After weeks of negotiations, the SP and BSP have announced the distribution of seats that both parties will contest in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Uttarakhand, in a pre-electoral alliance that may have a major bearing on the outcome of the 2019 General Elections. In 2014, the BJP won 90 per cent of the seats in these three states, a result that gave it a majority of seats in the Lok Sabha. A setback in the key Hindi belt states would mean a loss of this majority.
In UP, the distribution of seats matches each party’s broad electoral geography. The SP gets more seats in the Doab, a traditional sub-regional stronghold where it currently holds four of its five seats. The BSP gets an edge in Western UP and northeastern UP, where it usually outperforms the SP. The RLD gets a handful of seats in Jat-dominated regions of Western UP. The BSP will run in 10 reserved seats, against seven for the SP. In MP, the SP and BSP will combine forces in districts adjacent to UP. In Uttarakhand, the alliance greatly favours the BSP which has a presence across the state.
An examination of the data shows that, although formidable, the SP-BSP alliance would not automatically lead to a major victory in UP, or have a significant impact in the other two states. In 2014, the BJP’s vote share in UP surpassed the combined vote share of the SP and the BSP in 37 seats. Had the SP and the BSP contested together and their vote shares added up perfectly, they could have won 13 seats with small margins (below 5 per cent) and 30 other seats with comfortable margins.
If one looks at more recent results, comparing assembly constituency performance within parliamentary segments, and including the Congress, which ran in an alliance with the SP in most seats, an SP-BSP combine would have been clearly outvoted in 48 seats, and nearly defeated in 11 other seats.
In the other two states, the question is not so much whether the SP-BSP alliance makes electoral sense on its own, but whether its alliance with the Congress would make a difference for the bipolar contest between the Congress and BJP. In MP, the combined vote share of the SP and BSP was 6 per cent, below the average victory margin of the BJP (9.4 per cent). This means that assuming that vote transfers would have taken place, a Congress-SP-BSP alliance could have altered the outcome in seven seats. In Uttarakhand, a hypothetical Congress-SP-BSP combine would have made a difference in only one seat (Haridwar). The SP has no presence in the state which, in the absence of an alliance with Congress, makes the tie-up with the BSP merely symbolic.
These, again, are hypothetical scenarios, based on calculations that barely connect with the reality of electoral politics and alliance dynamics. These calculations, however, indicate that the alliance does not give the SP and the BSP a clear advantage against the BJP. There are at least six other factors that complicate the scenario.
To begin with, it is always worth noting that past results are no predictors of future performance. Second, there is no telling whether vote transfers between the SP and BSP bases will take place in full or in equal measure. Recent CSDS-Lokniti survey data shows that wealthier and more urban segments of Yadav voters tend to vote more for the BJP than the poorer and more rural segments. This does not hold true for Jatav voters, who largely remain loyal to the BSP irrespective of class differentiation. The SP and BSP contested in an alliance only once (in 1993) and there hasn’t been much harmony between these parties’ respective bases since. Some SP voters might be tempted to cast their vote elsewhere. The last four bypolls in UP indicated that such transfers can take place. But these were essentially local contests, in which the personality of the candidates mattered as well as parties’ strategies. These bypolls also revealed that in a bipolar contest, the BJP can maintain or even increase its vote share.
Third, even if these three parties’ combined vote share includes around 80 per cent of the total vote share, there are still 20 per cent of votes that will be distributed between them, the Congress, small parties and independent candidates. Small numbers can make the difference in close races.
Fourth, the absence of the Congress from the alliance might cost them dear, even if the Congress’s base is small and its performance modest. A slightly resurgent Congress is unlikely to grab any voter from the BJP but can dent the alliance’s support base. Fifth, a fair distribution of seats between the SP and BSP means that both parties must discard many aspiring candidates, some of whom may run as independents or may even end up running on a BJP ticket.
Finally, there is the question of the internal cohesion of the alliance. The decimation both parties have suffered in the last two elections in UP has given them clarity that it is the only way forward. But Mulayam Singh Yadav’s latest utterances indicate that the SP is still struggling to present itself to voters as a united entity.
There are imponderable factors that may play in favour of the alliance. The general disillusionment and anger against the BJP, farmers’ distress, joblessness, violent assertion of sections of Thakurs against Dalits, two destructive years of Yogi Adityanath’s administration, recent setback in MP and stray cows wreaking havoc across constituencies could thwart the BJP.
These factors could indeed pave the way to a victory for the alliance in UP, although social polarisation is more likely to split the electorate into two camps rather than aggregate them into a counter-wave. A split result would still achieve the result of stripping the BJP of its majority at the Centre, unless it can compensate for the losses elsewhere.
What can be said with some certainty is that the SP-BSP partnership (with the RLD in Western UP) makes the contest open and competitive in India’s politically most important state. Voters now have a clear choice in front of them and can exercise their right to choose on their own terms. This development also illustrates the inability of the Congress to come to terms with the fragmentation of the political space in India and recognise the necessity to strike deals with other parties. One can predict that each side will blame the other if and when the results do not match expectations.
(The writer is assistant professor of political science, Ashoka University, and co-director of the Trivedi Centre for Political Data. Views are personalSP-BSP partnership in UP makes the contest open and competitive in India’s politically most important state)