UP Election 2017: Divided along religion and caste lines, a clear trend remains elusive

"So, who’s winning in Uttar Pradesh?" That is the inevitable question you are confronted with on your return from a tour of the state. And, you are expected to offer a clear answer. Say that the picture is hazy and a hung assembly is likely, and you invite disappointed faces. The best way out in this scenario is, to be honest, and express your helplessness at answering the question.

“Bhai, I can tell you why Katappa killed Bahubali, but don’t ask me about UP. It is just too complicated” should be your answer.

It’s complicated indeed! No surprise then that all the political parties in the fray have been claiming victory at the end of each phase of polling while election watchers have been throwing up different winning tallies to parties in private. So far, a trend is not discernible.

Lucknow: Voters queue up to cast their votes during the third phase of the UP assembly elections in Lucknow on Sunday. PTI Photo by Nand Kumar(PTI2_19_2017_000122B)

Voters queue up during the third phase of the UP Assembly election in Lucknow. PTI

In a society divided along caste lines and where parties are closely identified with castes, the movement of "plus" votes — votes from other castes apart from the core caste vote bank — would have been a good indicator of the prospects of a particular party. For example, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) commands a steady vote base of Dalits. A good chunk of upper caste votes, particularly of Brahmins, and those of Muslims would be good enough to see it cross the finishing line with around 30 percent of vote share. The same goes for Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party with its core base among Yadavs and Muslims. A small shift in votes from non-Yadav OBCs and upper castes would fetch it a vote share of 30 percent, which is roughly the average share for any party forming a government in the state. The number of seats could vary wildly, though.

Back to the past
It was the pre-2014 scenario. The massive Narendra Modi wave in the 16th General Election to Lok Sabha saw the BJP, which had received only 15 percent of vote share and 47 Assembly seats in 2012, leap frog to the pole position with an unprecedented 43 percent vote share and number one position in 328 of the 403 assembly segments (the BJP won 71 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats) in the state. The wave appeared to have flattened several caste barriers and made traditional caste equations less than relevant.

Nearly three years on, the question was whether the party would be able to retain the 2014 vote share, and if there is a decline how low would it go. A 10 percent dip would still be good for the BJP because 33 percent of vote share is significant in the context of Uttar Pradesh. But the dip could be sharper as the situation is far different as compared to pre-2014. To begin with it’s a state election and not a national one; second, the Modi wave has disappeared; third, the activities of the fringe Hindutva groups have alienated several groups from the party; fourth, certain measures of the central government such as demonetisation have hurt people; and fifth, the support from some social and caste groups that the party enjoyed in 2014 is waning.

That brings down the BJP on a par with the Samajwadi Party and the BSP, if not lower, and leaves it with no distinct advantage over others. Now, assuming that the BJP is set for a big loss in vote share, who is going to gain from it? Again, it is back to the old caste and community calculus, with a dash of new confusion.

"You say the entire Jat community won’t vote for the BJP; they would vote for the RLD (Rashtriya Lok Dal) instead. I don’t agree. Maybe a section of Jats would vote for the RLD," says Ashok Baliyan, a leader of the Jat community. He contests the suggestion that the RLD would win around 20 seats. "Can Jat votes alone give the party that many seats? Where are others?" he asks. What Baliyan means is that without the support of Muslims and other caste groups the RLD cannot score big. He has a point.

"In fact, the BJP could be at an advantage in western UP if the Muslim votes get divided between the SP and the BSP and the Dalit votes go to the later," says Satish Prakash, a Dalit activist. In the 67 seats that went to polls in the second phase, Muslim voters hold the sway. The BSP has had a head start by announcing its candidates early and cultivating constituencies. The SP-Congress alliance may gain from the Muslim votes of each other, but still, the division of votes of the whole community cannot be ruled out.

The general view among political observers is that Muslims vote to defeat the BJP candidate. In case there are two Muslim candidates from the BSP and the SP-Congress alliance, Muslims voters would go for the candidate who is best placed to defeat the BJP candidate in the constituency. In that scenario, it is possible that their votes would go to different candidates from the alliance or the BSP in different seats. That makes finding a pattern in voting cumbersome.

In the 69 seats in phase three, Yadav voters play a big role. The strike rate of the SP in this region was around 80 percent in 2012. But in 2014, a good number of Yadavs and non-Yadav OBCs had voted for the BJP. The same is the case with a section of non-Jatav Dalits. How many of them are going to shift away from the party this time? Besides, Akhilesh’s party is likely to face some sabotage from party workers who were denied tickets and members of the Shivpal camp. It won’t be comforting for the SP that the BSP had come close runner-up in as many as 44 seats. And this time it is focussing hard on booth-level mobilisation.

Too many factors are at play in the UP Assembly election this time. The interplay of these would decide whether there would be a clear winner. Till it is deciphered with clarity, the results would continue to be a guessing game.

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Updated Date: Feb 20, 2017 22:24:46 IST

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