The message from voters in Uttar Pradesh

That BJP has registered two landslide election victories in Uttar Pradesh in last three years suggests a tectonic shift is underway in voting patterns of the state


The BJP won 71 Lok Sabha seats and 312 assembly seats in Uttar Pradesh in 2014 general and 2017 assembly elections, respectively, challenging the votebank and caste politics that is prevalent in the state. Photo: AFP
The BJP won 71 Lok Sabha seats and 312 assembly seats in Uttar Pradesh in 2014 general and 2017 assembly elections, respectively, challenging the votebank and caste politics that is prevalent in the state. Photo: AFP

In the euphoria of the historic win by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Uttar Pradesh (excluding the first election in 1951)—312 is the largest number of seats won by any party in any assembly poll—there is a risk of overlooking one key message from the voter: the emerging fault lines in social identity.

In the normal course, going by traditional voting patterns based on the social identity of caste and religion, approximately one-third of the votes in Uttar Pradesh are ranged against the BJP even before elections are called.

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Yet, in 2014 and once again on Saturday, the BJP pulled off spectacular victories; in the 16th general election, it won 71 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats and three years later, 325 (with allies) out of 403 seats in the just-concluded assembly polls—giving it over three-fourth majority. Clearly, neither win—both led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi—could have been possible without breaking the confines of social identity.

And this is precisely what happened in the case of Dalit voting patterns in the assembly elections. Data mapped by howindialives.com—see chart— of the 140 assembly constituencies in Uttar Pradesh where the Dalit population is above 23%, reveals this very clearly. In 2012, these assembly segments had voted solidly for the Samajwadi Party and also backed the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Congress. In contrast, in 2017, these assembly constituencies shifted entirely to the BJP, something which could not have happened without the dilution of social identity among Dalit voters (among them, the Jatavs have always stayed loyal to the BSP, while the non-Jatavs have flirted with the other options). This is exactly what transpired in 2014.

The obvious question is whether this is a structural shift or a one-off gain inspired by a Modi wave. The fact that it has happened twice in three years suggests that a tectonic shift is underway in voter preferences in UP.

The next question then is why this is happening. A simple answer is that the Modi policy preference for empowerment over entitlement seems to be resonating with the electorate. While he has retained (despite a sharp critique) the rural employment guarantee scheme introduced by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, the PM has pursued a larger strategy of economic empowerment seeking to bring the so-called bottom of the pyramid into the formal economy. And this has been scripted through various Union government programmes like financial inclusion (Jan Dhan), electricity for all, loans for small entrepreneurs through the Mudra Bank and provision of subsidized cooking gas to households (with the LPG connection in the name of female members of households) living below the poverty line.

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Each of these initiatives is a baby step for the entry of the otherwise economically disenfranchised poor into the formal economy. Clearly, this ties in with their aspirations; after all, a better material basis provides greater ballast to empowerment. And more importantly, Modi has in the process made class war, which transcends social identity, as the voter metric—at least to some segments of the population.

The fact that the demography is now overwhelmingly young and, hence, not easily bound by tradition or convention, only makes it easier for voters to overlook social identity in deciding their preferences.

It is clear then that Indian politics, at least politics in Uttar Pradesh, is in ferment.

While social identity based on caste has fallen victim to this churn, the real test will be when the religious divide is similarly challenged.

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Anil Padmanabhan is executive editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. His Twitter handle is @capitalcalculus.

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