Uttar Pradesh has always acquired centrality during general elections on account of the sheer number of Lok Sabha seats it offers. In 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under the leadership of Narendra Modi together with its ally, Apna Dal, was able to win 73 of the state’s 80 seats, which helped it form the government at the Centre. The Congress obtained just two seats, the Samajwadi Party (SP) five and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) none.
However, this time the political experiment of the mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) – in which the two former political rivals, the SP and BSP, have joined hands – has made the ongoing electoral discourse in the state different. The two parties hope to unite sections of the backward classes, Dalits and Muslims behind them, bring the discourse back to social justice and take on the Modi-led BJP.
The absence of the Congress in the alliance has led to criticism that it will result in the division of votes, providing an advantage to the BJP. The BJP on the other hand, aware of the fact that the incumbent Adityanath government has not shown much progress, is banking on the leadership and charisma of Modi to sweep the state once again.
Many opinion polls in recent days have also pointed in this direction, arguing that Modi’s popularity, particularly after the Balakot airstrike following the Pulwama attack, remains high and the mahagathbandhan in its present form will not be able to defeat the BJP in the state.
In this situation, two inter-related questions merit attention: has the Modi wave waned, or is it still strong in the state, and second, can the mahagathbandhan halt the BJP’s winning spree in the state since 2014.
Based on extensive fieldwork in large parts of UP, we sought to answer these questions by identifying the respective social base of the electorate claiming ‘Modi factor’ as the most influential criterion behind their support for BJP candidates in Lok Sabha constituencies in the state, and second, by mapping the social profile of the Modi-detractors.
The fieldwork shows that in this clash of opposites, caste remains important, but it is a fight between caste groups for political and economic supremacy in UP. Underlying the pro- and anti-Modi battles are attempts by these groups to retain political supremacy by voting for either side. In fact, which set of issues would emerge as the prime determinant of electoral articulation in the state seems contingent on the caste-community location of particular groups.
Modi’s core constituency
Unlike in Chhattisgarh, where the BJP decided to drop all the ten sitting MPs, the majority of incumbent MPs have been fielded in UP, who as per the field narrative are not popular among the electorate. The weaker profile of BJP’s candidates in most of the Lok Sabha constituencies as compared to BSP-SP-RLD alliance is widely acknowledged by both their supporters as well as detractors.
Nevertheless, despite the weaker profile of the BJP’s candidates and the corresponding anger among the party’s supporters with the incumbent government’s policies, the non-Yadav OBCs, upper-castes and a section of non-Jatav Dalits, are rallying behind the BJP quite enthusiastically – mainly due to the ‘Modi factor’.
Fieldwork showed that among the non-Yadav voters are caste groups like Kashyap/Jhimar, Saini, Badhai (carpenter) in Meerut, Muzaffarnagar and Saharanpur region; Lodh, Kurmi, Kushwaha and others in Braj, Rohilkhand, and central UP regions; majority of Kurmis, Rajbhar and Kushwahas in Awadh and Purvanchal regions which are consolidated behind the BJP.
Similarly, barring some notable exceptions like the Hamirpur Lok Sabha constituency, where a section of upper-caste Rajputs are veering towards the BSP’s Rajput candidate rather than that of the BJP, the spirited support of upper-castes, Brahmin, Thakur, Bania, Tyagis and others for the BJP is quite visible across the state.
There is also a section of non-Jatav Dalits like Khatiks, Valmikis, Katherias (Dhanuk) and Pasis in western and central and Awadh region so enthused by the ‘Modi factor’ that they are willing to ignore the weaker profile of BJP candidates while voting.
For an overwhelming majority of upper-castes and non-Yadav OBCs and sections of non-Jatav Dalits, Modi signifies a bold and decisive leader and the issue of national security ranks above factors like anti-incumbency, unemployment etc. Factors such as welfare schemes like the PM Awas Yojana, Ujjwala Yojana (free LPG cylinder connection to BPL families), Rs 2,000 to the farmers, are cited as secondary reasons for their pro-BJP stance.
As a corollary to upper-castes and non-Yadav OBCs emerging as the thick support bloc of Modi-led BJP, one finds a strong, state-wide pattern of dominant intermediary peasant castes along with the politically assertive Jatav-Chamar Dalits and Muslims, emerging as strong detractors of the saffron party, its leadership and policies.
Among the dominant intermediary castes, the majority of Jats in western UP besides a section of Gujjars and an overwhelming majority of Yadavs across the state have emerged as strong opponents of the BJP and Modi. For them, issues such as the agrarian crisis, unemployment, price inflation, the ban on cattle trade leading to cow vigilantism and stray cattle destroying their fields have emerged as important across the state.
In contrast to their cultural identity of ‘Hindu’ in 2014, particularly following the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots, these dominant castes today tend to privilege their farmer identity over their caste/community while outlining their opposition to the BJP in the state.
However, the electoral significance of these issues lies in the social profile of the voters. While for the upper-castes and non-Yadav OBCs, the problem arising out of stray cattle is real, the issue does not merit attention in their political choice. Quite contrarily, for Jats and Yadavs, the same issue adds to the woes of farmers who already suffer on account of lack of a decent MSP for their crops, non-payment or delayed payment by sugar mills, rise in input cost of farming besides alleged police brutalities upon the protesting farmers recently in Delhi.
On the question of nationalism, the dominant intermediary castes do not seem to endorse Modi. They argue that the Indian army has always made the country proud, that cheerleading Modi and BJP as the sole custodian of nationalism and national security is unwarranted. For instance, a Yadav respondent in the Etawah Lok Sabha constituency opined that the rank and file of the Indian army happens to be the sons of farmers whom Modi government is trying to crush.
Further, it was rhetorically argued that it was during Mulayam Singh Yadav’s tenure as defence minister that the provision of sending the bodies of the martyrs to their homes started. Together with Jatavs, they seem to project the Modi-led BJP as a party of failures and unfulfilled promises. Muslims echo the sentiment.
In this backdrop, much of the debate around the impact of competing sets of issues like nationalism, bold leadership and India’s prestige catapulting to a greater height for the first time on the one hand, and rural distress, agrarian crisis, unemployment and price inflation on the other, is partially misleading as they tend to club the electorate into homogeneous categories measured statistically.
A social mapping of the complex interplay of the electorate and the set of issues they offer as justification would reveal that while upper-castes and non-Yadav OBCs are invoking the issues of nationalism and bold leadership as justification for their support for BJP, the dominant intermediary castes like Jats and Yadavs are privileging farmers issue over the hyped debate over national security. Thus, it is the social profile of the electorate that is determining the pertinence of a set of issues, rather than issues that are determining their voting behaviour.
Explaining the riddle
Three factors help explain why the social background of voters determines their preference for the party as well as issues. For the dominant intermediary castes like Jats and Yadavs along with Jatavs, the rise of Modi and the BJP signifies the process of decentering of their political prominence in western Uttar Pradesh for the former and in the entire state for the latter two. These Modi-detractors nurture a strong sense of tangible loss of power since Modi’s arrival, more particularly today.
On the other hand, for upper-castes who lost political prominence by the early 1990s in the wake of Mandalisation of state politics wherein dominant OBCs and assertive Dalits acquired prominence, the domineering presence of the Modi-led BJP since 2014 marks a corrective measure.
Along similar lines, the non-Yadav OBCs, who by the late 1990s – having witnessed its tangible benefit cornered by one OBC caste represented by the Samajwadi Party – were disillusioned with Mandal politics, their new felt centrality in the political scheme of the Modi-led BJP is an aspiration that has been long overdue. The BJP has given them tickets and made them ministers in the UP government. To them, the electoral defeat of Modi is not just about alternating one party with the other, but rather going back to the undesirable prospect of allowing the dominant castes to call the shots.
Secondly, the assertive nature of dominant intermediary castes like Jats, Yadavs along with Jatavs, have acquired a spirited sense of purpose in the wake of the ‘grand alliance’ to reverse the process of their decentering from the political configuration of the state. This spiritedness and political bonhomie between hitherto socially antagonistic communities like Jats, Yadavs and Dalits, have made the upper-caste and non-Yadav-OBCs anxious about the prospect of return of politics from the vantage point of dominant OBCs or assertive Dalits as witnessed during previous SP and BSP governments.
To them, this scenario would be a zero-sum game – a sentiment strongly shared by upper-castes. Therefore, Modi to them is the best guarantee against the political dominance by dominant intermediary castes. Thus, UP has made upper-castes and non-Yadav OBCs political allies despite there being little correspondence in their social lives. Similarly, the desperation to make a comeback to the core of political imagination of the state has made socially antagonistic communities like Jats and Yadavs and Dalits join hands this time.
In this backdrop, the bottom line is simple; it is the social profile, seen in terms of caste and community of voters that constitute their outlook with reference to Modi, BJP and its policies, rather than getting constituted by them.
As a corollary, it is the demographic profile of the respective Lok Sabha constituencies – whether dominated by upper-caste and non-Yadav OBC combine or Yadav-Jatav-Muslim – which would determine the electoral outcome in the state. The dominant intermediary peasant castes and politically assertive Jatavs are certainly not enthused by the ‘Modi factor’; rather they are strongly critical of the same.
Irrespective of the electoral outcome, one aspect is unambiguously clear: This is a waveless election wherein the preference or dismissal of a leader and issues seem to be pre-determined by the social background of the voters. While there is little doubt that the present election is of great significance for UP and the country, local battles for hegemony are equally important as they will determine the shape of state politics in the future.
Sajjan Kumar and Sudha Pai are the authors of Everyday Communalism: Riots in Contemporary Uttar Pradesh (2018).