Hindus’ consolidation may shape Uttar Pradesh election results
In a rally in Akbarpur in Uttar Pradesh on Monday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in an apparent reference to the Trinamool Congress (TMC), “Aap khule aam, hindu vote ko baatna chahte hain, toh aap kiske vote ikkhata karna chahte hon (You openly talk about splitting the Hindu vote. Whose votes are you trying to gather?)?”
The apparent confidence of this claim may belie nervousness around the fragmentation of the “Hindu vote.” The Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 made the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) nearly unassailable due to a consolidated Hindu vote. Indeed, in the 2017 elections, the BJP achieved a strike rate of 91% in assembly constituencies (ACs) that went to the polls in Phase One of the Uttar Pradesh (UP) election. The strike rate dropped to 69% in ACs in Phase 2, indicating that the BJP was less able to engineer Hindu consolidation.
As one moves east from Muzaffarnagar district to Bareilly district, there is a noticeable shift in the social context. Unlike the outright Hindu-Muslim polarisation that drove BJP’s support in Phase 1 ACs in 2017, the party relied on the popularity of PM Modi to mollify tensions between various caste groups and paper over local rivalries in Phase 2 ACs.
On the surface, there appears little reason for these groups to shift from BJP to the Samajwadi Party (SP) as there is little affirmative reason for them to do so. But the social tensions that the BJP adjudicated effectively in 2017 seem to have come to the fore again.
In Meerapur constituency, for example, the BJP won a close contest by consolidating Hindu groups in 2017. This time, both the BJP and the SP have fielded candidates from the powerful Gujjar community. “Last time, all Gujjars supported the BJP, but this time half of us, including me, will shift to SP. Yes, it’s true BJP selected a Gujjar, but he’s not from here and no one knows him,” said a local Gujjar man. This may be a stray incident but such sentiment is more common now, than five years ago.
With greater information, modern survey techniques and political consultants, it strains credulity that the BJP would simply make a mistake in choosing the most winnable candidate. Rather, the struggles in ticket selection are a consequence of intraparty centralisation.
UP is a unique case for the BJP. In most states, Modi is unchallenged; the 2017 assembly elections were won on his name as no chief minister was declared before the polls. But since being named chief minister, Yogi Adityanath has quickly consolidated power — so much so that a voter at a tea shop in Kanth said, “Before we voted for Modi, this time the BJP will get votes in Yogi’s name.”
Party elites favour centralisation over more decentralised party organisations because lower-level party workers engage in corruption and run patronage networks that weaken the position of the party leader. By removing all forms of intermediation and offering public goods directly to the beneficiary, party elites can risk alienating party cadres and supporters but also consolidate power. This supply-side dynamic is supplemented by the demand side. In fragmented societies, with ethnicity being central to electoral decisions, party elites know that the voters have a limited pool of voting options.
This generates a fundamental political dilemma: Should leaders decentralise to allow information flows, or by limiting their power, establish direct control and relationship with the voters at the cost of creating local-level complications?
For parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and SP, the need to invest in party cadres or organisations, given their core voters’ steadfast commitment, is low. But the BJP has to be more careful with its cadre and voters. The party constructed an impressive social coalition involving the non-Jatav Dalits, non-Yadav Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and upper castes in 2017. By not decentralising power to lower-level politicians, the party is taking a risk. The resignation of 11 non-Yadav OBC legislators (including 3 ministers) before the elections is an example.
Reducing local politicians’ discretionary powers, and increasing direct transfer of benefits to the citizens, can go both ways. Elucidating the core dilemma for the voter, a female ASHA worker in Aonla said, “If you get into a fight, and you are a Dalit, you would go to the BSP; a Muslim or Yadav goes to SP. I am a Chauhan (Thakur), and I went to the sitting BJP MLA, and I didn’t get anything.” But then she steps back and reverses course, “Hume neeche walo se koi matlab nahin, sab upar se kam hai.. Upar bolenge, to nivaran hoga.” (The lower level doesn’t matter for us, it’s all the top. If the top dictates, then it will be solved.). This is what the BJP is banking on.
(Bhanu Joshi is a PhD candidate in political science at Brown University. Ashish Ranjan is an independent election researcher. Neelanjan Sircar is senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research)