In Mathura district, we met a middle-aged woman from the Jat community relaxing with her teenage son before cooking for the evening. Frustrated, she said, “ Notebandi (demonetisation) has ruined us. There has been extreme financial difficulty,” and expressed support for Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav and his Samajwadi Party. Her husband came running, stood in front of her, and exclaimed, “She has no idea what she’s talking about. [Prime Minister Narendra Modi] is doing a great job, and he will rid this country of corruption. Notebandi hasn’t been too bad.” He will support the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) this time. The woman continued to mock her husband from behind: “Can’t you see? Clearly, Mr. Modi has given him so much money.” A crowd gathered around, laughing at the jeers; even her husband cracked a smile.
A young farmer seemingly threw his support behind the Congress: “The Congress was clearly better for farmers.” Another woman spoke highly of Mayawati and her Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) . Yet, in this jumble of party preferences, no one offered an identity-based reason for their inclinations even though everyone was from the Jat community.
The sheer diversity and complexity of party preferences observed in discussions in the Jat neighbourhood is quite common. All across U.P., our conversations with homogeneous identity groups, whether caste or religion, often yield heterogeneous pronouncements of partisan support. Of course, identity still fundamentally structures social hierarchies and inequalities in daily life. However, the simplistic assignment of identity groups to particular political parties, a standard practice among political analysts in India, is far from the empirical reality. Worse yet, it is a form of analysis that robs the Indian voter of her personal agency and decision-making faculties; most voters are not a priori committed to a single party and weigh their options carefully. Even the Jatav community, which most believe is largely beholden to Ms. Mayawati and the BSP, displayed significant support for the BJP in 2014. It is precisely this perpetual churning in the electorate that makes elections unpredictable and results volatile; after all, no party has held on to the chief ministership of U.P. for more than a single term since the breakdown of Congress rule in 1989.
In this election, close observers of U.P. politics have noticed a discernible shift in the Jat community, which seemingly overwhelmingly supported the BJP in the 2014 general election, to the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), a largely Jat party led by Ajit Singh. Yet, despite the optics of it, what is striking is that the most commonly cited frustrations in the Jat community are not framed in explicitly identity-based terms, but rather in economic terms. Jats expressed their anger with the BJP based on the impact of demonetisation and poor implementation of interest-free loans that were promised to local sugar cane farmers. Even when pushed on the Jat demand for caste reservations, a young Jat farmer told us that the most preferred system would be to have reservations based purely on economic need or not to have them at all. The Jats, like virtually every other identity group, are not beholden to a single party. As parties must compete for the sympathies of voters, they often resort to promises of economic delivery. This leads to an increased salience of economic preferences, whether in delivery of benefits or in large-scale development, in determining vote choice.
U.P. was the crown jewel in the Modi wave in the 2014 national election , with the BJP and its allies securing an incredible 73 out 80 Lok Sabha seats (more than a quarter of the seats the BJP won in the election). While the religious polarisation in Muzaffarnagar received media attention, U.P., like much of the country, was convinced of Mr. Modi’s promises of jobs and economic growth. As Prime Minister, he seemed well positioned to deliver given his tenure as the Chief Minister of the economically developed State of Gujarat and a stark contrast to the feckless Congress government that was ruling the country. But nearly three years into his term, Mr. Modi’s economic accomplishments are wanting. According to the Labour Bureau, the last two years of the previous government (2013 and 2014) produced at least four lakh new jobs a year, whereas the first two full years of the Modi government (2015 and 2016) yielded just one to two lakh new jobs a year. Voters may not vote on the basis of any macroeconomic indicator, but they can directly feel the impact of low economic and job growth.
In our travels in Bihar during the Assembly elections campaign of late 2015, BJP supporters often mentioned Mr. Modi as the only person who could bring jobs to the country, but that sort of language has all but disappeared now in U.P. Mr. Modi has staked his appeal on being a decisive leader instead. A young Jatav woman we met weeks ago in Firozabad district made this point: “Mr. Modi is a very good person. I like him. He is decisive and speaks well.” However, she will be supporting the BSP in this election. Therein lies the problem for the BJP; State elections are more likely to be fought over the delivery of benefits and public goods, and these are the sort of appeals the BJP has all but abandoned. In Shamli district, a middle-aged Jat farmer was more direct: “It is Modi’s government at the Centre. Doesn’t he have the power to give us money?”
Much like Chief Minister Nitish Kumar in Bihar, Akhilesh Yadav has staked his reputation on enlarging the role of the state in the broad-based delivery of public goods and benefits while trying to shed the image of a standard caste leader. According to a report published by the Accountability Initiative analysing State budgets in India, U.P. was just one of four States that saw an increase of 5% or more between the last two Budgets in the share of social services as a share of State government expenditure. This also applies to investment in large-scale infrastructure, as, according to Budget estimates from the RBI, the proportion of the Gross State Domestic Product spent on capital outlays in development expenditure (5.8%) is second highest among non-special category States in India. The increased role of the state has produced tangible, visible outputs that have fuelled an undercurrent of popularity for Mr. Yadav. An upper caste driver from Kanpur told us, “Near my home Akhilesh turned a one-lane road into a four-lane road. I am committed to the BJP, but I am hopeful that Akhilesh becomes the next Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh.” Despite satisfaction with Mr. Yadav’s work, the driver remains persuaded by Mr. Modi’s character and hopeful he can begin to make an economic impact in the future.
As the polls in U.P. shift eastward, away from the religiously polarised western parts of the State, issues of economic delivery may become increasingly salient for voters. During the election, one tends to focus on local, nitty-gritty issues, but it’s important to remember that elections are won and lost on larger narratives. In this election, Mr. Yadav has built a formidable narrative as someone who can deliver benefits and public goods; it remains to be seen if this will translate to votes.
Bhanu Joshi and Neelanjan Sircar are affiliated with the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) in Delhi. Ashish Ranjan, also with CPR, contributed to this article.