may add up to more than 100 percent or less, depending on which end of the range you are counting. However, we are not offering this number as god’s truth, but as an approximation to enable an analysis.

If 30-32 percent is the vote required to win, Mayawati should be home and dry if all Dalits, most upper castes, and a small section of Muslims vote for her.

If SP wants to bag it all, it must get the lion’s share of the OBC vote, and the overwhelming bulk of the Muslim vote. This will take it past 30 percent.

If the Congress wants to be the No 1 party, it must get the bulk of the upper caste and middle caste (Jat) vote, and small chunks from Muslims, OBCs and smaller castes.

If the BJP wants to make it to No 2 or retain its No 3 status, it must get the bulk of the upper caste vote, and a sizeable chunk of the lower OBC vote (Kurmis, Lodhs, etc).

That no party is sure of en bloc voting from any combo tells us the real story. It is clear that caste and religious groups are not voting together. Otherwise, anyone who can count upto 30 should be able to put a winning combo together.

The big reality of today is this: castes themselves are split, and this is true not only of the ongoing elections, but also several in the past.

An analysis by Pradeep Chhibber and Vasundhara Sirnate in The Indian Express has this to say: “The evidence from UP shows that stressing caste/jati togetherness is no longer as powerful a mobilisation strategy as stressing on performance and delivery of public goods. Data provided by Lokniti shows that for over 300 elections held to the state assemblies since 1967, in almost 60 percent of the cases (each party in each state for every election was counted as an individual event) no party had a clear social group supporting it.”

The authors, who work with the political science department of the University of California, Berkeley, conclude: “Parties are forgetting that class is beginning to flatten identity in India and that a female voter in rural India will care more about drinking water, education and security, than she will about religious or caste tensions. The evidence from many states is beginning to reveal voter impatience with rhetorical identity-based mobilisation.”

Conclusion: get ready for big surprises in UP. My prediction: we will have three parties in the 100-120 seats range. The fourth one will be down in the dumps. This means we will see a two-party coalition in the state. The fight is to avoid the fourth place and irrelevance.