As India’s seven-phased general election nears its end, the prospects of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) appear to be diminishing in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. If earlier vote arithmetic holds true, the BJP is likely to win in fewer than 25 constituencies in the 80-seat state – which sends the most number of members to the parliament and thus can make or break an election. Aritry Das, Kriti Singh, Shreya Sehgal specially for the Asia Times.
In 2014, the BJP achieved a landslide in the state riding on the “Modi wave” — the popularity of the then prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. The BJP won 71 seats while its ally Apna Dal won two seats.
This time, to defeat the BJP, regional players like the Samajwadi Party (SP), Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) have made an unprecedented alliance in the state. Traditional rivals SP and BSP have come together for the first time since 1993.
According to an Asia Times analysis of election data, if it is assumed that people will vote for the same parties in the current election as they did in 2014 and 2017, then BJP stands to lose a significant number of seats.
Game changer alliance
In the analysis, the sum of votes received by SP, BSP and RLD in each constituency was compared with votes received by BJP. Scrutiny of the 2014 election data from the Election Commission of India shows the SP-BSP-RLD alliance can be expected to win in at least 54 seats out of 80. Among the 54, ten seats where the BJP lost by margins of under 20,000 votes can be considered swing seats and may go to any of the major parties in the fray.
Furthermore, the 2017 state election data show additional weakening of the BJP’s hold on Uttar Pradesh.
The 2017 election data were used to determine how many votes went to each party in the 80 parliamentary constituencies, each of which is made up of a minimum of five assembly seats. According to this, the BJP is likely to win only 16 seats. There are two swing seats where BJP lost and they may or may not go to the party.
Uttar Pradesh is considered a kingmaker state. No party has ever come to power at the Center without sweeping Uttar Pradesh. In 2014, BJP won 88.75% of the total seats with a vote share of 42.5%. In contrast, it won 77.41% of the seats (312 out of 403 assembly seats) in 2017.
With BJP facing the problems of double incumbency in the state and center and with SP-BSP-RLD’s tactical social coalition coming into being, Uttar Pradesh is going to be difficult terrain to chart for the party. The alliance brings together Yadavs, Jatavs, and Muslims who make up 40-42% of the population and outnumber the BJP’s voter base, which is concentrated among the upper castes, some non-Yadav other backward classes (for example, Mauryas, Lodhs and Kurmis, each about 2% of the state’s population), and select non-Jatav Dalits.
Moreover, Congress President Rahul Gandhi pledged that his party will help the alliance in places where the Congress candidates are weak and do not stand a chance to win.
Asia Times tried reaching the BJP for comment on this analysis, but no one responded.
Satveer Nagar, BSP candidate from Gautam Budh Nagar seat, told Asia Times that the alliance would get far more than 54 seats. According to the 37-year-old candidate, more people voted from the Dalit and Muslim communities this time than in 2014 and this would work in the alliance’s favor. They are also expecting that the Dalit votes, other than BSP’s Jatav base, will also come to the alliance.
Central Uttar Pradesh
Central Uttar Pradesh, which largely covers the Awadh region, comprises 17 Lok Sabha seats including key constituencies like Faizabad, Lucknow and Congress bastions Amethi and Rae Bareli. Amid the issues of rural distress and urban unemployment, BJP would do well to retain three seats out of the 20 in this region.
Faizabad, which was recently renamed Ayodhya by the ruling BJP government, is believed by hardline Hindus to be the birthplace of Lord Ram (a Hindu god). The Ram Janmabhoomi (birthplace of Lord Ram)-Babri mosque site in Ayodhya has been a major bone of contention between Muslims and Hindus for over six decades. It has been the base for the BJP’s temple politics since 1989, resulting in the rise of the party’s electoral fortunes since the demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992.
In 2014, the BJP under Modi was successful in spinning the narrative that other political parties were obstructing the construction of a temple—and only Modi was their protector.
However, people are now skeptical of this “protection” since nothing concrete has been achieved over the years. The date indicates that if people vote for same parties as they did last time, chances are slim that the BJP will retain its seats in this region.
On the other hand, capital city Lucknow is the party’s political hub and has been its stronghold since 1991. Poll data reflect that there is a higher chance that BJP will win the seat but the formidable SP-BSP-RLD alliance will give a tough fight even here.
Moreover, the picture outside the BJP bastions is more complex. People across the state are more concerned about issues like the rising unemployment in the state, which the opposition parties are also trying to highlight. Last year, UP Labor Minister Swamy Prasad Maurya told the state legislature that there were 2.14 million unemployed persons as of June. Uttar Pradesh’s unemployment rate was higher than the national average in 2017.
As for the caste-based vote bank in this region, it is difficult to gauge to which side the Dalits (lower castes in Hindu hierarchy) would swing. Pasis (a Dalit caste), the second largest caste community in the state (16%), are not aligned to any party, unlike Jatav Dalits who are loyal to BSP. But BJP refused to nominate a number of ministers from this community, which would possibly hurt their support.
Apart from this, the issue of stray cattle has gripped all regions of the state after a partial ban was imposed on the sale of cows and buffaloes for slaughter. As a result, tens of thousands have been forced out of the meat industry as thousands of cows roam wild and destroy crops, further infuriating already distressed farmers.
Western Uttar Pradesh
Western UP has at least 29 constituencies that could be characterized as communally sensitive. A core reason why the alliance will likely work in the western part is because it unites two huge communities: Jatav Dalits (largest Dalit community) and Muslims. Both communities have been alienated by the BJP.
The Muslims have had to endure hate speeches by BJP leaders. Chief Minister Ajay Singh Bisht, popularly known as Yogi Adityanath, was banned from campaigning by the Election Commission after he declared in Meerut that the current poll was a contest between Ali (the first caliph of Islam) and Bajrang Bali (a Hindu deity).
Western UP has also seen several riots including the infamous anti-Muslim riot in Muzaffarnagar in 2013, which is said to have helped the BJP in the 2014 elections. On the other hand, there is concern about “reservation” – affirmative action – due to dilution of the SC/ST Act and introduction of reserved government jobs and educational opportunities for upper castes. Meanwhile, security issues due to hate crimes have cast a shadow over the Jatavs and other Dalits.
A section of the Jats who voted en mass for the BJP in 2014 reportedly became disenchanted with the BJP and its agrarian policies as farm distress intensified in the Hindi heartland. They are likely to support the Ajit Singh-led RLD, adding to the social base of the SP-BSP.
Even with a higher concentration of Muslim population (around 27%) than the rest of the state, western UP turned out to be a BJP stronghold in 2014. But BJP traditionally gets upper caste Hindu votes from the western part, which includes parts of the Braj and Rohilkhand region. The party will now face strong competition from the consolidated Yadav, Jatav and Muslim votes which have a significant presence here.
Firozabad, Mainpuri, Etah, Badaun, Aonla and Sambhal have substantial Yadav, Jatav and Muslim presences. Constituencies like Moradabad, Rampur, Bareilly and Pilibhit have substantial Muslim and Dalit bases. However, Pilibhit, Bareilly, Ghaziabad, Gautam Buddha Nagar, Bulandshahr and Aligarh are BJP strongholds and data suggest that, despite the alliance, BJP will likely be able to retain these seats comfortably.
SP is also strong in this region and even with the Modi wave of 2014 that won almost all seats here, the party was able to retain Firozabad, Mainpuri and Badaun seats on account of conducive demography.
Eastern Uttar Pradesh
Eastern UP, covering the Purvanchal region has 31 Lok Sabha (lower house) seats, and out of them, 27 are currently represented by the ruling BJP in Parliament. But according to data analysis by Asia Times, the SP-BSP-RLD alliance is most likely to work in this region despite BJP having Varanasi, Modi’s home constituency, under its belt.
The undercurrent against the BJP is strong in the region and even Bisht lost his assembly seat from Gorakhpur in the 2018 by-election.
The alliance is likely to cut into the BJP’s vote share here. Along with the support of Yadavs and Jatavs, the alliance is also banking on the marginalized sections of the society like the Muslims and Dalits.
Rajendra Chaudhry, SP spokesperson, told Asia Times that the alliance is confident of getting full support from traditional vote bases and the problems among the SP and BSP have been put aside to win the state.
He added that people were dissatisfied with the BJP leaders in the region and were seeking a change in leadership. He blamed the state’s agrarian crisis and the high rate of unemployment for this.
The Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP), which was not accommodated in the BJP’s seat-sharing exercise, represents the Rajbhar community, who are agricultural laborers and come under “most backward castes” (MBC) within the “other backward classes” (OBC) in Uttar Pradesh.
Om Prakas Rajbhar of the SBSP was denied two seats by the BJP. He has now fielded candidates to contest over 30 seats and has also extended support to the opposition alliance in Sant Kabir Nagar, Bansgaon and Maharajganj, where nominations of his candidates have been rejected. This is expected to dent the BJP’s vote share.
The OBCs constitute 43.56% of the population and the MBCs are 10.22% of the OBCs. The MBCs have a significant population in eastern Uttar Pradesh’s Sant Kabir Nagar, Gorakhpur, Kushinagar and Varanasi.
During the 2014 parliamentary and 2017 assembly elections, a majority of the MBCs were inclined towards the BJP for their promises of jobs and development. But this time the caste group may tilt towards the alliance. The BJP, aware of the changes, is also fielding candidates from the OBC and the MBCs. But the SP is also trying to revive its ties with the 17 MBC castes forged under Mulayam Singh Yadav’s leadership. It has given them important party posts and is promising to fight for reservation status for these 17 castes.
In 2014, the BJP and its ally Apna Dal won all seats from this region with the exception of Azamgarh, which was retained by SP patriarch Mulayam Singh. This time SP chief Akhilesh Yadav is fighting from Azamgarh.
The BJP was able to push through the state with dependency on the Modi wave in 2014 and so local candidates hardly mattered. But now with the diminishing popularity of the BJP along with the threat from the alliance, there is a reverse. Analysis of election data from 2014 and 2017 suggests the BJP may not be able to retain many seats in the region other than Varanasi.
In Uttar Pradesh, more than the national issues the caste, and religious arithmetic form the bedrock of politics and this is what can ruin BJP’s prospects here and ultimately dent Modi’s aspiration to become prime minister for the second time.