UP Election 2017: Lack of a CM candidate may nullify BJP's demonetisation gains

Opinion polls are by definition a matter of opinion, and in the Indian context, have often been found to be widely inaccurate, their usefulness restricted to arguments on social media or within the four walls of TV studio discussions. This is not meant to be condescending towards the back-breaking work done by psephologists or to discredit their methodology, but merely to point out that the complexity of Indian electorate doesn't lend itself easily to data-based interpretations.

This disclaimer should apply even more in the case of Uttar Pradesh, India's largest state, which according to the Election Commission, will witness a seven-phase Assembly election, stretching from 11 February to 8 March.

Narendra Modi's appeal may not work as voters know he cannot be UP chief minister. PTI file image

Narendra Modi's appeal may not work this time, as voters know he cannot be UP chief minister. PTI file image

In keeping with the practice, a couple of opinion polls — their findings significantly at odds with each another — have emerged. The one done by ABP News backs Samajwadi Party to beat anti-incumbency blues and tide over intra-family crisis to emerge as the single largest party, while a more recent one carried out by Axis My India for India Today TV sees BJP winning by a clear majority. The only point where both converge is on the fate of Congress, relegating it to an inconsequential fourth spot.

Right from sample size to methodology, there could be many reasons behind such a wide difference in projected outcomes. A major factor is that UP is way too complex, with its myriad equations, and way too big to vote as a monolithic bloc.

We frequently use the term "India's largest state" to describe UP, but how large is the largest? According to The Economist, if the state were to declare its independence from India right now, it would be the world's fifth most populous country. But it's a poor state in terms of per capita income, its economy only the size of tiny Qatar.

What this translates to is that a very large state (403 legislators and 80 parliamentarians) is open to a thousand permutations and combinations when it comes to electoral alignments — due to its income inequality, socio-economic conditions, demography, spread of religion, culture and tradition — and is notoriously difficult to predict.

In that light, let us take the ABP-CSDS opinion poll that predicts 141-151 seats for an "undivided" SP, with a 30 percent vote share. The survey sees little change in voter behaviour since demonetisation and keeps BJP's vote share at 27 percent, just ahead of Mayawati's estimated collection of 22 percent.

At the outset, the survey's projection depends on an "undivided SP", a possibility that looks distinctly unlikely at this juncture. The Election Commission has given the two warring factions until Monday (9 January) to prove their strength, depending on which, one understands, the EC will decide whether Mulayam Singh Yadav or beta Akhilesh gets to ride the cycle.

As battle lines are drawn and positions become harder, it's extremely difficult to see how SP will stave off a formal split. And in the event of a division, SP's main voter base — Yadavs and Muslims — may either split or resort to tactical voting. None of these scenarios benefit the party. There is also the small matter of Mayawati's rise. She is perennially underestimated in opinion polls but enough media reports indicate that when it comes to maintaining law and order and delivering "good governance", she noses ahead of the pack. There has also been a tactical change in her ticket distribution this time. The self-styled Dalit icon is determined to eat into the 17 per cent Muslim votebank, and has given more than a hundred tickets to Muslim candidates.

At the other end of the spectrum, the India Today survey, released on Wednesday, finds BJP winning a clear majority on the strength of demonetisation gains. Conducted by a team of 35 surveyors between 12-24 December, it has a sample size of 8,480.

It projects 206-216 seats for BJP — a jump of 30 seats from a similar exercise done in October and puts the surplus down to the effects of demonetisation, which it claims, has the backing of 78 percent respondents. Despite 58 percent participants expressing inconvenience over the note ban, the survey says the political message of demonetisation would be powerful enough to tide over the disgruntlements.

However, this appears to be too optimistic an assumption, given the fact that demonetisation is still an evolving exercise and we are still some way adrift of pre-8 November normalcy. With elections slated to take place over seven phases starting from 11 February, the difference in perception may still change for better or worse. Either way, the effect remains inconceivable at this moment.

Since the release of the survey, BJP spokespersons have appeared smug enough to claim premature victory in TV studios but the reality might be harsher. If BJP hopes to hold on to its 2014 gains, it could be in for a rude shock for a number of reasons. The Lok Sabha elections were a mandate on Narendra Modi who engineered a stunning sweep cutting across the fault lines of caste and identity. BJP's talisman retains his personal popularity, but voters know that he can't be chief minister of Uttar Pradesh as well.

As Bihar, a state where Modi had extensively campaigned before the 2015 Assembly polls, had proven, the electorate is quite discerning when it comes to choosing between Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha candidates. The India Today survey, too, indicates that Akhilesh Yadav is the top choice as CM with 33 percent support, Mayawati coming in second spot with 25 percent. BJP's best bet is Rajnath Singh with 20 percent, but the Union home minister has indicated that he isn't interested in the UP job. At least not yet.

One lesson to be drawn from this, therefore, is that not having a CM candidate could be a huge handicap for BJP, which had fought and won elections in Assam last year with Sarbananda Sonowal firmly in front. Even if demonetisation turns out to be a positive force for the saffron unit, the positivity would require a credible personality to be translated into votes — something the BJP truly lacks in UP. It doesn't have anyone to show, not because of a policy decision but because it has no one to project. Also, infighting among its state unit may have prevented any name from being tentatively projected to preclude sabotage fears. Party president Amit Shah has his task cut out.

Also, with the polls still over a month away, the election agenda hasn't been set. On this count, the BJP appears to be a little unsure. The prime minister stressed on vikaas (development)and "fight against corruption" as talking points last week during his mega rally in Lucknow. Officially, that remains the stand, but in the badlands of UP, where communal polarisation brings electoral dividends on both sides of the divide, it remains to be seen how effective an emotive appeal development turns out to be.

As of now, there can only be one certainty about UP polls: That there is no certainty.

Updated Date: Jan 05, 2017 18:08 PM

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