This column usually occupies itself with important international events, as viewed from my perch in New Delhi. This week, I will devote myself to an event of global import unfolding closer home: the world’s fourth-largest demonstration of democracy, currently under way in Uttar Pradesh (the only three larger, measured by the number of people qualified to exercise the franchise, are the Indian Lok Sabha polls, the American presidential vote, and the Indonesian general election).
I’ve had the good fortune to witness and cover some extraordinary elections around the world: Hong Kong’s first postcolonial poll; Iraq’s first experience of a free and fair vote; the election of the first black man to the White House; and last year’s Brexit referendum in the UK. None of them has approached the complexity of the contest for the UP state legislature, playing out like a seven-episode Netflix political drama.
To travel through the heart of the heartland state, as I did last week, is to marvel at the sheer scale of the election, and at the fact that it has proceeded so smoothly and with so little violence. Those looking on from parts foreign are more likely to be mystified by the whole thing. Why does it take seven rounds of voting? How come there are no exit polls after every round? What are OBCs (other backward classes)? And what is all this talk about… wild asses?
Truth be told, few people outside India currently pay close attention to the politics of places like Lucknow, Rae Bareli, Allahabad and Varanasi, all stops on my route last week. But international interest in the minutiae of Middle Indian power struggles is bound to grow in years to come, commensurate with the country’s growing importance in the global economy.
Just as the national elections this year in France and Germany will be scrutinized for their political and economic impact on Europe, the UP election will one day be parsed for what it tells us about the direction India is heading in. The smarter India-watchers already know that if the scale alone makes the UP election automatically a political bellwether, this time around its function as a barometer of the national mood is the more important because it comes midway through the term of the Narendra Modi government, and just as that government’s hugely ambitious demonetisation drive nears completion. But for those trying to analyse how it’s gone so far, I have the greatest sympathy.
In the absence of exit polls, they will have to take on faith the analysis of Indian experts—including that of many of my colleagues—that no clear winner has yet emerged. There is no state-wide “wave” in favour of any of the three contenders: the Samajwadi Party (SP)-Congress alliance, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), or the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Beyond that safe bet, any prediction of the outcome seems to me as much gamble as analysis.
For my own part, I used the trip to try and understand, not how the vote might go but what is in the minds of voters—the distinction is important. More specifically, I wanted to know if voters are inclined to break from the pattern of caste- and faith-based voting that has characterized the state elections for as long as I can remember. The picture that emerged was, you will not be surprised to know, complex and open to more than one conclusion.
Here are mine: voters appear closer than ever to breaking away from the old bloc politics, but many are hesitant to take the final leap; those who make the jump will be influenced more by personalities than by issues. Over and over, I heard people say they would vote for the SP or the BSP, but that they admired Prime Minister Modi as a leader; or that they would vote for the BJP, but thought highly of chief minister Akhilesh Yadav.
I also met some who self-identified as traditional SP or Congress voters and were minded to switch to the BSP, but interestingly, none of them expressed admiration for Mayawati’s leadership qualities. They seemed to be guided more by her party’s choice of candidates, by the calculations of caste and creed, and by the need to defeat the BJP. This view was the strongest among Muslim voters in Lucknow, who assured me that their hearts were with Akhilesh, but that they had picked the BSP candidates because they were likelier to win.
This pattern of voters expressing a liking for one leader but voting for another party was striking and consistent, and when I described it to a colleague in Delhi, he offered a uniquely Indian analogy: These people are saying they would ideally like to have a love marriage, but that they will probably settle for the spouse chosen by their parents.
How will this affect the outcome? That will depend on how many voters made the leap of faith (or will do, for those in the remaining two rounds) at the moment of truth, in the polling booth. Those who allowed their hearts to lead them beyond older political impulses would for the most part have picked Modi, or Yadav, those who went with their heads will more likely have opted for Mayawati’s BSP.
These voters will determine the final result. Their numbers will be small, but in a tight three-way race, they will have a disproportionate impact. For even the most perceptive India-watchers abroad, this makes the outcome on 11 March fiendishly difficult to predict. Perhaps there will be some consolation in knowing that it’s no less difficult for those in Lucknow, Rae Bareli, Allahabad or Varanasi.
Bobby Ghosh is the editor-in-chief of HT Digital Streams.