2022 Uttar Pradesh elections: BJP is a favourite, but SP may be no pushover this time
The BJP had a huge lead over the SP in 2017, and it would require a major upset for the SP to turn the tables on the party
About a week from now, the results of the Uttar Pradesh elections, touted as the “semi-final” before the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, will be known. The polls will signal not just the short-term direction of UP politics, but also show what kind of confidence the BJP goes to polls in 2024 with.
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The BJP seemed an easy front-runner in the polls, to begin with, but there are many who believe that these may now be tighter than before. The reason: Samajwadi Party has weaned away some leaders of small OBC castes from the BJP, and it remains to be seen whether voters from these groups vote for the party they have preferred over the last eight years or follow individual leaders. Smaller OBC castes like the Mauryas and Sainis are not yet a well-defined voting constituency and an element of fluidity has informed their political choices.
Some of these groups — most notably, Lodhs, the caste of Kalyan Singh and Uma Bharti — had taken to the BJP in significant numbers around the time of the Ram temple movement, when KN Govindacharya was said to have begun ‘social engineering’ in the party, once seen as a ‘Bania-Brahmin’ party, in a focused manner.
The smaller OBC castes got somewhat politicised in the wake of Mandal politics of social justice. But given the smaller numbers and meagre resources of these groups, they could never emerge as a solid vote chunk, like the Yadavs, almost 9 per cent of UP’s population, for SP. These castes shifted allegiance between the SP and BSP, and are believed to have played a crucial role in Mayawati’s victory with a simple majority in the state in 2007.
It was around 2013 that they began to veer towards the BJP. The reason: SP, the party that claimed to represent the OBCs, was seen as largely one that promoted only Yadavs while talking about the backwards as a whole. Amit Shah, who planned Modi’s 2014 poll campaign in UP, reached out to these groups. The BJP started its OBC morcha to reach out to the OBCs as a whole and also offered a larger number of tickets to people from these caste groups. The party found it easy to do so, as it, unlike other parties, did not have to offer tickets to Muslims at all. So, they could increase the representation of non-Yadav OBCs without bringing down ‘upper caste’ representation.
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The movement of non-Yadav OBCs towards the BJP was a game-changer for the party in UP. It already had the solid support of the ‘upper castes’, numbering at least 20 percent of the population. To this, a large chunk of non-Yadav OBCs — individually not influential caste groups but quite a handful when taken together — was added and the BJP swept UP both in 2017 and, despite a formidable SP-BSP-RJD alliance, also in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
The exit of Swami Prasad Maurya, Dharam Singh Saini, Mukesh Verma and six others from the BJP in a single burst of defections in January improved Akhilesh Yadav’s chances of doing much better than the last time, when the BJP had crossed 300 seats. However, the BJP tried to control the damage by roping in RPN Singh, a Kurmi whose family has wielded influence in Padrauna, thus sending out a signal that it retained its power to woo non-Yadav OBC castes.
A shot in the arm for SP is the alliance with the Rashtriya Lok Dal. The one-year-long farm agitation does not seem to have impacted farmers in large swathes of UP. However, in the sugarcane belt of the west, where RLD was once strong, Jat votes — considered 8 per cent of west UP as a whole — have split between the BJP and RLD. Since this is also a region of heavy Muslim populations, even a split of Jat votes down the middle can bring the SP-RLD alliance into the fray as a serious contender.
The BJP will hope that non-Jatav Dalits, or those outside the core vote of Mayawati, still side with the party and do not shift allegiance to the SP-RLD alliance. Traditionally, Dalits on the one hand and Jats and Yadavs — largely agrarian and influential castes — have not been on the best of terms due to the skewed power relationship in the countryside.
The UP elections are being contested in the wake of an economically debilitating pandemic, which has impacted livelihoods and incomes. However, while livelihood concerns pose a challenge to the BJP, the free ration that was distributed by the Adityanath government is perceived as benefitting the party.
What the party also benefits from is the profile of Yogi Adityanath, who towers above the other candidates in terms of personal popularity, even if largely among Hindus, the majority community in the state.
Adityanath also scores in public perception on the law and order front. The encounters of people with criminal backgrounds — which were criticized by political observers who said that encounters were against the rule of law and did not permit a trial of an accused in a court of law — have, ironically, been interpreted by common people on the ground as a sign of a leader who is committed to maintaining law and order at any cost. The Vikas Dubey encounter, which was seen to be the most blatant of them all, initially seemed to be sparking off an element of disquiet among the Brahmins, an influential community accounting for about 10-percent of the state’s population. However, it seems that the community is at present largely with the BJP.
Two poll pitches of the BJP are that a return of the Samajwadi Party would lead to deterioration of the law and order situation and also embolden ‘Islamist’ elements. The law and order plea seems to be still working for the BJP, though it does not seem that this is yet an election of deep Hindu-Muslim polarisation. Even Asaduddin Owaisi is unlikely to make a significant dent among Muslim voters.
Another way of expressing the purported contrast with 2017 is that while Muslims got divided between the SP and BSP at that time but upper castes, non-Yadav OBCs and sections of non-Jatav Dalits converged around the BJP in 2017, Muslims are largely with the SP this time while there are doubts whether the BJP holds on to its OBC and Dalit votes the way it did in 2017.
However, the BJP had a huge lead over the SP in 2017, and it would require a major upset for the SP to turn the tables on the party. The BJP is still expected to cross the majority mark, but if it just falls short, the BSP may become an important player in deciding government formation.
Unless the BJP wins UP comfortably, attacks on it from regional parties are likely to get even more acerbic. The prime minister, in particular, may bear the brunt of these. However, even if the BJP does not come out with flying colours, it may not really impact 2024, unlike what is being widely speculated. Unless, of course, the recent pattern of people voting on Modi’s name in Lok Sabha polls and on local issues in assembly polls — something seen since Narendra Modi came to power — changes in 2024.
The author is a political journalist and media academic. The views expressed are personal.
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