As Uttar Pradesh goes to the polls, a contest between three strong political forces — two parties and an alliance — is shaping up. On the eve of the polls, the SP has emerged as a strong contender, capable of challenging the BJP, thanks to a three-move political masterstroke by the incumbent chief minister.
First, through the crisis, Akhilesh Yadav presented himself as a dedicated chief minister, who was the victim of the machinations of a cabal of schemers from the party, led by his uncle. Respecting social conventions, he refrained from criticising his father publicly and let his uncle be seen as the villain of the piece. Second, the Election Commission granted Akhilesh Yadav the party symbol, vesting him with authority and legitimacy to seize control of the party. Third, he disposed off most of his uncle’s and father’s remaining loyalists by allocating a large number of tickets to the Congress. This alliance has turned the election into a three-corner fight, in which the SP stands to gain the most.
Large pre-poll alliances are not new in UP. The SP and the BSP fought together in 1993 and the Congress with the BSP in 1996. The SP-BSP tie-up was an alliance between equals while the latter alliance was to the advantage of the BSP, which contested 296 seats. This is the second time that the Congress is reduced to playing the role of a supporting actor, this time for the SP, even though it obtained more tickets than it could have hoped for, a few weeks ago. This is a role for the Congress in UP that remains quite unnatural for it, which it has adopted by default and with little enthusiasm.
Akhilesh Yadav is now facing the electorate unopposed within his own family; he can concentrate on the goodwill he has built over the past five years, with the bonus that whatever his government has delivered is credited to him personally, and whatever his government has botched up, or failed to deliver, is laid at the door of his uncle and his father, who have both sunk into irrelevance.
Should he win, Akhilesh Yadav would be the first chief minister to serve two consecutive terms in Uttar Pradesh since G.B. Pant in 1952, who won the state’s first election as the incumbent chief minister of the erstwhile United Provinces.
The BSP, in contrast, seems to be trailing, although its opponents as well as commentators often underestimate its strength. Mayawati’s popularity among Jatavs is intact, in part due to the lack of credible alternatives for Dalit voters. The party will be rewarded for fielding a large number of Muslim candidates, even though the Muslim vote is always split between parties.
Muslim voters, in recent years, have been voting strategically in favour of candidates most likely to represent them and win against the BJP. The coordination between voters is local and benefits parties, according to local circumstances. This is why the Muslim vote appears scattered once the data is aggregated, even though it is cohesive on the ground. The BSP, however, seems to have lost its ability to attract votes from other groups, particularly because it has to fight two strong, credible opponents — that was not the case in 2007.
The BJP, in this campaign, has repeated some of the mistakes that cost it the election in Bihar. It has picked insignificant allies, purely on the basis of caste calculations. It still refuses to promote its state leadership, for the fear of seeing an alternative figure to the prime minister emerge from the Hindi belt. Lastly, it started its campaign on the prime minister’s development-for-all agenda but has produced a manifesto replete with issues that are irrelevant to the electorate it seeks to win over — the Ram temple, triple talaq and the anti-Romeo squads, a clumsy rehash of the failed “love jihad” campaign. Nonetheless, the BJP remains popular among its upper-caste base and the groups that are not descriptively represented by other parties, essentially the non-dominant OBCs. The youth electorate, which voted massively for Narendra Modi in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, is likely to split its vote, part of which could possibly go to Akhilesh.
Regardless of their outcome, these elections have already confirmed four trends that have recently emerged in state politics. The first is that state elections have turned into a plebiscite for or against individuals, rather than parties or governments — call it the presidentialisation of state politics, in which the local strength of candidates or the party identity matters less than the appeal of the party leader.
The second trend is that in a competition that is still structured around caste and notably around caste-based distribution of tickets, voters are increasingly strategic in their political choices. Recent studies of electoral behaviour reveal that voters are less and less determined by their ascriptive identity as far as voting is concerned. Young voters, in particular, can change their vote between elections very easily. There are very few pockets of captive voters for any party anymore.
Third, this second development owes partly to the fact that most parties seek to mobilise voters across traditional lines of division, such as caste or religion. Voters reward parties with cross-sectional appeal, which deliver without discriminating on the basis of identity. As a result, the personality of the leader becomes the main element of differentiation among parties. In recent years, the core support base of the BSP — Jatavs — and the SP — Yadavs and Muslims — has eroded. But this has been more than compensated by their ability to attract votes across groups.
Fourth, in order to develop a cross- sectional appeal, regional parties have changed their discourse and are focused on general interest issues, such as development and social justice. In a context of rising inequalities and frustrated economic aspirations, development trumps identity.
This means that the BJP is increasingly challenged by regional parties on its own terrain — development and personality cult. The distinction in this regard between the BJP and regional parties in power is not as sharp as it is between the BJP and the Congress. The fact that states are better equipped than the Centre to provide tangible development to voters also plays in favour of regional parties.
What we understand as “backward politics” has changed substantially over the past decade, and the analytical tools used to study or cover them — identity, patronage and a consensus on their general governmental incompetence — need to be reviewed and adapted to the present times.
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