Lok Sabha elections 2019: In UP, it’s national versus local factors
The most intense battle of the 2019 Lok Sabh election is being fought in the politically crucial state of Uttar Pradesh (UP).
The outcome here will determine if the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) returns to power with a majority yet again; if the BJP returns to power with a substantially reduced number of seats; or if the BJP is ousted entirely from power and a potent combination of the Samajwadi Party(SP)-Bhaujan Samaj Party(BSP)-Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) gets the keys to determining who forms the next government in Delhi. It will also reveal if the Congress is reviving, or continues to shrink in the state that was once its political citadel.
Three trips across the state — at the end December, in early March, and in early April — reveal shifting patterns in the public mood. HT visited a total of 16 Lok Sabha constituencies.
From what appeared to be rising disillusionment with the Narendra Modi government even among its own supporters at the end of last year even as the opposition consolidated its voters to a hawa (wave) in its favour a week after the Balakot strikes, there are now more crystallised responses — of support as well as opposition to the BJP — among different communities, in varying degrees, in separate regional pockets in the state.
There are three ways to understand what is happening in UP: viewing it as a national versus local election; seeing it as an election that hinges on personal chemistry versus one that hinges on complex arithmetic; and looking at it as a battle between two formidable social coalitions.
National versus local
“Yeh bada chunav hai bhaiya. Chhote chunav main Akhilesh-Mayawati ko dekha jayega. Par Dilli main tu Modiji chahiye. (This is a big election. For the smaller, state election, we can look at Akhilesh (Yadav)-Mayawati. But in Delhi, we need Modi again),” says Janardhan Singh Patel, a Kurmi, in Mirzapur’s Jamui bazaar.
Playing cards with a group of younger friends, Patel argues that nationally, there has never been a Prime Minister like Modi, a refrain one often hears from his supporters. What has he done? “He has taught Pakistan a lesson. He has given the armed forces a free hand for the first time in the country’s history. He has increased India’s standing globally. Iske pahle bharat ki koi maan nahin thi, India has no standing before this,” Patel says
Behind him in a shop is Gulzar Maurya. He concurs. But his reasons are different. “I think what he is doing will create a better life for my children. He is creating a corruption free India. Earlier, there were scams in all government recruitments. Now, a nephew of mine got a government job without paying anyone. Modiji needs five more years.”
In Mirzapur’s Chunar village, next to the Ganga, below the Chunar fort, a group of young Nishad men are playing cards in the middle of the day — clearly a favourite pastime for many. Anil Kumar Sahni says Modi has made India the world’s fourth most powerful nation. “He is damdaar neta (strong leader). Before this, who knew Manmohan Singh? Now every child knows Modi’s name.” When asked about employment prospects for the young, Babloo Sahni concedes that that is a concern. “Chunar has no factories. But how much can Modi do alone? We can barely manage our homes and families. He has to manage the whole country. People below him are the problem.”
At the other end of the state, in west UP’s Muzaffaranagar’s Sisauli village, a group of Safai Karmacharis are sitting together. They are Valmikis (a Dalit sub-caste), and support Modi. Rajendra Kumar says, “The poor are with BJP this time. It is a change. The government has given rural housing, electricity, gas cylinders. They have constructed toilets.”
Voices like Patel, Maurya, Anil and Babloo Sahni and Kumar can be heard across west, central and east UP. There is a pattern in the conversations. Those who support the BJP primarily do so because they want Modi back as PM. And that is the party’s biggest strength. Yet, that is also its vulnerability, because as the conversation moves from the national to local, the challenge becomes apparent.
In Unnao’s Mohan town, Akhilesh Kumar Rawat runs a paan shop. Sakshi Maharaj is the BJP MP here. Rawat likes Modi, but he complains about Maharaj. “Modiji is a good PM. He will come back. But here, I won’t vote for BJP because of Maharaj. He rarely come to the constituency. If ever he comes this way, he doesn’t even roll down the window of his car. And in contrast, you have the Congress’ Annu Tandon, who is very popular here.”
These voices are echoed by a group of Pasi (a Dalit sub-caste) villagers in Chiriyari village in the same constituency. Kailash, a labourer, says they will vote for Tandon. “If there is a wedding in the family, a function, Annuji always sends her blessings and support. We have not even seen Maharaj here.”
The perils of the election turning local are visible in Sultanpur as well, where Menaka Gandhi is the BJP candidate, replacing her son, Varun, who has shifted to her constituency, Pilibhit.
At the Amahat crossing, Mohammad Taj, a contractor, says the SP-BSP alliance candidate, Chandrabhanu alias Sonu Singh, is in the strongest position in the seat. “I am a Shia and some of us voted for the BJP last time. We are more open to them than others in the qaum, community. But Varun Gandhi did little here. It was very difficult to meet him. If anyone of us needed a letter of recommendation for school admissions or hospitals, he was never there.” Ram Raja Thakur said. “We want a local leader right now instead of these big leaders from Delhi. Sonu Singh will get Thakur, Muslim, Yadav, Dalit votes.”
This may or may not happen, but the voices reflect disenchantment at the local level. The fact that BJP has the maximum number of sitting MPs and MLAs means it bears the burden of double anti incumbency at the local level. This feedback has gone up to the party leadership, which is why in his rallies, Modi has emphasised that people must vote knowing that each vote is for him.
If the issue of national or local leadership is one variable, a related variable in UP is the tension between personal chemistry and electoral arithmetic, and within electoral arithmetic, the complexities thrown up by the presence of a third player: the Congress.
The BJP believes that as in the general election in 2014 and the assembly polls of 2017, the UP outcome will once again confound observers and the opposition.
And this will be because of Modi’s personal chemistry, which will break the traditional boundaries of caste, generation, gender, and regional variations. Chandramohan, a UP BJP spokesperson and the Rampur in charge of the party, says, “Mark my words. Our slogan of 74 seats is not just a slogan. There is a hawa again. Modiji has a direct connect with voters, and this will be reflected in the result again.”
But notwithstanding the party’s official claims, it knows that it faces the challenge of ganit (arithmetic).
An HT analysis by Roshan Kishore has shown that the combined vote share of the SP and BSP was higher than that of the BJP in 41 of the 80 seats in 2014 (excluding Amethi and Rae Bareilly). An India Today analysis showed that Muslims, Dalits and Yadavs together constitute more than 50% of the population in 47 of the 80 seats.
Not all three social groups vote in entirety for the non BJP candidate of course but they represent social constituencies most distant from the party.
The arithmetic challenge is visible in seats in west UP going to polls in the first phase. Take Muzaffarnagar, where the BJP’s Sanjeev Balyan is contesting against the RLD chair and veteran Jat leader, Ajit Singh. He is the alliance candidate, and with the Congress choosing not to contest in the seat, it is a bipolar battle. While the exact demographic of all social groups is hard to know, political parties and local journalists suggest that the constituency has over five lakh Muslims; over two lakh Jatavs (a Dalit sub caste largely loyal to BSP); and close to two lakh Jats.
Suresh Singh and Budan Singh are Jat elders sitting in the Goyla village, smoking hookah. They are firmly with Chaudhary saheb, as Singh is known, and were loyal followers of his father, the late Charan Singh. Suresh Singh says, “I am not interested in the PM. I am interested in having Chaudhary saheb win from here. Who can represent us better?” The government’s claims of successfully responding to Pakistan-backed terror does not impress him either. “Indira Gandhi made two Pakistans. We have defeated it many times. Our forces deserve credit. Modi lies too much.”
If these two voters are representative of the larger Jat mood, then Ajit Singh should have a relatively easy win on paper, because he has three solid social groups backing him.
But for this arithmetic to work out, there are three conditions that need to be met. Jats have to consolidate — largely, if not fully — behind Ajit Singh, but there are clear signs of division in the community, with a section staying with Balyan.
Two, Singh needs to ensure a very high turnout of his Muslim and Jatav voters, and votes of as a few other social groups, if possible. And finally, Singh has to ensure that there isn’t a consolidation of all other social groups in the constituency — upper castes, smaller OBC groups, non Jatav Dalits — in favour of BJP’s Balyan, for they together represent an almost equal number of voters as Singh’s own three voter segments.
So Singh has the arithmetic advantage, because of the alliance, but only the exact voting pattern on polling day can tell if it has translated into votes.
The arithmetic of the alliance has also got complicated because of the presence of the Congress. This is visible in a constituency like Saharanpur.
On paper, in 2014, BJP’s Raghav Lakhanpal won by a (relatively) narrow margin of 65,000 votes. He won 39.59% of the votes, while the Congress’ Imran Masood bagged over 34.1% of the votes; the BSP’s candidate had 19.6%, and the SP bagged 4.4%.
Put together, this is a vulnerable seat for the BJP on paper for the combined opposition has over 57% of the votes. But this time around, while the Congress has stuck to Masood, the alliance has put up a Muslim candidate, Haji Fazlur Rahman.
It was this dynamic which prompted Mayawati at the alliance’s first rally on Sunday to appeal to Muslims to vote only for the alliance candidate, and not allow votes to go to Congress.
The BJP in turn hopes that their arithmetic advantage will collapse given the three-way contest, with a split in Muslim votes in the constituency. But take Kairana, the neighbouring constituency, where the Congress has put up a Jat candidate. Whether he takes away Jat votes of the BJP or those of alliance candidate is unclear.
And that is why as the UP story is broken down to a constituency level analysis, what emerges is a clear edge enjoyed by the alliance.
But this numerical edge is based on certain assumptions about past voting behaviour and future turnout and is tempered by the Congress’ presence.
Battle of social coalitions
But beyond the personalities and arithmetic, a final way to understand the UP political mood is to view it as a battle between two formidable social coalitions, which are jostling for power and dominance.
As the crowds began trooping towards the rally grounds of Saharanpur on Sunday, it was a sea of blue (BSP) and red (SP) flags and caps. Lokendra and Nitin were committed BSP workers and had come with their friends from the neighbouring constituency of Muzaffarnagar, but because the alliance candidate there is Ajit Singh, they wore RLD caps. All four belonged to the Jatav community.
When asked about the alliance, Lokendra said, “Behenji has done the right thing with the alliance. Muslims, Jatavs, Jats and Yadavs have come together. We will all vote for each other’s candidate.” But given the past acrimony between Jatavs and Yadavs in east UP, or Jatavs and Jats or even Jatavs and Muslims to some extent in west UP, would this work? Nitin chipped in, “If Jats and Muslims could kill each other five years ago and come together now, why can’t we work together with all other groups? This election is to defeat Modi. And if the alliance gets over 50 seats, Behenji will become the Prime Minister.”
Mohammad Tazim, a Muslim participant at the rally from Saharanpur, claimed that the Modi government had harassed poor people with demonetisation. “And they have harassed Muslims in particular by spreading hatred against us. The alliance is our only hope.”
Supplementing these voices are the Yadavs, who are numerically far more significant elsewhere in the state. At the Phulpur tehsil, Sanjay Yadav, a lawyer, says emphatically that he is with the alliance. “The SP is our party. I don’t care if the party wins or loses. But I will always be with Akhilesh and support his decisions. In UP, it is clear that since the BJP government came to power, there has been discrimination against Yadavs. And nationally, I don’t think the the Modi government has performed well either.”
These voices, of Lokendra and Nitin, Tazim and Yadav, are the biggest strength of the alliance. Muslims, Yadavs and Jatavs have felt that since 2014 nationally.
But since 2017, in particular after the BJP’s victory in the assembly polls, they have been systematically excluded from the power structure in the state. That prompted the pressure from below from these communities on their leaders — Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati — to come together.
But a caveat is essential here. We met several Yadavs who suggested that because this was a Lok Sabha election, they may well vote for Modi while supporting the SP in the state elections. We also met some Jatavs (especially those not attached to the BSP organisation), who were open to voting for the BJP in seats where the BSP had not put up a candidate.
But taking on this multi-religious coalition is another coalition: a broadly Hindu social alliance which compromises the most dominant castes with some of the most backward and invisible castes. They feel the return of the BJP has actually opened up the space for them, provided them a voice in the power structure, and ended the prolonged dominance of Yadavs, Jatavs and Muslims in the politics of the state.
Sitting with Sanjay Yadav in Phulpur is a teacher, Krishna Maurya. The two are friends and laugh about their political differences. Maurya is very clear he is with the BJP.
“Modi has started good work. He needs five more years to complete it.” He then admits that it is his caste identity which is the primary driver of his choice. “Looks like Sanjay here will always be with the SP. We Mauryas are now firmly with the BJP. They are our party. I wish (deputy CM) Keshav Prasad Maurya had become CM, but I am still with them.”
In numerous conversations with Brahmans, Thakurs, Kayasthas and Banias or the scattered and small but substantial OBC groups — Kurmis, Lodha, Gujjars, Sonara, Pals, Nishads, Telis, Prajaptis, Kashyaps, Kushwahas, Nais, Rajbhars — and smaller Dalit sub castes, it appears that the BJP commands the fierce loyalty of a range of these social groups.
Bringing them together is both a sense that under the SP and BSP, they are marginalised as well as a strong sense of Hindu identity, the feeling that the BJP protects Hindu interests, while the others side with Muslims. The BJP’s alliance with Apna Dal (a Kurmi outfit), Nishad party, and the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (of Rajbhars) helps too. “The opposition may have 40%, we have 60% of the votes,” says a top BJP leader in the state.
But a caveat is essential in this instance as well. This does not mean all members of all these diverse social groups are entirely with the BJP. The SP and BSP, and even the Congress, have put up candidates from these social groups too. And therefore, they, too, will get the support of some of these social groups.
If the UP election becomes entirely about national leadership; if it depends on Modi’s personal chemistry; and if the BJP’s broad social coalition stays intact and votes in large numbers, then the saffron juggernaut will continue to roll on across the Gangetic plains.
But if the election in UP boils down to local candidates; if it hinges on specific caste arithmetic in each seat; and if the alliance manages to keep its Muslim-Yadav-Jatav-Jat coalition intact, and get them to poll in large numbers, the outcome could well mark the beginning of the end of BJP’s hegemony both nationally and in UP.