It was being widely held that with 100 million youthful new voters in a rapidly modernising India, old-style politics along caste and religious lines wouldn’t bring in the votes. That assumption has come unstuck.
Analysts say Thursday’s significant voter surge during elections in 11 states, especially Uttar Pradesh, could be primarily the fall-out of "polarisation", although better electoral practices could also have helped.
Unsure what ultimately will work, political parties have rapidly shifted the discourse from development to dogmatic issues, helping polarise UP’s 130.4-million electorate.
In UP, Hindutva, or chauvinistic Hindu nationalism, has made a quiet comeback. Although the BJP’s mainstay has been good governance, it is simultaneously appealing for votes on divisive issues. Instances include Modi’s aide Amit Shah’s call to Jats to vote for "revenge" or the issue of a Ram temple being built on the site of the razed Babri mosque.
This has led parties to cash in on the "group anxiety" of Muslims who see Modi as a threat. In riot-scarred Muzaffarnagar, Muslims left their camps in hordes to go to their villages to vote.
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In the 1980s, the BJP’s Ram Janmabhoomi campaign saw the party expand rapidly - from just eight Lok Sabha seats and 7.58% vote share in 1989 to 51 seats and 32.82% votes in 1991. But with two successive defeats – in 2004 and 2009 – the BJP began to feel that Hindutva might have been a short-term asset, but a long-term liability. It began to appear that the 2014 polls would be fought on issues of a weakening economy, prices and corruption scandals. What then has changed?
It is possible that the politics of development alone, as being epitomised by BJP mascot Narendra Modi, wouldn’t be enough to bring the party to power. Therefore, the easier option is to play one community against the other.
"We are suddenly seeing identity coming back in UP," said Sudha Pai, who teaches politics at JNU. "One reason is the lack of development-oriented politics as a substitute for identity. Second, the BJP has always campaigned at two levels. There is the Vajpayee-style of good governance but in remote areas, it has always been the mandir."
Yet, for BJP, polarising Hindus – divided in many castes and social groups - is easier said than done.
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"Hindu polarisation of votes is largely a media conjecture," says Praveen Rai, a psephologist with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.
A massive clean-up of the electoral rolls by the Election Commission could also have helped cause a high turnout. Elimination of bogus voters can directly show up as an increase in turnout. For instance, take a scenario of a particular seat of, say, 10,000 registered voters. If 2,000 of them vote, the turnout is 20%. However, if 1,000 names are struck off the rolls because they are "bogus", the voting percentage climbs to more than 22% because the number of registered voters shrinks to 9,000.
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