We’d be lying if we said we saw this coming. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies won 325 out of 403 seats in the 2017 U.P. Assembly election , a strike rate of 81%. This is the largest number of seats won by any party/coalition in U.P. since the Janata Party in 1977. In retrospect, the analysis of this extraordinary feat is remarkably straightforward. It is almost a repeat of the national election in 2014, when U.P. was in the grip of the ‘Modi wave’.
The aggregate vote share of BJP and its allies was 41.4% in this election, a hair less than the 43.6% it received in 2014. Even their performance over the seven phases of this election closely mirrors their performance in 2014. They had a strike rate of 90% in phase 1 (93% in 2014), 75% in phase 2 (73%), 80% in phase 3 (75%), 83% in phase 4 (77%), 85% in phase 5 (85%), 67% in phase 6 (88%), and 80% in phase 7 (100%). Curiously, the BJP and its allies only slipped, in comparison to their gaudy 2014 performance, in the final two phases of the election where Yogi Adityanath and Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself were expected to deliver sweeps for their party.
Of course, the BJP’s Hindutva strategy and the Prime Minister’s popularity are a large part of the story here. But Mr. Modi’s popularity was present in Bihar and Delhi as well, even though the BJP got routed in those elections. The real question is: why was the BJP so successful in U.P. as opposed to, say, Bihar?
The winning narrative
It goes without saying that the electorate was most convinced by what the BJP had to offer. As a young man from the Rajbhar community outside Babina told us, “We need someone like Narendra Modi, who is with all castes.” The popular view of BJP in our travels was that of a caste-blind party, unlike the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) or the Samajwadi Party (SP), which are each broadly associated with one caste group (Jatavs or Yadavs). The form of particularistic politics associated with the BSP and SP left a large swathe of the population disaffected and without a (political) home. The newest avatar of the BJP, in which it has sought to distance itself from purely upper-caste politics, was able to consolidate and mobilise these groups against both the BSP and the SP.
In the three previous State elections since 2000, the aggregate vote share of the four major parties — BJP, SP, BSP, and Congress — along with their allies, never rose above 84%. This means that in the State election, a significant proportion of voters (almost one in six) felt so unattached to the major players that they voted for independent candidates or small parties. In this election, 91.6% of all voters voted for one of the four major parties and their allies, most of this new vote likely going to the BJP (much like 2014 where the aggregate vote share was 93.2%). In short, the BJP effectively cannibalised the vote of the independent candidates and unaligned parties that were drawing voters who felt unattached to any of the major players. Five years ago, a 29.1% vote share was enough to give the SP a majority (224 out of 403) of seats; this time, the 28% vote share of the SP-Congress alliance was only good enough for 54 seats. The BJP has raised the bar; the particularistic politics of the past — and the vote shares associated with it — is unlikely to suffice in the future.
Critics point to the role of religious polarisation in increasing vote share for the BJP and its allies; this is something that can be checked empirically. If results are driven by religious polarisation, the strike rate and the vote share of the BJP and its allies should be particularly large when the Muslim population is large (but not a majority), as Hindus rally against the Muslim community. In the 38 Assembly constituencies in districts that had at least 40% Muslim population, but not a majority, the strike rate for BJP and its allies dropped to 69% from 81% across U.P. Similarly, their average vote share in these constituencies dropped to 37.8% from 41.3% across U.P. Note further that the average Muslim population here is greater than the BJP’s vote share. Either the Muslim community is not as strategic as it is purported to be in keeping the BJP out of power, or some proportion of Muslims voted for the BJP this time. In short, while religious polarisation is certainly part of the BJP’s appeal, simplistic notions of polarisation or strategic voting by Muslims do not explain the results in the election. Rather, this election should be understood in terms of caste consolidation against particularistic politics.
A new politics in U.P.
Unlike Bihar, where Nitish Kumar was seen as more than just a leader of the Kurmi community, Akhilesh Yadav could never distance himself from the burden of local Yadav domination across U.P. Thus, the BJP’s caste consolidation largely failed in Bihar while producing a sweep in U.P. The SP’s alliance with the Congress never worked well either. There were 22 “friendly fights” in which both parties put up candidates in the same constituency. While the SP had a poor strike rate of 15% on an average vote share of 28.4% in seats contested, even these votes didn’t transfer to the Congress. The Congress’ strike rate was just 6% on an average vote share of 22.6% in seats contested. Mayawati’s BSP had a strike rate of just 5% and an average vote share of 22.2% in seats contested. No doubt each of these parties will have to reinvent itself and move beyond the particularistic politics with which it is associated if it wants to survive.
Given the scale of this victory for the BJP, this is almost certainly the beginning of a new chapter in the storied history of the politics of Uttar Pradesh.
Neelanjan Sircar, Bhanu Joshi and Ashish Ranjan are affiliated with the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi