Despite a high-profile campaign led by Priyanka Gandhi and others, the odds seem stacked against a Congress resurgence in the state
The Cong’s performance in UP will be crucial for its overall success in 2019 because of the state’s centrality in India’s politics
On Monday in Lucknow, amid much fanfare, the Congress, led by Priyanka Gandhi and others, launched their general election campaign in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous and politically important state. Charged with restoring the fortunes of India’s grand old party in the state, Gandhi faces an uphill task. The performance of the Congress party in Uttar Pradesh since 1996 has been dismal—both in the general and assembly elections.
The Congress’s performance in Uttar Pradesh will be crucial for its overall success in 2019 because of the state’s centrality in India’s politics. The road to Delhi, as the adage goes, is via Lucknow. The state contributes 80 members of Parliament (MPs) to the Lok Sabha (15% of the total strength) and in recent years, MPs from the state have contributed around 20% of seats for the ruling coalition. For instance, in the current government, 71 Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MPs hail from Uttar Pradesh.
The BJP’s resounding victory in the 2014 general elections was a result of their sweep of the Hindi belt—at the heart of which was their success in Uttar Pradesh. Such was the BJP’s dominance in Uttar Pradesh that they completely usurped the state’s major regional parties—the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samajwadi Party (BSP)—which had dominated the state’s politics since 1996. In contrast, when the Congress were in power as part of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in 2009, they had to rely heavily on outside support from both the BSP and SP to form the government.
The Congress has generally struggled in Uttar Pradesh elections. In 2014, they only won a paltry two seats and even in their best performance in 2009 they could only achieve 22 seats. In most Uttar Pradesh constituencies, the Congress has been a fringe player ranking third or below.
And in 2019, the Congress will face the additional threat of the BSP-SP alliance. Although the BSP was blanked out in the 2014 general elections and the SP managed a tally of only six seats, collectively the BSP-SP combine stood second in a total of 65 seats, suggesting that votes were distributed between the two parties. Therefore, while the pre-poll alliance makes sense for both parties, it will hurt the Congress who would be resigned to playing second fiddle to the BSP-SP alliance. Paradoxically, a good performance by the Congress might actually play into the BJP’s hands as the Congress might eat into the BSP-SP vote share, reducing their winning tally.
The scale of the Congress challenge in Uttar Pradesh can be better understood by analysing vote share over time. Since 1996, and apart from 2009, the Congress has struggled to secure truly significant vote share. In contrast, the BSP and SP have collectively captured a large proportion of the vote-share. However, by virtue of being direct rivals, they failed to convert this overwhelming vote share into a higher collective seat-share. Even in 2014, we observe that despite the BJP’s dominant victory, its vote-share was neck and neck with that of the BSP-SP combine.
Given the alliance, if the vote-share across parties remains consistent in 2019, the BJP’s tally of seats could potentially be halved.
The Congress has struggled to gain traction across all regions of the state. With Priyanka Gandhi’s appointment as the party’s general-secretary in Uttar Pradesh-East, the party is attempting to overturn its fortunes in the region where it performed the worst in 2014, and expand its base beyond its traditional stronghold of Avadh which includes Amethi and Rae Bareli.
While the BJP secured a significantly higher vote-share in western Uttar Pradesh, in the rest of the state, its vote share was roughly the same as the SP-BSP combine, with the regional parties’ combine having a slight edge in most regions.
Indian politics can be notoriously difficult to predict but the data points to a close two-horse race between BJP and the BSP-SP alliance. And unless Priyanka Gandhi sparks a remarkable resurgence, the Congress will remain a fringe player.