The Uttar Pradesh (UP) election, which will take place in seven phases from February 11 to March 8 in 403 constituencies, is only days away, but dramatic recent developments may affect its outcome. There is strife within the ruling Samajwadi Party (SP), Narendra Modi is attempting to woo voters post demonetization, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) is putting in all efforts to run a successful campaign, and Rahul Gandhi is struggling to save the Indian National Congress. These developments raise some important questions: will the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) be able to win the UP elections? How will the alliance between the SP and the Congress affect the BJP’s prospects?
The SP-Congress alliance poses a serious challenge to the Modi-led BJP and may hurt the BJP’s chance of winning UP for several reasons. First, both the SP and Congress have female leaders, which appeals to young voters. Dimple Yadav, the SP’s Member of Parliament and wife of UP’s current chief minister Akhilesh Yadav, is actively engaged in strengthening the core of the party. She has helped the SP by building an alliance with Priyanka Gandhi, who represents the Congress. The Center for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS)-Lokniti’s survey validates this assumption; women (32 percent) are supporting the SP in greater numbers than men (28 percent). The BJP might lose votes by not having any female leaders. Second, the BJP has not declared its chief ministerial candidate and is contesting in the name of Narendra Modi. As in Bihar and Delhi, this will likely dent the party’s image. Surveys have revealed that Akhilesh Yadav is as popular as Narendra Modi in UP, so it is imperative that the BJP declare a powerful and popular CM candidate to surge ahead in the race. Third, leaders within the BJP are not happy with the party authority, particularly with regard to ticket distribution and the increasing propensity for members of other parties to join the BJP. This is weakening the BJP’s hold in the state and negatively affecting its support base. Fourth, the BJP lacks loyal supporters. Varun Gandhi, a member of Lok Sabha and prominent BJP face in UP, refused to involve himself in campaigning. This is likely to affect the results of the election.
Caste plays a very significant role in Indian elections, particularly in UP. The BJP’s focus is on non-Yadav Other Backward Classes (OBCs), non-Jatav Dalits, Brahmins, Banias, Rajputs, and six major OBC caste communities. As per the CSDS-Lokniti survey, preference for the SP-Congress alliance is greater among additional caste and community groups that previously supported rival parties. 21 percent of the upper caste, the support base of the BJP, and 21 percent of Other Dalits, the support base of the BSP, were found to be supporting the alliance.
Muslim voters make up 30 percent of the electorate in at least 73 constituencies in UP, and will play a crucial role in the election. Muslims have remained loyal to the SP, yet it is likely that with the divide in the party, the votes may split. Between the tracker survey in August and another in December 2016, there was an eight-percentage-point dip in Muslim votes for the SP. However, the SP-Congress alliance brings a combination of Yadav and Muslim votes, which increases its chances for victory.
It is critical for the BJP to win the UP elections to maintain a stronghold in the biggest Indian state and ensure that key legislation can be passed smoothly. However, based on the state of affairs in UP, this task will be challenging. While the BJP swept the 2014 national elections in the state, winning 71 seats out 80, preference is given to regional parties over national parties in assembly elections. More so, the BJP has been disconnected from UP state politics for more than two decades and lacks the robust organization needed to present a strong challenge to the SP. Even those who support Modi’s demonetization policy, which has severely affected his image, are more likely to vote for the SP or the BSP given the parties’ presence and support at the regional level.
The UP elections remain a tight race, with the SP-Congress alliance expected to give tough competition to the BJP. Given Akhilesh Yadav’s successful development work in UP, Modi’s magic of vikaas (progress) might not be able to compete. There seems to be a need for Modi to revamp his image and try alternative campaign strategies. All eyes are on March 11.
Editor’s note: Arushi Gupta works for the The Center for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS)-Lokniti and was part of the team conducting the tracker surveys in Uttar Pradesh.
Image 1: Flickr, Al Jazeera English
Image 2: Flickr, Al Jazeera English