It would be tempting to say that the results of the 2017 state elections in Uttar Pradesh speak for themselves. A rapid look at the numbers provides more detail on the magnitude of the BJP’s victory and the defeat of its opponents.
With 39.7 per cent of the votes and 75.7 per cent of the seats, the BJP scores the best performance recorded by any party in Uttar Pradesh since the Janata Party victory in 1977. It tops the Congress’s 1985 vote share (39.3 per cent) as well as Indira Gandhi’s seat share when she returned to power in 1980 (72.7 per cent). If we only consider the 384 seats where the BJP contested, the vote share increases to 41.5 per cent, which is nearly equivalent to its 42.5 per cent vote share in 2014. The party’s strike rate, or the ratio of seats won against seats contested, is equally impressive and fairly stable through the seven phases of the elections.
Despite reports of Jat discontent vis a vis the BJP, the party scored its highest strike rate in the first phase of the election, in western Uttar Pradesh. It won 64 of the 73 seats it contested in phase 1, that is, an 87.7 per cent strike rate. The BJP’s strike rate maintained itself at around 80 per cent in the next four phases, decreasing slightly to 71 and 75 per cent in the last two phases. This means that the prime minister’s increased involvement towards the end of the campaign enabled the BJP to maintain its earlier performance, but did not raise
The party’s performance in terms of vote share remains broadly the same compared to 2014. If anything, it is even more evenly spread across the state. Only in western Uttar Pradesh does the BJP vote share decrease significantly, from 50 per cent to 43.3 per cent. But the dispersion of votes between the Congress-Samajwadi Party alliance, the BSP and the RLD enabled it to bag most of the seats. And just like in 2014, the victory margins of the BJP were high, at 15.4 per cent on average. They were also much higher than its opponents’ margins, at 9.9, 4.16 and 9.6 per cent for the SP, BSP and Congress, respectively.
With 12 per cent of the seats, the SP has registered its worst performance since its creation in 1993. Its 21 per cent vote share is deceptive, since it contested only 305 seats. In those seats, the SP vote share rises to 28.3 per cent, roughly equivalent to its 2012 performance. With only 22 per cent of the vote share in the seats it contested, the Congress clearly dragged the alliance down. Its strike rate is extremely low — an average of 8 per cent. This could either mean that Congress candidates failed to obtain support from local SP supporters, or that its own base has shrunk since 2012. In the best case scenario, the alliance with the Congress helped the SP maintain its overall 2012 position.
These elections also confirm the decline of the BSP. With 22 per cent, the BSP has lost four points compared to 2012, and only slightly increased its 2014 vote share of 19 per cent. Its base among Jatav Dalits has probably remained intact, which means that the BSP has lost the ability to attract votes from other groups. It used to do that by distributing tickets to members of locally dominant groups — OBCs, upper castes or others — whose job was to bring in votes of their own. These votes would then add to the party’s Dalit base. Since 2007, other parties, including the SP, have emulated that strategy and have complemented it with powerful general interest-oriented narratives. By contrast, the BSP’s failure to display a broad narrative prevented it from attracting voters beyond its core support base and the local networks of its candidates.
These elections also put a halt to a 20-year trend of increased representation of minorities. Muslims had acquired proportionate representation for the first time in 2012, with 17 per cent of the seats. They are now down to 6 per cent of the seats, that is 25 seats (7 on a BSP ticket, 16 with the SP and 2 with the Congress). Only 11 of the 68 sitting MLAs have been re-elected.
This signifies a double strategic failure for Mayawati. In all probability, the Dalit vote and the vote of the Muslims did not consolidate, and the large number of tickets distributed to Muslim candidates (97) did not help to attract many voters outside these two groups. This further confirms that strategies that are based on exclusive caste combinations are doomed to fail.
How do we explain the BJP’s performance? There is no doubt that the figure of the prime minister was the main draw for non-traditional BJP voters. The PM’s image and voice have been omnipresent since his 2014 victory. Beyond that, can we interpret the BJP victory as a plebiscite for his policies? The honest response is that we do not yet have the data to back this assertion. It is safer at this stage to assume that the reasons to vote for the BJP have probably been as diverse as the composition of its electorate, and that significant or spectacular policy interventions such as demonetisation have contributed to the BJP’s success.
What emerges clearly from these elections, and which should be confirmed by incoming surveys, is that the size of the floating electorate, or undecided voters, keeps increasing election after election. These “floating voters” might be more concentrated among the lower OBCs, but they are also found in every caste and caste group. This makes the caste-centric strategies of parties less effective, especially in elections with a high voter turnout, compared to factors of leadership and broad party image.