Uttar Pradesh is a hotbed of communal polarization simply because this strategy works for parties, past data shows. Election surveys suggest that political parties have benefited immensely from votes polarized on the basis of community
Voters in Uttar Pradesh are all set to participate in one of the most significant state elections ahead of the Lok Sabha polls of 2024. Communal politics appears to be key on the agenda, and parties are speaking with religious undertones to win hearts. This is true for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), too, which otherwise claims to be seeking votes in the name of development work. Uttar Pradesh is a hotbed of communal polarization simply because this strategy works for parties, past data shows.
Election surveys suggest that political parties have benefited immensely from votes polarized on the basis of community. The state’s 19.3% Muslim population—among the highest shares for an Indian state—makes the community electorally significant. While one set of parties tries to win the favour of Muslim voters, another tries to appeal to the opposing majoritarian Hindu sentiment.
Muslim voters are spread across Uttar Pradesh, but more so in the Ruhelkhand and western regions, where the community has a 35% and 32% population share, respectively. Thirty of the 403 Assembly constituencies have 40% or more Muslim population. Another 43 seats have the share between 30% and 40%. These seats end up being the prime target of polarized politics.
For the BJP, the communal campaign pitch is aimed at mobilizing the Hindu majority. The Samajwadi Party (SP), out of power since 2017, is not lagging behind, using symbols and slogans aimed at consolidating the Muslim base. The party feels the key to success in 2022 will depend heavily on how Muslims vote, as it saw in 2017.
Voting on religious lines has helped the BJP in Uttar Pradesh in successive elections, with Hindus favouring the party in large numbers. The data from the post-poll surveys conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) indicate that close to half of all Hindu voters in Uttar Pradesh picked the BJP in 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections and also during the 2017 assembly elections.
Even in the elections that the BJP lost, the party managed to mobilize a good number of Hindu voters in its favour.
Similarly, the SP is able to mobilize the Muslim voter base in large chunks. Even in instances when the Muslim vote got divided among the SP, the Congress and the Bahujan Samaj Party, it was the SP that was the biggest beneficiary. In 2019, nearly one-third Muslim voters picked the SP, which otherwise lost the polls heavily.
However, political parties that depend on Muslim votes cannot fully ignore Hindus either. In the 2017 elections, the BJP managed to sweep elections in nearly all constituencies where Muslims were 30-40% in number. With Hindu polarization strong in the BJP’s favour, other parties could not win solely with Muslim support.
This polarization works better for the BJP as it’s easier to mobilize the larger Hindu vote towards itself. On the contrary, the party fails to do well when the Muslim population crosses 40%.
In 2017, even when the BJP won Uttar Pradesh by an overwhelming majority, the SP managed to win nearly half of the Assembly seats where Muslims constitute more than 40% of the base. The BJP lost 60% of such seats despite getting more votes than the SP, a clear indication of the electoral power of the Muslim community in these constituencies and of the polarization of votes.
A high-pitch communal campaign is also aimed at winning the favour of swing voters—those who take their voting decision just a few days before the polling. Swing voters are usually those who are not party loyalists, but go by factors such as candidates and issues. They often end up voting for the party that looks close to winning in their assessment.
Uttar Pradesh has roughly 25% swing voters, show estimates from the CSDS surveys. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, 41% of the swing voters in the state picked the party they felt would win, while only 8% voted for the party they believed would lose. The swing towards the winning party is greater among Muslims: half of the voters from the community who were surveyed said they picked the party that was likely to win. No wonder, the communal campaign is also a way to target swing voters.
(Sanjay Kumar is a professor at CSDS, and a political analyst.)
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