With the crucial state of Uttar Pradesh in election mode, a series of opinion polls and now exit polls of the first phase of elections have predicted a close race between the ruling Samajwadi Party and the rival Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), with some giving a lead to the former and others the latter.
Based on my experience of many elections, the assembly elections in UP promise to be quite different in the sense that they promise to usher in positive changes in voter behaviour.
Except for the Bofors-centric 1989 Lok Sabha elections, and the 1991 assembly elections in the backdrop of the emotive Mandal-mandir issue, hardly any election was fought on issues in UP. The growing dominance of regional, caste-based parties—the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party—turned the state into a den of caste politics, where governance was relegated to the background.
But now, for the first time in nearly two decades, Uttar Pradesh seems to be voting not just on caste lines, but on governance issues as well.
Law and order and poor administration have emerged as high salience issues in this election, where the incumbent Samajwadi Party-led government has had a dismal track record. The BSP is the principal beneficiary of this public anger as Mayawati’s track record in maintaining law and order and controlling administration is perceived to be far better.
The electoral race in Uttar Pradesh is far from being close—unlike what opinion and exit polls seem to suggest—and the BSP is likely to win anywhere upward of 180 seats in the 403-member-strong assembly. Given the groundswell in its favour, the BSP’s tally may well go past the halfway mark and may even touch a tally of 230 seats.
The BSP’s success is scripted by Mayawati’s strategy of expanding her social base by nominating a large number of candidates from different communities, who are not her traditional supporters. This strategy of forging grass-roots alliances, coupled with the anti-incumbency sentiment against Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party government, is likely to catapult her to a majority in the assembly.
The Samajwadi Party appears nowhere in the reckoning for power and is trailing badly, primarily competing for the second slot with the BJP. The problem for the Samajwadi Party is that the poor law and order in the state has got so focused in this election that even the slick advertising campaign involving Amitabh Bachchan, who is otherwise a respected figure in the state, has become a subject of ridicule and public anger.
After the gains in Punjab, Uttaranchal assembly elections and Delhi municipal polls, the BJP will have to remain content with a mediocre performance in Uttar Pradesh. The party is in the race for the second slot and is generally expected to do well mostly in urban seats. The party’s president, Rajnath Singh, who hails from Uttar Pradesh, will find it difficult to keep his job if the party fares much worse than in the last assembly elections, when it won 88 seats.
The UP election does not hold much to cheer for the Congress party as well, which is likely to improve its vote share but not make big gains in terms of seats. However, the party’s gamble for the Muslim vote may pay off in future if the Samajwadi Party loses substantial ground in this election. From that perspective, a massive defeat of the Samajwadi Party—its bete noire in politics—will be viewed as a pyrrhic victory for the Congress.
Elections to the UP assembly are very significant, given its size and propensity to steer the course of national politics. The state had signalled the emergence of coalition politics with the decline of the Congress in the late ’80s. For both the national parties, the Congress and the BJP, regaining the lost ground in the battleground of Uttar Pradesh is an electoral imperative to emerge stronger at the national level. While this election is sure to leave both the Congress and the BJP disappointed, the declining influence of caste voting and the prominence of issue voting in the UP’s political scene augur well for the national parties.
The UP election is so competitive that a marginal shift in votes can significantly alter the election outcome. Given this volatility and the multi-cornered nature of contests, this election may tarnish the reputation of many a pollster who will have to run for cover when the actual results come.
The key issue in this election is not about who forms the next government.
The only question is whether Mayawati’s BSP secures a majority on its own or needs some support from other quarters for forming a government.
However, in my assessment, the odds are heavily in favour of Mayawati forming a government with a majority of her own.
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director, Development and Research Services, a research and consulting firm in New Delhi. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org