Home / Opinion / Columns /  Electoral results in UP were a watershed for the BJP

During my fieldwork this February in western Uttar Pradesh (UP), I spent more than two weeks travelling across Muzaffarnagar, Budhana, Shamli and many adjacent villages and small towns to get a feel of the state’s assembly-election pulse. Among others, I visited the village of the late Mahendra Singh Tikait and interviewed his son, Naresh Tikait. No hoardings or placards of either Prime Minister Narendra Modi or chief minister Yogi Adityanath or any leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were visible in the bazaar or roadside shops in this region, which is uncharacteristic of a BJP campaign. I also argued that BJP was about to lose the polls, which turned out to be the case in the region where I was doing fieldwork, but not in other parts of UP. One of my local contacts in the western belt, a Samajwadi Party (SP) supporter, explained the post-result scenario as follows: “There is disappointment here. We have won, but we cannot celebrate. And BJP is going to form the government, but here BJP leaders have lost, so they cannot celebrate either. We all feel like losers." But the uneven appeal of the BJP and its main contender, the Samajwadi gathbandhan (alliance), in various regions presented poll observers a big challenge.

In the BJP’s electoral history since its inception in 1980, the 2022 results should be considered its third watershed moment, the other two being the Parliamentary polls in 1989 when it secured 85 seats compared to just two in 1984 and the 2014 national election when the party won a majority on its own. The BJP’s victory in the recent state elections, particularly in India’s most populous state, has not only laid an enabling electoral foundation for Modi as a third-term prime minister, come 2024, it has consolidated Hindutva politics almost beyond redemption. During the 1990s, when caste-based parties such as the SP and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) began expanding their social bases in UP and undermining the BJP’s Hindutva politics, some scholars interpreted it as a deepening of democracy. Three decades later, as the latest results have confirmed, what’s in evidence is a shift of electoral trends from a deepening of democracy to a deepening of Hindutva.

Among this year’s assembly poll outcomes, the ejection from power in Punjab of the Congress party was unmistakably attributable to an anti-incumbency vote. The same cannot be said of the BJP that retained power in UP. Reason: the BJP received nearly 42% of the votes polled this time, a 2% rise from its 39.6% share in 2017. So any votes that swung away over five years were more than compensated for by vote gains made by the ruling party in Lucknow. However, anecdotal accounts have been aplenty of voters sharing their grievances against UP’s Yogi government. The party’s vote-share gain did not increase its seats in the UP assembly. The BJP won 255 seats this time, a reduction from 312 in 2017. That this happened despite its rise in vote share could be attributed to complexities in the conversion of votes into seats brought about by our first-past- the-post system in a fierce multi-cornered contest at the constituency level. What appears to be an anomaly here is indeed an electoral reality in multi-party Indian elections. India’s first-past-the-post electoral system also explains the disproportionately poor seat conversion of the BSP, which now has only one seat in the UP assembly despite having won a 12.8% vote share; whereas in 1993, the same party had won 67 seats with a share of 11.2%. In other words, the BSP once had 66 seats more even with a lower vote share. The outcome this time in terms of seats could have been discouraging for the BJP if there had been more effective opposition unity, which could have reduced its seat-conversion rate owing to more direct electoral contests at the constituency level, and the party might even have lost power if at least the BSP and Congress had chosen to be aligned with Samajwadi gathbandhan.

Regardless of results, most major parties in the UP election campaigned with great enthusiasm, as apparent in the number of rallies they organized. Priyanka Gandhi of the Congress addressed 209 rallies/roadshows, more than any other party organized in this election, while BSP leader Mayawati addressed only 20. The BJP’s Yogi Adityanath addressed 203 rallies, as opposed to 131 by the SP’s Akhilesh Yadav. Campaigning by Modi made a difference too. However, if we juxtapose rally data with the seats these parties won, it is apparent there was no direct relationship between the number of rallies/roadshows held by a party and the number of seats won. Put differently, while these events do create a spectacle, their impact on outcomes may be weaker than many believe.

It comes down to a party’s ability to convert support into seats and that depends on the party organization. Not enough credit has been given in commentaries on the BJP’s 2022 success to the nitty-gritty of its vote-canvassing machinery, an operational aspect that gives it an advantage. One remarkable aspect of the BJP’s organizational transformation in recent years is its ability to win elections despite some anti-incumbency, and how it takes control of the narrative that feeds into voting decisions.

Shaikh Mujibur Rehman teaches at Jamia Millia Islamia and is the author of the forthcoming book ‘Shikwa-e-Hind: The Political Future of Indian Muslims’ 

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