Waiting for the silent voters of Uttar Pradesh to speak

In an election where political parties have been unable to generate a convincing larger narrative, strategic voters have become crucial to the outcome.

Updated - March 07, 2017 02:09 am IST

Published - March 07, 2017 12:15 am IST

Varanasi: BSP supremo Mayawati at an election rally in Varanasi on Saturday. PTI Photo                         (PTI3_4_2017_000207A)

Varanasi: BSP supremo Mayawati at an election rally in Varanasi on Saturday. PTI Photo (PTI3_4_2017_000207A)

At a rural roadside tea shop in Kushinagar district in eastern Uttar Pradesh (U.P.), we strike up a conversation with the owners, a married couple from the Bania community. “I’m leaning towards voting for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). But can the BJP win from here? I like the Samajwadi Party (SP) too,” says the middle-aged man as he makes our tea. His wife interjects, “The SP will win.” The middle-aged man continues, “(BJP leader) Yogi Adityanath has done so much for the area.” His wife looks up from making fresh pakoras, pauses, and quips sarcastically, “Oh yeah, he’s a good man.” The woman seems to have made up her mind, but her husband seems genuinely torn as to whether he will cast his vote for the BJP or the SP, adding, “it’s always good to cast the deciding vote for the winner.”

As the election in U.P. comes to a close, it is becoming increasingly clear that it will turn on how individuals like the man in the tea shop will cast their votes. The key to comprehending the ways in which voters make electoral choices is to analyse how voters order the possible parties in front of them, and how voters choose to behave given this ordering-over of parties. An ordering-over of possible parties describes a voter’s most preferred party, second-most preferred party, and so on, unadulterated by external considerations such as the competitiveness of the candidate.

Consider, for instance, a particular voter from the Bania community for whom the BJP is the most preferred party, the SP is the second-most preferred party, and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) is the third-most preferred party. We may ask two important questions about this “preference ordering” of possible parties. First, how certain is the voter about this preference ordering; that is, is it plausible for the voter to change the ordering of parties by the day of the vote? Second, is the voter strategic; that is, would the voter still cast a vote for the BJP even if the voter believed the BJP had little chance to win the seat in the constituency?

 UTTAR PRADESH, 04/02/2017: UP ELECTION-MODI ROADSHOW-VARANASI:: Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a road show at Varanasi on Saturday. Photo Rajeev Bhatt

UTTAR PRADESH, 04/02/2017: UP ELECTION-MODI ROADSHOW-VARANASI:: Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a road show at Varanasi on Saturday. Photo Rajeev Bhatt


The floating vote

One may distinguish between two types of voters: core voters and floating voters. A core voter is one for whom the preference-ordering of possible parties will not change before the vote, and who will always vote for her top choice. Empirically, in a three-cornered fight like in the U.P. election, these are voters who display a strong emotional connection to one party as well as a strong dislike for another party. This includes, for instance, a Muslim individual who strongly supports the SP and dislikes the BJP, or a Hindu nationalist with a strong BJP preference who is particularly turned off by the SP’s association with Muslims.

A floating voter is still uncertain over the preference-ordering of possible parties and is often persuaded by a larger narrative that appeals more broadly. But it seems that all of the major parties are struggling to build such a narrative. As we discussed in our previous article (“Bywords in Bundelkhand”, Feb.28), Akhilesh Yadav’s attempt to rebrand the SP on the basis of broad-based development has been largely undercut by frustrations with local domination by Yadav leaders, the backbone of the SP organisation. This leaves an opportunity for the BJP to build a larger narrative as the party that does not cater to any specific caste (unlike the SP and the BSP).

Religious polarisation

But the BJP may have missed a golden opportunity. Since a commanding performance in the 2014 national election, the BJP has been haemorrhaging supporters in U.P. Rather than building its campaign around Prime Minster Narendra Modi’s appeal as an efficient leader and around larger goals of economic development, which has the power to unite broad swathes of the population, the BJP has once again opted for religious polarisation, as it did during the Bihar Assembly elections in 2015. In a recent speech in Fatehpur, accusing the SP of bias towards the Muslim community, Mr. Modi proclaimed, “If a village makes a kabristan (Muslim burial ground), then a shamshaan (Hindu cremation ground) must be made as well.”

Despite being the home for rabble-rouser and BJP leader Yogi Adityanath, we found little evidence of serious religious polarisation, especially in comparison to western U.P., in the eastern part of the State — commonly referred to as Purvanchal — which brings up the final two phases of the election. The inability to develop any other narrative in this region may prove to be problematic for the BJP.

There is a large Bhojpuri-speaking population in these parts, and the social structure in this region of U.P. is similar to western Bihar and quite different from the rest of U.P. Many voters here seem uncertain about whom to support and who will become the largest party in U.P. Just outside Banares Hindu University, we meet an elderly Brahmin shopkeeper branded with a tilak on his forehead, demonstrably a core BJP supporter. He recounts meeting an anxious BJP candidate a few days earlier, noting, “If this candidate is so unsure of himself, how many of our candidates will Mr. Modi realistically be able to help?” Truth be told, the BJP faithful from the region are far more nervous about the BJP’s prospects than the Delhi-based media.

Meerut: Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi with Samajwadi Party President Akhilesh Yadav waves at crowd at an election rally in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh on Tuesday. PTI Photo  (PTI2_7_2017_000155B)

Meerut: Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi with Samajwadi Party President Akhilesh Yadav waves at crowd at an election rally in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh on Tuesday. PTI Photo (PTI2_7_2017_000155B)


The strategic vote

The standard approach for a party to win in an election involves cultivating enough support among floating voters who, in addition to core supporters, generate a large enough coalition of voters to win the election. In an election where parties have been unable to generate a convincing larger narrative to construct a strong coalition of voters, strategic voters have become more important. Unlike a sincere voter, who always votes her most preferred party, a strategic voter is a voter who is averse to “wasting” a vote on a party that has little chance of winning in the constituency, and, thus, votes for the preferred party among the top two parties in the constituency. The explicit aim of strategic voting is to impact electoral outcomes.

In Etawah and Mainpuri, our driver, from the Chaudhuri sub-caste, openly declared his intent to vote for the BJP, as he was a great admirer of Mr. Modi and strongly disliked the SP. As he travels with us, he becomes convinced that the BJP has little chance of winning in his home constituency. “I want to vote for the BJP, but I don’t want to waste my vote. Should I vote for the BSP?” After a discussion with other voters about likely outcomes in the constituency, he determines that it is in his best interests to strategically cast his vote for the BSP. Similarly, as we described in detail in a previous piece, most of the Muslim voters we meet in Meerut district are worried about the religious violence that has characterised the region and are willing to support either the SP or the BSP, whichever had a better chance of defeating the BJP. Strategic voting involves a calculation that is typically performed at the last minute, and is thus difficult to ascertain for most political analysts. And, contrary to popular belief, strategic voting is not limited to a particular caste or religion; most voters exhibit some modicum of strategy.

Herein lies an electoral benefit for the BSP. Unlike the BJP, which is unlikely to receive votes from Muslims, and the SP, which is unlikely to receive support from a subset of Hindu voters due to its association with the Muslim and Yadav communities, the BSP has the capacity to draw a strategic vote from across the landscape of castes and religions. In particular, the BSP can draw Muslims voters strategically where the BJP is competitive and can draw anti-Yadav and (to some extent) anti-Muslim voters where the SP is competitive. When this is added to a stable group of supporters among the Jatav community (about 11% of the State’s population) and significant vote share among the rest of the Dalit community (another 10% of the State), the strategic vote may be enough to construct a large vote share for the BSP. But in order for the strategic vote to have this sort of impact for the BSP, it must be seen as competitive (i.e., in the top two parties) in a large number of constituencies.

The BSP has received little press coverage. But come election day, the BSP’s “silent voters” may help the party pull a surprise. After all, no one ever hears the voices of strategic voters.

Neelanjan Sircar, Bhanu Joshi and Ashish Ranjan are affiliated with the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi

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