The identity-based numbers game

“Few voters are uncertain about their vote choice in Upper Doab.” Farmers in Baghpat district.   | Photo Credit: Shiv Jumar Pushpakar

About 20km outside of Meerut, in the sleepy town of Sardhana, lies one of India’s most spectacular churches, the Basilica of Our Lady of Graces. The Catholic church, completed in 1822, was built by Begum Samru, a nautch girl born a Muslim who improbably rose to become a feared military commander who ruled over a small principality for over 50 years. The Begum is said to have ruled in an even-handed manner, distributing her largesse to Protestants, Catholics, Hindus, and Muslims alike, with a particular interest in educational causes.

But nothing of the harmonious co-existence of religions that once characterised Sardhana is left, as the area has succumbed to manufactured “ancient hatred” between Hindus and Muslims. Communal riots last occurred in Sardhana in June 2004, and the 2013 communal riots in nearby Muzaffarnagar, which claimed the lives of more than 60 people (the majority of whom were Muslim), looms large.

Politics in Upper Doab

Sardhana is part of the Upper Doab region of Uttar Pradesh (U.P.), which includes the districts of Baghpat, Bulandshahr, Gautam Budh Nagar, Ghaziabad, Hapur, Meerut, Muzaffarnagar, Saharanpur, and Shamli. Doab literally means two rivers, and this region, nestled between the Yamuna and the Ganga, is as fertile agriculturally as it is politically, yielding leaders like Mayawati and an extraordinarily complex party dynamic.

Upper Doab has 44 assembly constituencies (ACs) out of a total of 403 electable ACs in U.P. In the 2012 U.P. Assembly election, the votes in this region split among five parties: Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) won 17 seats, the currently ruling Samajwadi Party (SP) won 10, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 9, Congress 5, and the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), a largely Jat party led by Ajit Singh that was in alliance with Congress, won 3 seats.


Like the rest of U.P., Upper Doab was swept up in the Modi wave in the 2014 national election, with the BJP displaying an extraordinary consolidation of votes. The BJP won every parliamentary constituency (PC) in the region, and it won 42 out of the 44 AC segments (the other 2 went to Congress in Saharanpur). There is some evidence that the BJP benefitted from religious polarisation in the region in 2014. The BJP polled an average of 51 per cent in Upper Doab and 43 per cent across U.P. in 2014. Furthermore, BJP’s Sanjeev Kumar Balyan polled over 56 per cent of the votes in each AC segment in the PC of Muzaffarnagar, winning each area handily. In 2012, the BJP had won just one of the ACs in Muzaffarnagar, Sardhana.

Religious polarisation taps into an emotional response from the voter and can be driven by hearsay and rumour. At a tea stall in Purqazi, the shop owner tells us about an incident in which Muslim men were bathing naked in the local canal, from which they were eve-teasing women. He personally led a group of men to the nearby Muslim village to “address the situation”. He views his support for the BJP as a way of keeping the bade log (decision-makers) in BSP and SP, who only seek to appease Muslims, at bay. Of course, we are unable to verify anything. The story is strikingly similar to the catalyst for the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots. These sorts of claims dot many of our conversations, and it soon becomes clear that it wouldn’t take much to start a serious conflagration around here like in 2013.


Back in a village around Sardhana, a group of young men from the Thakur community is all praise for Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav. We are chatting next to a newly built, smooth village road that is credited to Mr. Yadav. But these young men are all voting for the BJP. One of them complains, “When four Muslims die, 15 lakhs get deposited in their account. When Hindus die, no one even asks about us.” This is obviously unsubstantiated. As Britain and the U.S. are now learning, identity politics can be an effective foil for appeals based on economic development. But the two types of appeals are different. While voters can hold politicians promising development accountable by demanding visible evidence, identity politics can persist on rumour and polarisation alone.

Sincere and strategic voters

But the BJP certainly doesn’t seem as popular here as it did in 2014. Just a few minutes from the young Thakur men, we chance upon a group of men from the Jatav community conversing next to a BSP office. Most of them had supported the BJP in 2014, and speak positively of Mr. Yadav’s work, but will all vote for the BSP this time. They feel that the cross-caste coalition promoted by the BJP is a sham, and say they’ve learned their lessons. One of them tells us, “In U.P., votes are based on biradri, and people are expected to vote for their biradri.” Although we did sense less enthusiasm for the BSP as compared to elections past.


Political scientists make a distinction between “sincere” and “strategic” voters. A sincere voter is one who has an emotional connection to a political party, irrespective of the competitiveness of the party. A voter who selects a party purely based on a religious or caste-based connection to the party is a sincere one, although calling such voters “sincere” in this context may seem like a bad joke.

Strategic voters are those who don’t want to waste their votes on candidates who have no chance of winning, so they vote for the preferred candidate among the top two competitive candidates. For instance, the BSP’s supposed coalition of Dalits and upper caste Hindus in elections past seems at least partially a function of upper caste Hindus strategically voting for BSP against SP. In a world in which most people are strategic voters, one expects only two competitive parties to be there in an AC and a region. The history of multiple parties and competitive candidates within an AC in Upper Doab suggests a fair amount of identity-based voting in most elections.


In the next village, we chat with a Muslim village elder and his associates over a cup of tea and biscuits, where they lay out an explicitly strategic rationale for voting. Given the religious polarisation here, the elder was clear: “The job of Muslims is to defeat the BJP. We will vote for whoever has a better chance of winning.” An associate added an implicit endorsement of the SP: “For us, a BSP vote is only to defeat the BJP. They do no work.” A particular fear centers around SP splitting between Mulayam Singh Yadav and Akhilesh Yadav, as this would split sincere Muslim voters and create complicated calculations for strategic Muslim voters, especially vis-a-vis the BSP (which is fielding a large number of Muslim candidates).

Upper Doab displays the complex relationship between religious polarisation and voting behavior, but there is still some time until the voters go to the polling booth. Ultimately, unlike many other regions in U.P., we observe very few voters who remain uncertain about their vote choice (or strategy). This suggests that the parties will fine-tune their appeals according to the identity-based arithmetic discussed in detail above, and the election here is likely to turn on the party that plays the numbers the right way.


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Neelanjan Sircar and Bhanu Joshi are affiliated with the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) in Delhi. Ashish Ranjan, also with CPR, contributed to this article.

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Printable version | Jul 28, 2021 4:22:00 PM |

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