Polls analysis: Several uncertainties remain in battle for UP
Takkar hai. (The competition is close.) This is the most common refrain from the voters of Uttar Pradesh (UP) when asked about who will win in the 2022 UP elections.
But this simple phrase requires parsing, as it is being deployed with two distinct meanings. The first meaning is that the election is mathematically close between the two leading parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP). The second meaning is that is hard to discern how voters and their caste groups will vote, leading to great uncertainty in outcomes.
It is this second meaning — the uncertainty — that has come to characterise the ground-level understanding of these elections. There is a feeling that the hardened relationship between identity and vote choice in Uttar Pradesh is starting to decay. It is not unusual to hear a young man from Yogi Adityanath’s Thakur community pledging support to the SP due to a lack of jobs, or to hear a newly married woman from the Yadav community, SP’s core caste base, supporting the BJP due to ration benefits attributed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
A common mistake is to attribute the recent electoral dominance of the BJP to a single strategy. In fact, a close look at the data suggests the adaptations in BJP’s strategy that have allowed these feats. In this piece, we look at what data from the Indian Census (last released in 2011), combined with electoral results from the 2017 election, can tell us about electoral competition across UP’s seven phases. In chart 1, we use population-weighted district demographic data to tabulate the percentage of the population categorised as Muslim or scheduled caste (SC) according to the census in each of the seven phases. Furthermore, using data provided by the Trivedi Centre for Political Data (TCPD) at Ashoka University, we provide the strike rates for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) — the BJP-led coalition— for each phase.
The first misconception is that the BJP wins simply by superior performance in areas dominated by Hindus as compared to Muslims. It is true that the percentage of Muslim voters was greatest in the second phase (37%) and the BJP had a comparatively worse performance in phase 2 assembly constituencies (ACs) with a strike rate of 69%. But it is also true that the BJP had its worst performance in phase 7 ACs with a strike rate of 67% in a region with among the lowest percentage of Muslims (12%). In fact, the BJP had its highest strike rate (91%) in the phase 1 ACs with a relatively high Muslim population (23%). This is ostensibly a function of the extraordinary Hindu-Muslim polarisation generated in the wake of the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots. Indeed, the BJP won eight out of nine ACs in the 2017 election in Muzaffarnagar district — which has a Muslim population greater than 40%.
The difference in the 7th phase, the eastern most part of UP, seems to have been the relatively lower levels of Hindu-Muslim polarisation, even in 2017. One big question for BJP’s electoral fortunes will be the extent to which Hindu-Muslim polarisation continues to structure voting outcomes in UP.
The second misconception has been an oversimplification of the voting preferences of SCs. Mayawati and Bahujan Samaj Party’s (BSP’s) core base is often thought to be western UP, which went to the polls in the first two phases. But in 2017, the BSP won 16 out of its 19 seats in ACs that went to the polls in phase 4 or later (the eastern part of the state). Indeed, the largest SC populations in the state are in these phases. These are also regions where Mayawati’s core Jatav community are less numerous. The percentage of SCs in the first two phases identified as “Chamar or Jatav” by the Census is over 70%, whereas it drops to less than 40% in phases 4 and 5 (where the Pasi and Rawat communities are more numerous). For all of the discussion of “non-Jatav” SCs, the BSP has still commanded a significant share of the vote share of these communities. As the BSP seems to be weaker in this election, the preferences of SC voters and their willingness to vote for the BJP or SP might be determinative of electoral outcomes in many seats.
As one gets ready for election results on March 10th, two key questions emerge. How much will “economic anxieties” and local anti-incumbency impact the BJP’s support amid less visible Hindu-Muslim polarisation? How will SCs in the state weigh allegiance to the BSP against these economic anxieties and an expansion of ration benefits from the BJP government?
Bhanu Joshi is a PhD candidate in political science at Brown University, and Neelanjan Sircar is senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research.