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The biggest test for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections lies in Uttar Pradesh in 2022. India’s largest and electorally-most-consequential state has been a party bastion since 2017 but there are some signs of waning support in recent months.

The disenchantment with chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s handling of covid and farmers’ disenchantment with the central government over the controversial farm reform bills have given the opposition a fresh lease of life in the state. This was apparent in the recently held panchayat elections, where the party’s performance was less impressive than expected.

Yet, BJP’s odds in Uttar Pradesh are higher than that of any rival party. Unlike the BJP’s solid support base, the opposition vote in the state is fragmented, making it very difficult for any single party to defeat the ruling party. The likely focus of the election discourse on Ram Mandir and core Hindutva issues is also likely to benefit the party.

More than anything, it is the multi-cornered contest in the state that plays to BJP’s advantage. The BJP along with its allies polled more than 45% votes in the last three electoral contests in UP (Lok Sabha elections in 2014 and 2019, and 2017 assembly elections) while its key state rivals, Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) each commanded roughly 20 % votes. With Congress vote share below 10%, the BJP has always had a lead of over 10 percentage points over its nearest rival. In other words, the division in opposition votes works in favour of the BJP.

Mind the Gap

Even when the SP and the BSP came together in the 2019 elections, the BJP’s vote-share was still 10 percentage points higher than their combined vote share. But that was also a Lok Sabha election, where BJP has had a better showing than in state assembly elections. It is possible that the SP-BSP alliance, had it lasted, would have been able to narrow the difference with the BJP in the upcoming assembly polls. That rapprochement is unlikely though, both parties have made it clear.

Which means that any challenger to the BJP has to wean away a large chunk of the BJP’s vote-base in order to be able to defeat the BJP. It is worth noting that while BJP has suffered setbacks in assembly elections since 2014, never has the party’s vote-share seen a double digit decline in any of the states ruled by it. And that’s what would be required to dislodge the BJP government from UP.

Hindu Consolidation

It is possible to imagine large vote swings in a state with a bi-polar contest, where disenchantment with one party immediately benefits the other since there are only two viable choices. But it is rare to see such large swings in a multi-polar contest, as Uttar Pradesh polls are expected to be.

What makes such prospects even more difficult is the BJP’s successful widening of its social base over the past several years. Without losing support of the upper castes, the party has been able to win support from non-dominant backward castes to stitch together a broad Hindu coalition of voters.

By portraying the SP as a party that caters largely to Yadav interests, BJP has been able to make inroads into the non-Yadav OBC communities. Similarly, it has been successful in securing the support of non-Jatav Dalit voters by casting the BSP as a Jatav-dominated party.

Opposition Disunity

The BJP would also gain in UP from the division of votes among communities staunchly opposed to it: Muslims, who comprise 19% of the electorate, Yadavs who comprise 11% of the state’s electorate, and Jatavs, who comprise 12% of the electorate. The inability of these three communities to unite and vote for one party plays into the hands of the BJP.

The Muslim vote base is divided among the SP, BSP and Congress in different proportions. Yadavs have remained polarized in favour of SP, but SP’s inability to mobilise adequate numbers of Muslim voters means that it has lost out to the BJP in recent years. The BSP still commands a solid support base among Jatavs but the party’s inability to mobilize votes from other communities means that it will struggle to pose a challenge to the BJP.

The upshot: the BJP could very well reclaim Lucknow despite the visible signs of disenchantment against the Uttar Pradesh state government.

Sanjay Kumar is a professor at CSDS, and a political analyst.

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