Aakar Patel | Can BJP lose its vote share, but still win in UP? Wait for results

The broad patterns tell us that to sweep Uttar Pradesh, the BJP has to retain its vote share of the past three elections

I have not been to Uttar Pradesh in some time, and what I am saying is not based on material that is recent or on any groundwork that I have done recently.

However, it is interesting to see the patterns of voting in the state over the last few years to arrive at what the possibilities are in that state’s coming election.

In 2012, the Samajwadi Party won an absolute majority in Uttar Pradesh with a vote share of 29 per cent. Remarkably it was not the BJP but the Bahujan Samaj Party that came second, with 26 per cent vote share. The BJP, which was then led by Uma Bharti, had only 15 per cent.

Two years later, in 2014, the BJP remarkably tripled its vote share (along with alliance partner Apna Dal) to 42 per cent in the Lok Sabha elections. On its own, the BJP had about 40 per cent.

We can attribute this to two things -- one is the leadership and charisma of Narendra Modi, which brought voters across northern India towards the BJP. The second was communal violence in western Uttar Pradesh. In August and September 2013, Muzaffarnagar and Shamli saw a series of episodes of extreme violence and rape which polarised the region and sent thousands of people, mostly Muslims, into relief camps.

This polarisation remained for a long time and the BJP campaigns in the 2014 Lok Sabha and the 2017 Assembly elections used the violence to mobilise. The Hindu newspaper reported in March 2017 that the Jat vote was split and taken away from the Lok Dal by the BJP. The report said that the Jats were told that their vote against the BJP would only “aid and ensure the formation of a government by Muslims”, adding that an “audio recording of Amit Shah’s meeting with the Jat leadership, which was strategically leaked, had quite an impact on the community. It actually scared the community and got at least half the Jats to its side by the time the Jat-dominated lands went to the polls on February 11. Finally, it was Hindu consolidation in the BJP’s favour.”

The BJP took the state, again taking about 40 per cent of the vote. The other thing that was supposed to be a factor in this election was the economy. Voting happened in February 2017, just three months after the demonetisation in November 2016 and extreme distress across India, especially among the poor.

But this did not appear to affect the BJP negatively and the party continued its dominance.

Interestingly, the Samajwadi Party retained its 2012 winning vote share of 29 per cent in the seats that it contested. The Bahujan Samaj Party lost vote share in this election. The two rivals, SP and BSP, then united in the 2019 election and this time it was thought by many that the BJP would face a tough fight in UP. This did not happen and the BJP again increased its vote share to close to 50 per cent and swept the state. The external factor this time was thought to be India’s attack on Pakistan. The strike on Balakot came at the end of February, and voting happened a few weeks after that. Of course, we do not know to what extent that was a specific factor just as we do not know how much demonetisation did or did not contribute to the 2017 results.

We can assume, given how much focus there was from the BJP side on communal polarisation in 2017, that this is the primary driver of its politics and its vote banks. Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister tweeted this about the BJP’s opponents on January 28: “They are worshippers of Jinnah, we are worshippers of Sardar Patel. Pakistan is dear to them, we sacrifice our lives on Maa Bharati.”
One day before this, defence minister Rajnath Singh had said this: “I do not know why Pakistan’s founder Jinnah’s name is often invoked during elections. Those who want to politicise this… in UP’s politics, Jinnah’s name should not be invoked. Instead, we should talk of farmers’ sugarcane.”

The reason that Jinnah, Pakistan and Muslims are raised by the BJP is that it has worked for them in the past. And for this reason alone, it will continue to be used.

The broad patterns tell us that to sweep Uttar Pradesh, the BJP has to retain its vote share of the past three elections. But to merely win it, the party can do so while losing some vote share, and perhaps up to as much as 10 per cent. The Samajwadi Party appears to be headed for a record vote share for itself, but it is unclear whether even this will be able to stop the BJP from a repeat victory. Again, I am not saying this on the basis of any ground evidence, merely looking at the numbers of the past.

The last thing to do here is to see if there are any external factors. These are the farmers’ protests, which ended in November after one year. Then there is the current agitation against the Union government on the issue of jobs in the Railways and elsewhere in the Central government. A little farther back are the visuals of corpses in the Ganga during the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic last year. Will all of this turn irrelevant in front of communal polarisation? It’s likely that the result of this election will give us the answer to this question.

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