Takkar hai. (The competition is tight.) This is the most common refrain from voters in Uttar Pradesh (UP) when asked who will win in the 2017 UP elections.
But this simple phrase requires analysis, as it is deployed with two distinct meanings. The first meaning is that the election is mathematically close between the two main parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP). The second meaning is that it is difficult to discern how voters and their caste groups will vote, leading to great uncertainty in the results.
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It is this second meaning—uncertainty—that has come to characterize grassroots understanding of these elections. There is a sense that the hardened relationship between identity and voting choice in Uttar Pradesh is beginning to unravel. It is not uncommon to hear a young man from the Thakur community of Yogi Adityanath pledging to support the SP due to a lack of jobs, or to hear a newly married woman from the Yadav community, the main caste base of SP, support BJP due to ration benefits. attributed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
A common mistake is to attribute the BJP’s recent electoral dominance to a single strategy. In fact, a close look at the data suggests the adaptations to BJP’s strategy that enabled these exploits. In this article, we examine what data from the Indian census (last published in 2011), combined with the electoral results of the 2017 election, can tell us about electoral competition during the seven phases of the UP. In Chart 1, we use population-weighted district demographics to tabulate the percentage of the population classified as Muslim or Scheduled Caste (SC) according to the census in each of the seven phases. Additionally, using data provided by the Trivedi Center for Policy Data (TCPD) at Ashoka University, we provide strike rates for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) – the BJP-led coalition – for each phase.
The first misconception is that the BJP simply wins by superior performance in Hindu-dominated areas compared to Muslims. It is true that the percentage of Muslim voters was highest in the second phase (37%) and the BJP had a comparatively worse performance in the phase 2 (AC) assembly constituencies with a strike rate by 69%. But it is also true that the BJP had its worst performance in the CA phase 7 with a strike rate of 67% in a region with among the lowest percentages of Muslims (12%). In fact, the BJP had its highest strike rate (91%) in phase 1 CAs with a relatively high Muslim population (23%). This is apparently a function of the extraordinary polarization between Hindus and Muslims generated following the Muzaffarnagar riots in 2013. Indeed, the BJP won eight out of nine ACs in the 2017 elections in Muzaffarnagar district – which counts a Muslim population of over 40%.
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The difference in the 7th phase, the easternmost part of the UP, appears to have been the relatively lower levels of Hindu-Muslim polarization even in 2017. A big question for the BJP’s electoral fortunes will be to what extent Hindu-Muslim polarization continues. to structure the voting results in UP.
The second misconception has been an oversimplification of SC voting preferences. The hard core of the Mayawati and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) is often thought to be the Western UP, which went to the polls in the first two phases. But in 2017, the BSP won 16 of its 19 seats in the ACs that went to the polls in Phase 4 or later (the eastern part of the state). Indeed, the largest SC populations in the state are in these phases. These are also areas where the main Jatav community of Mayawati is less numerous. The percentage of CS in the first two phases identified as “Chamar or Jatav” by the census is above 70%, while it drops to less than 40% in phases 4 and 5 (where the Pasi and Rawat communities are more many). Despite all the talk of “non-Jatav” SCs, the BSP has still commanded a significant portion of the voting share of these communities. As the BSP appears to be weaker in this election, the preferences of SC voters and their willingness to vote for the BJP or the SP could be key to the election results in many seats.
As we prepare for the March 10 election results, two key questions emerge. How will ‘economic concerns’ and local anti-incumbency impact BJP support amid less visible Hindu-Muslim polarization? How will state SCs assess BSP allegiance against these economic concerns and an expansion of BJP government rations?
Bhanu Joshi is a PhD candidate in political science at Brown University and Neelanjan Sircar is a senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research.