Photo: Hindustan Times
Photo: Hindustan Times

A long road for the BJP in Uttar Pradesh

Leaders from different castes may defect to another party but they may not be able to carry with them their vote banks

It may seem like there are many reasons for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to be happy about the political developments taking place within various other parties in Uttar Pradesh (UP), primarily the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), and the Congress. But if these make the BJP confident of winning the forthcoming assembly election, then that would be a big mistake.

For example, a large number of leaders from the BSP (sitting members of legislative assembly as well as others) and some from the SP have defected to the BJP in the last few months, but that is no indication of the BJP’s growing support base in the state. Similarly, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s padyatra and his party’s “Khaat Sabha" do not seem to be attracting voters in large numbers. As for the ruling party, the turf war within its first family has certainly dented its image, but these must not be misinterpreted as signs of BJP’s rising popularity in UP. This is not to say that the BJP has nothing to gain from the setbacks suffered by its rivals, but the extent of the gain may not be as much as the party hopes. Studies conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) indicate that voters in UP remain sharply polarized along caste lines even a few months before the election. Leaders from different castes may defect from one party to another but it is important to note that they may not be able to carry with them their vote banks. In other words, yes, defections to the BJP help in creating a positive mood in favour of the party, but these may not help the party in substantially expanding its support base.

The defections began with Swami Prasad Maurya quitting the BSP while accusing chief Mayawati of corruption and auctioning party tickets; then R.K. Chaudhary, Bala Awasthi and Brijesh Verma followed in his footsteps and all joined the BJP. The BSP’s troubles continued as four other MLAs—Harvinder Kumar (other backward class or OBC), Mahavir Rana (upper caste), Roshanlal Verma (OBC) and Om Kumar (Jatav)—also joined the BJP.

The corruption charges against Mayawati might sully the image of her party to some extent, but it’s doubtful if this will have any serious impact on the core support base of the BSP. The Dalits, more so the Jatavs, are likely to vote for the BSP in large numbers irrespective of these defections. Studies have indicated that even during the 2014 Lok Sabha election, when the BSP drew a blank in the state, a sizeable number of Dalits voted for the party and were not swept up in the state-wide BJP wave. For the SP, the very public fight within the Yadav clan involving patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav, his brothers Shivpal and Ram Gopal, and his son and current chief minister Akhilesh, has undoubtedly had an adverse impact. But there is still no reason to believe that the family feud will result in the SP losing its traditional voters, the Yadavs and the Muslims.

CSDS studies indicate that the Yadavs have voted for the SP in very large numbers (roughly between 65-75%) in successive elections. Similarly, the Muslim voters, who comprise 18% of the UP electorate, have always voted for the SP. There is no reason to suspect that they will shift their loyalty away from the SP during the forthcoming election unless the fight intensifies to the extent that there is a spilt in the party.

Notably, a recent study clearly indicated that the Akhilesh Yadav government is not being seen in poor light by the people of UP. In fact, the work done by the government in the area of roads, electricity, schools and hospitals is much appreciated. It is only on the issue of farmer welfare that the people are questioning the work of the government. They also seem to be unhappy about petty crime and lawlessness in the state.

The problem for the Congress is not only that its vote share has declined below 10%, but also that the party does not have any core support base like other parties. The party is trying hard to mobilize upper-caste voters, mainly Brahmins, by projecting Sheila Dikshit, a Brahmin, as its chief ministerial candidate, and Rajputs, by making Sanjay Singh the chief campaigner. It is also mobilizing Muslim voters, but I doubt that the party will be able to mobilize sizeable numbers of upper caste and Muslim voters. The party is left with votes largely in the urban constituencies. For any party to win an election in a state predominantly rural, it needs to have a strong support base in rural constituencies. The party’s strategy to take up the cause of the farmers, who are in a bad economic condition, seems a good strategy, but this process may take much longer than the time left for the election.

The BJP may seem to be the front runner in this election at this moment, but it can at best look towards the upper castes as its vote bank. But the problem is that no party, including the BJP, can be confident of scripting a victory if it depends only on its core supporters. The BJP, like any other party, will need additional votes if it wants to be anywhere close to winning the election. Having given the party’s state command to Keshav Maurya, a lower OBC by caste (Koeri), and with Swami Prasad Maurya also having defected to its side, the party seems well placed to mobilize the lower OBC (excluding Yadavs) voters.

Surveys indicate that a few months before the election, about 38% of the OBCs (excluding Yadavs) have indicated that they will be voting for the BJP, and another 23% will be casting their ballot in favour of the BSP. The SP is estimated to corner about 19% of the votes while 15% will go to other parties. The BJP seems to have a lead among the OBCs. However, this may not be enough for the party to be sure of a victory. The BJP needs to polarize the OBC in its favour. The question is: Will the symbolic presence of leaders from the lower OBC castes be enough or will the party have to do more to mobilize the voters?

Sanjay Kumar is a professor and currently the director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). These are his personal views.

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