The assembly election in Uttar Pradesh -- and in Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur -- is the semi-final match between the BJP and other political parties as the outcome will provide a blueprint for the general election in 2019.
The result in Uttar Pradesh will be a microcosm of the national mandate, as we saw from the Lok Sabha election in 2014. The BJP had won a mammoth 71 out of the 80 parliamentary seats in India’s most populous state, paving the way for the saffron party to return to power in Delhi after ten years.
The electorate in Uttar Pradesh is not only known for providing decisive mandates but also for switching its electoral preference at a drop of a hat. In the 2012 assembly polls, it ousted the incumbent Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) government in favour of the Samajwadi Party (SP), but went on to give an overwhelming mandate to the BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. In the 2016 by-elections, the SP came back to win 8 out of 11 seats, defying the much hyped ‘Modi wave’.
Recent opinion polls on Uttar Pradesh are sharply divided, with one giving a clear majority to the BJP and the other three pointing to a hung assembly. The history of poll predictions in the state has been quite chequered, and the psephological surprises have been mainly due to the multi-party competition and the peculiarities of the electorate in which a small swing of votes can completely change the political equilibrium. Thus it becomes imperative to revisit the interplay of the caste-community matrix, the issue dimensions in elections and its efficacy in shaping voting decisions.
The demographics of the electorate is 41 percent OBC, 21 percent Dalits, 19 percent Muslims and 19 percent from upper castes. The Congress dominated politics in the state for a long time with support from the upper castes, Dalits and Muslims, but the rise of regional satraps like the BSP and the SP marked a major realignment of the caste calculus and ushered in identity politics. The majority of Dalit voters switched to the BSP led by Mayawati while the bulk of Muslim votes gravitated towards the SP, led by Mulayam Singh Yadav. The SP created a coalition of Muslims and the Yadav caste (9 percent of the population) to become a force majeure in state politics.
The polarisation of Muslim votes in favour of non-BJP parties is a phenomenon post the Babri Masjid demolition and they play a key role in 73 assembly constituencies and determining the outcome of the last two state elections. The caste-community matrix which was almost electorally buried by the BJP during the 2014 general election is back in focus. The consolidation of Muslim votes for the SP-Congress alliance will provide an edge to the new political alliance.
The BJP is once again banking on the ‘Modi wave’, which seems to have been bolstered after the demonetisation drive and the surgical strike in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. The assembly election in Uttar Pradesh is a mid-term referendum for the BJP and will determine the longevity of its dominance in national politics.
The dismal track record of the ruling SP government witnessed a dramatic change after a political coup by Akhilesh Yadav. The young chief minister’s popularity is soaring after he emerged victorious in his fight with the party’s old guard led by his father. The SP 2.0 further buttressed its electoral chances by entering into an alliance with the Congress. Mayawati’s BSP is appearing to be languishing in the contest but continues to be a dark horse.
To conclude, the electoral battle in Uttar Pradesh seems to be tilting in favour of the SP-Congress alliance with chances of a few road bumps in the form of internal dissensions within the SP and transfer of votes between the two allies. The BJP is facing heat over ticket distribution, lack of a chief ministerial candidate, and some leaders derailing its development narrative by fomenting communal tensions. The election may or may not throw another psephological surprise this time but it is certainly a dry run for the Lok Sabha election in 2019.
Praveen Rai is a political analyst at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi. His key areas of interest include electoral politics, analysing election competitions and opinion polling in India