Officials will begin counting more than 120 million votes on Saturday to elect a new assembly in Uttar Pradesh, one of the world’s largest poll exercises that is being billed as a virtual semi-final to general elections in two years.
The stakes are high for almost 5,000 candidates across 403 seats in India’s most-populous state that saw pitched campaigning swing from a development narrative and caste arithmetic to religious polarisation and a bitter war-of-words.
A clutch of exit polls have predicted the BJP to get closest to the majority mark of 202 but the state’s unmatched caste and religious diversity has often misled pollsters in the past.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi campaigned across the state with gusto, holding back-to-back roadshows and addressing scores of rallies to push the BJP back to power after more than a decade.
Uttar Pradesh formed the backbone of Modi’s Lok Sabha campaign in 2014 when the BJP won 71 of 80 seats.
This time around, the PM coined devastating acronyms for his opponents, who in turn accused him of whipping up communal sentiments. His party tried to stitch together an upper caste-backward alliance that might come unstuck because of the lack of a CM face.
“The surveys have shown BJP will win. We are going to get a two-third majority in Uttar Pradesh. Wait for tomorrow,” senior BJP leader Om Mathur told reporters.
For incumbent chief minister Akhilesh Yadav who overcame a bruising public spat within his family, the election is a personal prestige fight.
He drove his Samajwadi Party to forge an alliance with the Congress – a coalition that is said to have cemented the Yadav and Muslim votes that make up more than a third of the state’s population. The 43-year-old enjoys personal popularity and has tried to step out of caste considerations by talking development but high resentment against sitting SP legislators might do him in.
“The Samajwadi Party fought the polls on the plank of development and the people of Uttar Pradesh will again repose their faith in us. The SP-Congress alliance will come to power in the state,” said Dharmendra Yadav, party MP and cousin of Akhilesh.
The third competitor in the UP poll arena is enigmatic four-time chief minister Mayawati, whose Bahujan Samaj Party has gone out of its way to weave a Dalit-Muslim coalition by allotting more tickets to Muslim candidates than its core Dalit constituency.
Mayawati is famously tight-lipped about electoral prospects, and her party has mostly flown under-the-radar but her impressive caste-religion arithmetic and large cadre base can spring surprises in a tight election. But a loss could mean that her workers would scatter and party base disintegrate.
Akhilesh has hinted that he wouldn’t be averse to a post-poll tie-up with archrival BSP. “I always respected her (Mayawati), and because of this many may construe that there could be an alliance (with BSP). But it’s hard to say anything about the possibility of joining hands (with her)...,” Yadav told BBC Hindi, adding that he wouldn’t allow the BJP to rule the state by proxy through President’s Rule.
When counting begins at 8am on Saturday, many hundreds of electronic voting machines would have been guarded by special forces for weeks – the first of seven phase was on February 11. The overall turnout – 60.81% -- is the highest-ever.
UP’s enormous political importance is a result of its massive size and history – the state has given India nine prime ministers, including Modi who won from Varanasi.
The state’s electorate also serves as a bellwether of Indian politics – in the 1980s the rise of Kanshi Ram and the BSP signalled the rise of caste-assertion, the Mandir politics of the 1990s marked the BJP’s Hindutva-led ascent, and complete irrelevance of the Congress in the 2000s presaged the party’s national decline.
But despite the state’s significance, UP continues to lag in most indices of development and industrialisation. Healthcare and educational standards across the vast province is poor and crime rampant. The state hasn’t attracted significant investment in recent years and its traditional industries have stagnated.
It is in this moribund backdrop that Akhilesh pitched his campaign on development, moving away from his father Mulayam Singh Yadav’s politics of caste and religion.
Yadav’s campaign slogan ‘kam bolta hai’ (work speaks for itself), sought to draw attention to his government’s flagship infrastructure projects such as the Agra-Lucknow Expressway and Lucknow Metro. But many voters say a lot more needs to be done.
Modi and the BJP repeatedly sought to puncture the SP’s claims of development. In a rally, Modi said that ‘kam nahin karname bolte hain’ (misdeeds speak for them).
The PM claimed the state government had privileged ‘kabristaan’ (graveyards) over ‘shamshaan’ (cremation grounds) and Ramzan over Diwali. Additionally, the election is a crucial test of BJP chief Amit Shah after a loss in Bihar last year.
The Highs and Lows in this Campaign Season
Violence-free polls: No violence was reported from any polling booth in UP, making this election the most peaceful in decades
Ban-free polls: No leader was banned for hate speech despite a campaign marked by controversial utterances. In 2014, the election commission had banned rallies by SP’s Mohammad Azam Khan and BJP chief Amit Shah
Bollywood missing: Film stars, a staple of previous UP campaigns, were missing in action though each party used Bollywood movies and songs to great effect
Dacoits underground: Unlike elections in the past, assembly elections 2017 saw no diktats from dacoits
No Muslim candidate: The BJP did not field a single Muslim candidate in a state that has India’s largest Muslim population. The BJP also asked EC to deploy women at polling booths to check burqa-clad women
Stone pelting: A generally peaceful campaign was marred by stone pelting at senior SP leader Shivpal Yadav in Jaswantnagar, while similar incidents were reported during Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Singh’s road show
Beastly barbs: Much name-calling was witnessed. Opponents were branded as gadha (donkey), bhains (buffalo), kabootar (pigeon), magarmachh (crocodile), machhli (fish), sher (lion) and chooha (rat)
Funeral and Festival: PM Narendra Modi claimed that the current state government had favoured Muslim kabristaan (graveyards) over Hindu shamshaan (cremation grounds), and Ramzan over Diwali
Heinous crime: Four candidates faced charges of heinous crimes, including SP leader Gayatri Prasad Prajapati and the BSP candidate from Ayodhya, Bazi Siddiqui – both of whom were accused of gang rape. Peace Party president Mohammad Ayub stands accused of sexual harassment, while independent candidate from Nautanwa, Aman Mani Tripathi is accused of murdering his wife
Five Major Controversies
Yadav family feud
The squabble within Uttar Pradesh’s ruling party surfaced on August 14 2016, when Shivpal Yadav claimed he was a victim of a party “conspiracy”. Party patriarch Mulayam sided with his brother, Shivpal, elevating him to the position of party chief. Chief minister Akhilesh, the son, fought back, eventually wining control of the party by sidelining the old guard
Chief minister Akhilesh Yadav punned on actor Amitabh Bachchan’s advertisements for the Indian Wild Ass sanctuary in Gujarat by urging him to steer clear of the “donkeys from Gujarat”. PM Narendra Modi responded by eulogising the donkey and saying he works like one for the nation
Mafia family walks barefoot to meet Maya
Family members of gangster-turned-politician Mukhtar Ansari stood barefoot beside Mayawati when they joined the Bahujan Samaj Party on January 26. This angered some Muslim organisations, which slammed Mayawati for disgracing the “family of a freedom fighter”. The visitors were barefoot, Mayawati explained, because her official residence is also a memorial to BSP founder Kanshi Ram
BJP leader Yogi Adityanath urged people to vote BJP if they didn’t want western UP to become another Kashmir where Hindus were forced to flee. The party’s Sangeet Som added fuel to the fire by screening videos of his inflammatory speeches from his arrest after the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots
‘Kabristan-shamsaan’ and ‘Ramzan-Diwali’
PM Narendra Modi signalled that while the development agenda is all very well, religious overtones weren’t far away when he accused the SP government of favouring Muslim kabristaan (graveyards) over Hindu shamshaan (cremation grounds), and Ramzan over Diwali