As Polling Ends in UP, a Look at What Has Driven Campaigns

Each party in UP banked on creating a coalition of caste groups and weaving a larger political narrative to win the confidence of the majority.

Credit: Reuters

Polling in UP closed on Wednesday. Credit: Reuters

Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh: After more than one and half months of high-pitched campaigning by all parties, the Uttar Pradesh assembly polls finally came to a close on Wednesday. After seven gruelling phases, journalists, analysts and politicians alike are continuously shifting their positions, as fortunes of different parties were perceived to be swinging.

The electoral ground in the largest state of India (in terms of population) is undoubtedly complex. Whether the historically-significant caste dynamics would tide over the so-called development claims by all parties in the fray or vice versa is a question which not many will be able to answer until the ballots are counted on March 11.

Yet, it is a good time to remember the factors the three primary fronts in the contest – Samajwadi Party (SP)-Congress combine, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – hedged their bets on.

Each of these parties banked on the twin-plank of stitching up a formidable social coalition of caste groups and weaving a larger political narrative to win the confidence of the majority.

The arithmetic game

Most political analysts say that caste arithmetic plays the most important role in UP politics. Yet, most of them could not gauge the political mood in 2014, when a Narendra Modi wave swept the state and gave the BJP and its ally Apna Dal 73 out of 80 parliamentary seats.

But as was perceptible in the months leading up to the 2017 assembly polls, the political context and situation was much different from that of 2014 – voters’ considerations and political equations revolved around many factors, instead of one leader.

The BJP claims that it is placed at the most advantageous spot in the electoral stage. With a whopping 42.63% vote share in 2014, its leaders have said that they are much ahead of the SP and the BSP, which had won 22.35% and 19.77% respectively then.

If one takes into account the 2012 assembly election figures, SP had won 224 seats and had formed the government with only 29.29% as opposed to BJP’s 15.21% and BSP’s 25.95%. BJP had finished a distant third with 47 seats while the BSP got 80.

This time around, most BJP leaders during the election campaign claimed that even if they lose 10% of its 2014 vote share, it will still emerge as the biggest party. To back this, the saffron party has projected Modi as the primary face of the party and has not declared a chief ministerial candidate. Modi, who was initially supposed to address only 15 rallies, has addressed more than 30.

Both the SP and BSP have, however, claimed that the 2017 poll does not resemble 2014, as an assembly election is fought on regional considerations. While the latter has Mayawati as its undisputed leader and chief ministerial candidate, Akhilesh Yadav has led the SP campaign from the front and believes the party’s alliance with the Congress, which had 11.65% of votes in 2012, makes the front the most formidable political front in the fray.

Social coalitions

However, much of this arithmetic depends on how each party has consolidated caste and community groups in UP. Historically, social alliances, more than pre-electoral alliances of political parties, have given one party an advantage over the other.

SP has enjoyed the support of Muslims (19% of UP’s population) and Yadavs (10%) since the post-Ram janmabhoomi movement in the 1990s. Over the last few years, it has created beneficiaries among various communities. Any addition to its kitty should definitely benefit the SP, which is already backed by a majority of two major population blocks in UP. Its distribution of tickets this time reflects this trend. Akhilesh has drifted away from the party’s tradition to give a substantial number of tickets to candidates who come from communities other than Muslims and Yadavs.

The BSP, on the other hand, has the rock-solid support of Jatavs or Chamars, who constitute almost 17% of the 21% Dalit population. In the past, Mayawati has received the support of Brahmins (almost 12%) to come to power between 2007 and 2012. This time around, Mayawati followed the larger echo among the Dalit communities to forge an alliance with Muslims. So she worked, especially in the last few months, to win the confidence of Muslims, among whom a degree of suspicion over her secular credentials can be easily noticed. This is primarily because of BSP’s alliances with BJP in the past. Therefore, over the many months, she has taken special care to appoint leaders like Naseemudin Siddiqui to win back the confidence of Muslims. Additionally, she has given 97 tickets to Muslims – an unprecedented step for the BSP. In order to win Brahmin support again, she has also given 66 seats to them.

The BJP, which until now has relied only on around 20% of the population who are ‘forward’ castes, a few most backward class groups and a small section of Dalits, has managed to form a larger coalition in this poll. A sizeable section of non-Yadav OBCs like Mauryas, Shakyas, Kurmis and so on have extended their support to the party. The BJP, in turn, has done its due by giving representation – both organisationally and electorally – to leaders from these communities.

Political narratives

The SP-Congress combine had entered the electoral stage with an arithmetic advantage, if only the history of assembly elections in UP are taken into account. In the months preceding the campaign, Akhilesh had emerged a clean, development-oriented politician after the internecine feud within the party. Perhaps he is seen as the first SP leader who is also widely accepted among caste groups other than Yadavs and Muslims.

The SP ran a solely development-oriented campaign and promised a range of state entitlements to people if voted back to power. While all other parties were banking mostly on the anti-incumbency against the SP government, the SP-Congress combine emerged as a force that solely focused on positive canvassing and remained unusually calm even as adversaries made provocative statements against it. Unlike Modi and Mayawati, who only addressed big rallies, Akhilesh attended all types of rallies – big, small and medium.

It projected Dimple Yadav, parliamentarian from Kannauj and Akhilesh’s wife, as the party’s female face. Except Mayawati and Dimple, no other woman campaigned extensively in the UP polls.

Similarly, Congress scion Rahul Gandhi became the face of the Congress campaign. Neither the party president Sonia Gandhi nor hugely popular Priyanka Gandhi became the centre of attention in Congress’s campaign. He primarily raised two issues in front of the crowds. One, he attacked the BJP as a divisive, communal force and took on Modi directly for demonetisation. Two, he advanced the idea that the Congress wants to turn UP into a manufacturing hub, which would not just generate employment but also stop mass distress migration in the state.

If one looks at the BJP’s campaign, it started off with its motto of vikaas (development) but midway through the polls, it changed tack to raise issues which political commentators saw as communal. Modi, at a Fatehpur rally, alleged that the SP government discriminated between Hindus and Muslims even in basic necessities like provision of electricity. While the top BJP leaders talked about development, its ground-level activists resorted to crass Muslim bashing and advocated a Hindu rashtra.

Even in the Bihar assembly poll in 2015, similar tactics were used by the BJP. “Just as during the current elections in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP had campaigned initially for Modi’s development model but after two rounds of polling, resorted to an aggressive Hindutva campaign. This began with Amit Shah’s warning that ‘firecrackers will go off in Pakistan if the BJP loses Bihar’ and was followed up by a series of localised moves, including a sensational depiction of a cow and a girl in posters, which had textual content accusing the Janata Dal (United)-Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)-Congress alliance of not doing enough to protect the cow mother,” wrote senior journalist Venkitesh Ramakrishnan in Frontline, comparing BJP’s campaign in UP with Bihar.

The saffron party matched this strategy with an aggressive anti-Yadav rhetoric too among non-Yadavs and non-Jatavs. Such was the intensity of this campaign that each of the BJP activists talked about the new government being completely free of Yadavs.

The Sangh parivar machinery worked in tandem with the BJP to take its Hindutva agenda to people. As a result, BJP, on its own, has truly emerged as a credible third pole in UP politics, a status it had lost in the 1990s.

The Wire does not have the official expenditure, but if ostentatiousness is something to go by, the saffron party spent the most in its campaign to capture people’s attention. This reflected in the media narrative of the UP polls too.

Away from the hullaballoo of the two parties, BSP ran a quiet campaign, working meticulously to consolidate its cadres and consolidating non-Dalit groups. Whether this strategy worked will be seen when the results are announced, but BSP made all the necessary efforts to consolidate voters.

Mayawati’s speeches were free of gimmicks, as were her rallies, which were also the most disciplined. Her speeches throughout the campaign remained rational, akin to B.R. Ambedkar’s doctrines. Among all the parties, BSP’s campaign spent the least as it did not rely on expensive PR-driven campaigns but on social media channels run by its activists.

In most of her speeches, she focused on three primary points. First, she attacked the Modi government’s demonetisation move, which she claimed has ruined many lives. Second, she pointed figures at the SP government for allegedly precipitating a law and order crisis in the state. Third, she projected the BSP, with its message of Sarvajan Hitay, Sarvjan Sukhay, as the only sincere alternative.

In doing so, two unique promises she has made are to provide reservations for the poor among ‘forward castes’ and constitute a ‘Vyapari Aayog’ (nodal body for businessmen). Political analysts say that the promises were overtures towards the ‘forward’ castes, including Banias who are dominant in regional businesses, who were hit by demonetisation the most.

In her appeal to people to vote for the BSP, she was direct. She projected the BSP as the only party with a cadre-driven vote base of 21% of the populations, Dalits, unlike other parties. On this basis, she asked people not to waste their votes on either of its opponents. In almost all her speeches, she appealed to Muslims and Banias not to experiment with SP-Congress in trying to keep the BJP out of power, as the BSP is arithmetically best placed to defeat the BJP.

When the ballots are counted on March 11, it will become clear which of these parties’ combined strategy worked the best with the people of UP.

Undoubtedly, BJP has emerged as the credible third alternative and is expected to do much better than 2012. However, whether it will be able to convert its larger presence on the ground into seats in the assembly remains to be seen.

The rise of the BJP as a third force may not be good news for the BSP, which has remained the largest opposition force in the last five years both in the assembly and on the ground. It is also the only force which prioritises the issues of the poorest sections of UP’s population. For a large section of Dalits, the BSP has been a transformative force in UP.

Political analysts in the state say that Akhilesh’s acceptability in UP, on the other hand, makes him a leader to look forward to even if he loses. Between Mayawati and Akhilesh, the issues of the poor have remained at the top. The BJP, they say, could elevate the ‘forward’ caste groups to a dominant position once again, which also explains the belligerent support of these groups to the BJP.

Amidst this political clamour, as one waits for the results, one thing became clear as the campaign progressed – the notion of holistic welfare as envisioned in the early days of independent India has transformed into an idea in which political parties merely need to promise sops like private insurance, laptops, smartphones, pressure cookers and so on, instead of addressing decaying public infrastructure like health, education and means of livelihood.

Having said that, such offerings, which gives an impression of an active state, may still be important in UP, where inequality levels are high and a majority of the poor depend on state entitlements. With an average of 60% polling in all six phases, the people of UP have voted in anticipation that political parties will address the structural problems that may have some long-term impact on their lives. Perhaps the new government will hear them.

Liked the story? We’re a non-profit. Make a donation and help pay for our journalism.