With a thumping majority in the Uttar Pradesh assembly polls, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) finally, and comprehensively, turns a trend of declining electoral fortunes in perhaps the most pivotal state in Indian politics. Since its landmark win in the 1991 polls, when Kalyan Singh’s BJP reaped 221 seats, the party has seen its tally in the UP assembly fall with each round of assembly polls, culminating in just 40 in 2012.
The BJP’s 2017 tally of 312 seats is the second highest a single party has ever secured in the UP assembly. The Indian National Congress’s haul of 388 seats out of 430 in the first-ever assembly polls in the state in 1952 remains the record. Considering the INC’s dominance in the young republic’s politics at the time, that the BJP has come so close to that number in 2017 is remarkable. Especially when you take into account the array of formidable political parties in UP. In 1952 only two political parties had vote shares in double digits: the Congress that almost got half of all votes cast, and, with just over 12%, the Socialist Party. In 2017 there were three parties with vote shares all above 20%: BJP, SP and BSP.
UP is truly a crucible of electoral machinations.
In the aftermath of this landslide victory the BJP’s haul has been, it appears, most commonly compared to the Congress’ victory in 1952 and the BJP’s own triumph in 1991. (This piece, as you can see above, is no exception.)
It may also be worth comparing these results to the BJP’s, or rather its fore-runner the Bharatiya Jan Sangh’s (BJS), performance in 1952.
The BJS was formed in October 1951, spearheaded by Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, just in time for the central and state elections that unfolded nationally in the subsequent months. Tathagatha Roy gives an illuminating, if hagiographic, account of Mookerjee’s strategizing and campaigning for those polls in his book The Life & Times of Shyama Prasad Mookerjee. Mookerjee knew well, Roy writes, that the Congress had unmatched resources. Besides, the Congress’s national prominence and support base, combined with a preponderance of smaller parties, meant that non-Congress vote blocks would fragment. Thereby guaranteeing Nehru’s party a thumping majority in a first past the post system.
And yet Mookerjee soldiered on. In the little time he had between the party’s founding and the polls, Roy writes, Mookerjee was able to establish a pact of sorts with two other like-minded parties: the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha and the Akhil Bharatiya Ram Rajya Parishad. The Mahasabha was a Hindu nationalist party, and forerunner to the Jan Sangh, that dated back to 1906 and once boasted Mookerjee himself among its members. Meanwhile, the Ram Rajya Parishad was a party with a base in Rajasthan, that campaigned for, among other things, a uniform civil code. (The Hindu Mahasabha still exists, albeit in a much diminished avatar. The Ram Rajya Parishad faded away into obscurity. In 2014, there was a single internet report that it had merged with an Indian Oceanic Party.)
Roy, however, states that these were associations that did not really work in the Sangh’s favour.
In the 1952 Uttar Pradesh assembly polls, the BJS, Hindu Mahasabha and the Ram Rajya Sabha grappled not only with the Congress and Socialist Party but also with a host of other “national” and “state” parties. An Election Commission of India report lists the Bolshevik Party of India, Forward Bloc (Ruikar Group), Kisan Mazdoor Praja Party, All India Scheduled Caste Federation, U.P. Praja Party and so on. (It was a time of exuberant and idealistic party formation.)
Mookerjee worked to exhaustion. But it was all to end in disappointment. In the Lok Sabha, the Sangh won just three of the 94 seats it competed in. The Hindu Mahasabha won four and the Ram Rajya Parishad won three.
The parties did even worse in the UP assembly. The BJS put forth candidates in 211 seats and did so badly that they lost deposits in 153 of them. (The Mahasabha and Ram Rajya Parishad did even worse.) Ultimately the Jan Sangh won just two seats out of the 413 that formed the UP assembly at the time. Omkar Singh and Ummed Singh may not quite be names that make BJP supporters and other Hindu nationalists rise up in fervour. But they formed the sharp end of the wedge for the Hindu right in UP.
A wedge that was driven and driven in until the landslide triumph of 2017.
There is one final delicious piece of data to mull over. In 1951, the BJS, a party that was not two years old then, secured those two seats in UP with an overall vote share of 6.45%.
And how did Rahul Gandhi’s Indian National Congress do 56 years later? It won seven seats with a vote share of 6.2%.
The tables have truly turned in UP.