Till a few weeks back, the election in Uttar Pradesh seemed like a redux of Bihar 2015 assembly polls. Jitan Ram Manjhi, who was installed as chief minister by Nitish Kumar after the 2014 Lok Sabha elections revolted against his mentor, formed a separate party to contest as an NDA ally. The BJP’s expansionist impulse threatened the RJD, JD(U) and Congress to enter into a pre-poll alliance. And the BJP, whose campaign solely depended on Prime Minister Modi’s charisma, lost badly to the combined might of the Mahagathbandhan.
Similarly, in UP, CM Akhilesh Yadav conducted a bloodless coup d’etat to wrestle the control of Samajwadi Party from his father and uncle. After endless negotiations and roadblocks, the SP and the Congress eventually agreed to a seat-sharing formula. The alliance seemed to be the frontrunner with a strong social arithmetic in its favour. And like Bihar, the BJP once again campaigned against a popular incumbent without a chief ministerial candidate.
Is UP 2017 merely a repeat of Bihar 2015? The answer to this question would be largely determined by two factors. First, did Akhilesh Yadav’s popularity get converted into votes for the alliance? Second, how much did the BJP learn from its mistakes in Bihar?
There is little doubt over the popularity of Akhilesh Yadav as the satisfaction with his performance is quite high. In the Lokniti-CSDS pre-poll survey, more than two-thirds of the respondents said that they were satisfied with his work as CM. More importantly, as Figure 1 indicates, there was limited anti-incumbency against his government when polling for the first phase started. In August 2016, 34 per cent respondents were willing to give his government another chance. This increased to 39 per cent in December 2016 and finally 43 per cent in January 2017. Furthermore, survey data suggests that more and more respondents are rating the Akhilesh Yadav-led SP government to be better than the Mayawati-led BSP government.
However, this level of popularity may not have lead to conversion of votes in favour of SP-Congress alliance, at least not at the scale achieved by the Mahagathbandhan. In Bihar, the BJP lost the campaign narrative even before the election started and the party kept on committing more mistakes to minimise the impact of previous ones. Over the course of a month-long campaign, the BJP never recovered from the issue of reservations (Mohan Bhagwat’s statement) and price rise (the prices of pulses had sky-rocketed). No similar narrative dominated the election discourse in UP. Moreover, the Congress in UP seems to have pulled the alliance down (similar to its performance in Tamil Nadu in 2016 elections when it had allied with the DMK, rather than adding to the alliance, as it did in the Bihar 2015 elections).
In Bihar, the NDA was largely relying on support from upper castes and Dalits. Support among these communities was on expected lines with 84 per cent of the upper castes and 37 per cent of Dalits voting for the NDA. Despite this, the NDA lost by a wide margin. Why? One of the overlooked factors in analysing the Bihar elections has been turnout patterns among the core constituencies of both alliances. The data presented in Figure 2 shows that the NDA in Bihar failed to get its core support base to the polling booths. There was a significant difference in the turn out among the social base of the NDA and the Mahagathbandhan: Turnout among communities (upper castes, Dalits and upper-middle class) inclined towards the BJP was lower than the support base of Mahagathbandhan.
How did we calculate the turnout among various communities? The Election Commission only provides male and female turnout. However, in Lokniti-CSDS surveys, each respondent is not only asked whether they voted in the election or not, the field investigator also requests them to show the ink-mark on their fingers. We categorised respondents with ink-mark as those who voted. As with most election surveys across the globe, even in the Lokniti-CSDS surveys, the figures of who voted are grossly overestimated. Thus, we weighted the survey estimate by actual turnout at the state level (57.1 per cent) to calculate the probability of voting among various communities. The inter-community differences in turning out to vote in Bihar sealed the fate of the BJP-led alliance in the final tally.
So what has the BJP done to avoid a repetition of Bihar in UP? The party seems to have made three critical adjustments to its election strategy this time. First, there was a change in the BJP’s ticket distribution scheme. With Dalit voters solidly behind the BSP, the BJP relied heavily on support among non-Yadav OBCs, apart from upper castes and non-Jatav Dalits. In comparison to Bihar, the party increased allocation to non-Yadav backward castes. Also, in more than two-thirds of the seats reserved for Scheduled Castes candidates, the party has nominated non-Jatav Dalits.
Second, unlike Bihar, leaders from UP have been given due prominence in the party’s campaign material and advertisements. Most campaign material has images of four leaders apart from PM Modi and party president Amit Shah, former CM and home minister, Rajnath Singh, state unit chief, Keshav Prasad Maurya and Union ministers Uma Bharti and Kalraj Mishra. The choice of leaders reveals the social coalition the BJP attempted to forge in UP.
Third, the party made concentrated efforts to effectively communicate the top leadership’s message on ground. Apart from the usual high-decibel campaign laced with hindutva rhetoric by the top-level leadership, the party tried to ensure robust ground-level mobilisation through local leaders, party machinery and RSS cadre. For instance, according to a report, a team of 1,600 volunteers traversed the state and personally delivered a letter from PM Modi explaining the benefits of demonetisation to more than 2.5 lakh households every day. These volunteers (along with RSS machinery) were also responsible for identifying influencers in each village who are being roped in by the party as vote mobilisers. Their task was to get BJP aligned voters to the polling booths.
As the election concludes, the provisional turnout figures suggest that there may be only a minor increase in turnout as compared to 2012. Thus, the BJP’s luck in the state depends on ensuring that its core support base turned out to vote in larger numbers or not. In a few days, we will find out whether the BJP has learned from mistakes made in Bihar, and whether the Congress did a Tamil Nadu or Bihar in Uttar Pradesh.