Uttar Pradesh, the make-or-break state, set for a thriller in Lok Sabha elections

ByMilan Vaishnav and Jamie Hintson
Feb 07, 2019 10:21 AM IST

In the 2014 general election, the BJP won 71 of UP’s 80 parliamentary seats. But, as campaigning for 2019 soon begins in earnest, this dominance also has a downside: unless it can run the table in UP for a second consecutive election, the BJP will struggle to replicate, even approximate, its majority.

These days, every conversation about India’s 2019 general election begins and ends with the same knowing admission: “In the end, it will come down to Uttar Pradesh.” Accounting for 80 seats in the Lok Sabha and home to roughly 230 million residents, Uttar Pradesh (UP) is the single biggest prize on offer. For both the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and a bevy of opposition forces, the state is make-or-break.

Whether the BJP can replicate its 2014 LS polls success in UP will depend on the party’s ability to stave off an increasingly confident, unified opposition.(Raj K Raj/HT Photo)
Whether the BJP can replicate its 2014 LS polls success in UP will depend on the party’s ability to stave off an increasingly confident, unified opposition.(Raj K Raj/HT Photo)

In the 2014 general election, the BJP won 71 of UP’s 80 parliamentary seats (its coalition ally, Apna Dal, bagged another two). The state accounted for one out of every four seats the party won in achieving its historic parliamentary majority. But, as campaigning for 2019 soon begins in earnest, this dominance also has a downside: unless it can run the table in UP for a second consecutive election, the BJP will struggle to replicate, even approximate, its majority.

While BJP strategists are confident the party will pick up new seats in places where it has only recently emerged a player, such as India’s northeast, it will be difficult (if not impossible) to compensate for a hefty loss of seats in UP. Yet, sweeping the state is a daunting prospect in light of the pre-electoral alliance the state’s two primary regional parties, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP),recently stitched up.

These two rivals have bitterly fought each other for dominance of UP for the past two decades, but the BJP defeated both with a stunning three-fourths majority in the 2017 assembly elections. Reflecting on their rout, leaders of the two parties reluctantly concluded that they might lose together but they will surely lose separately. So far, the alliance has enjoyed remarkable success, snatching the seats of Gorakhpur and Phulpur from the BJP’s kitty in impressive parliamentary by poll victories in March 2018.

In 2019, the two parties will each contest thirty-eight seats—leaving two seats for the Congress (those held by Sonia and Rahul Gandhi) and two more for the Rashtriya Lok Dal. Meanwhile, the Congress has indicated it will contest the 2019 elections in UP on its own, bolstered by the fact that Priyanka Gandhi will play an active role in the party’s campaign in eastern UP.

Given the opportunistic alliances, the eleventh-hour Congress surprise, and the fact that Modi remains popular in the state even as his party’s brand has dipped, the UP outcome is virtually impossible to predict at this point. The absence of credible survey data also makes seat projections extremely difficult.

Any conclusion hinges on whether one believes elections in India are more about arithmetic or chemistry. Arithmetic suggests the formidable BSP-SP mahagatbandhan (grand alliance) will easily cut the BJP’s seat tally in half. But analysts who prioritise the chemistry of campaigns are sceptical that one can mechanically add up past vote shares and predict the future.

Rather than wade into the guessing game around the number of seats lost and gained for various formations, we focus on three issues critical to sealing the final UP outcome: voter mobilisation, Hindu voter consolidation, and rural anxiety about the economy. In the 2014 election, the BJP exploited unprecedented voter turnout, a unique crosscaste coalition of Hindu voters, and a souring economy, blame for which it could place at the door of the incumbent Congress.

Whether the BJP can replicate these conditions this spring will determine the party’s ability to stave off an increasingly confident, unified opposition.

Maintaining the enthusiasm advantage

First, the BJP’s success in 2019 will depend on whether it can mobilize its supporters and potential swing voters to go to the polls. Voter turnout across India reached a record 66.4 % in 2014; turnout in UP increased by 10 percentage points from 2009.

Whether due to anti-incumbency trends or Modi’s popularity, the BJP reaped the benefits of this surge in political participation. Across India, the party’s performance improved the most in constituencies that saw the greatest rise in turnout. This correlation held up very well in UP (figure 1). On average, a 1 percentage point increase in turnout was associated with a positive 0.6 percentage point vote share bump for the BJP. Rising women’s turnout particularly aided the BJP’s performance. The party’s ability to retain, perhaps build on, its support among women voters will be crucial for its 2019 poll success. (see chart 1)



The BJP must also ensure that young voters show up on Election Day. According to National Election Study data, turnout among young voters—this is traditionally lower than the national average—exceeded average turnout in 2014 by 2 percentage points. States that possessed a larger share of first-time voters in 2014 (those between the ages of 18 and 22) also saw the largest increases in the BJP’s vote share (see chart 2). UP was a particular outlier.



However, there are serious doubts that the BJP can replicate this mobilization. The novelty associated with Modi’s candidacy has dimmed, as have citizens’ perceptions of the BJP’s economic performance. In 2014, the BJP contested elections as the outsider; in 2019, it is the incumbent at both the state and national levels, making an anti-establishment campaign untenable.

Consolidating Hindu Votes

The UP electorate is notoriously fragmented by caste and religion. In recent years, the BJP, traditionally reliant on upper-caste support, has greatly expanded its outreach to lower castes, not least by leveraging the social services provided by the various affiliates of the Sangh Parivar.

In 2014, the BJP focused its efforts on those Hindu other backward class (OBC) and Dalit jatis underemphasized by the SP and BSP, respectively. In particular, it set its sights on peeling off non-Yadav voters from the SP and non-Jatav voters from the BSP (the Yadavs and Jatavs are the respective castes from which SP and BSP leaders Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati hail), claiming that they have been marginalized by their more dominant brethren. The strategy paid off handsomely: in addition to consolidating its upper caste support, the BJP attracted large numbers of lower OBC and Dalit voters to its fold.

Unless the BSP-SP alliance can reverse this Hindu caste consolidation, it will find 2019 to be very rough going. An analysis of data on UP’s 140,000 polling booths compiled by Raphael Susewind allows for a local-level examination of the BJP’s 2014 performance based on the Hindu-Muslim breakdown of voters. The BJP dominated its rivals in booths where the Muslim share of voters was below the 75th percentile (figure 3), which translates to a roughly 20 % Muslim electorate. Above that point, the BJP’s vote share drops off drastically—a sign of the party’s difficulty in minority-dominated areas. The opposition, for its part, has a good deal of ground to make up in localities without a sizeable Muslim population.



The BSP-SP duo will also strongly contest UP’s 17 scheduled caste (SC)-reserved seats. In 2014, the BJP won all of these seats—landing a particularly harsh blow against the BSP, given that latter’s typically staunch Dalit vote base (figure 4).



Yet there are emerging signs that Dalits are no longer as favourably inclined toward the BJP. According to the Mood of the Nation survey conducted in May 2018 by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Dalit support for the BJP had fallen sharply from 33% in May 2017 to 22% a year later.

There are multiple reasons why Dalit voters across India might question their previous support for the BJP. In April, the Supreme Court introduced new safeguards to prevent the misuse of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, enraging many Dalit citizens. Although the government ended up asking the court to review its ruling, the decision wrong-footed it (and it was already being criticized for its lax implementation of the law). More recently, the central government’s move to provide a 10% quota for economically weaker sections has triggered fears that the ruling party could begin to unwind caste-based forms of reservation in favour of class-based quotas.

Lastly, there are issues specific to UP that have galvanized Dalits. In addition to a spate of anti-Dalit violence, there is a stark gap between the BJP’s rhetoric of caste inclusion and its upper-caste-dominated administration in UP. Chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s first cabinet contained only four Dalits, and, according to the Hindustan Times, just nine of state’s 75 district police superintendents were Dalits as of July 2017.

Addressing rural anxiety

The third factor likely to shape electoral outcomes in UP is the rising discontent of India’s rural citizens. Nearly 78% of UP’s population lives in rural areas—only five states have higher rural population shares.

This sizable rural majority spells trouble for the BJP. Many analysts have attributed the BJP’s December losses in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh to “agrarian distress” amid falling crop prices and growing farmer indebtedness. Indeed, political scientist Neelanjan Sircar found that the BJP performed worst in regions with a large share of agricultural workers, a trend absent in the previous state elections of 2013.

Opposition parties have tapped into farmers’ anger, promising, in several states, to waive their outstanding loans if elected. While the consensus among economists is that farm loan waivers make for bad economics—they create a moral hazard and harm credit culture—their popularity with rural residents makes for good politics.

Agrarian distress opens a number of potential vulnerabilities for the BJP across UP. The state’s 20 most agricultural constituencies include three of the BJP’s seven losses in 2014, along with six of the 17 seats the party won by less than 10 % (see figure 5). These six “vulnerable” constituencies—Sitapur, Kaiserganj, Shravasti, Misrikh, Kaushambi, and Hardoi—will be important seats to watch for opposition inroads in 2019 (the latter three are also SC-reserved).




For the BJP, insiders have long claimed that replicating 2014 is a pipe dream. The last general election result was a perfect storm of anti-incumbency, a slumping economy, and a presidential contest with only one compelling candidate. While a sweep of UP may no longer be on the cards, the BJP must retain a strong majority of seats there. To have a shot at doing so, it will have to energize its base, keep its coalition from fracturing, and address (or, more accurately, be seen to address) the needs of India’s rural dwellers. If it fails, a second term could be jeopardized. To paraphrase an old US electoral maxim: as Uttar Pradesh goes, so goes the nation.

Milan Vaishnav (@MilanV) and Jamie Hintson are with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. This article is part of the ‘India Elects 2019’ series, a collaboration between Carnegie and the Hindustan Times.

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