Image Credit: www.swarajyamag.com
My co-authored article with Subhash Chandra originally posted on Swarajya.
The importance of Uttar Pradesh polls to BJP is clearly understood than said. After a loss in the Hindi heartland of Bihar, UP is considered a must-win state by many of its supporters. Any loss in Lucknow will be a confidence booster to the ‘Modi Hatao’ campaign.
The big discussion among observers and supporters is whether BJP must announce a CM candidate or not. The argument for the announcement is that with strong CM candidates like Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav, it is important for BJP to name one. The recent experience in Assam also suggests that naming a CM candidate is a safe bet.
Our experience in one state election after another since 2011 suggests that having strong CM candidates is a huge positive factor in elections. In Bengal 2016 for example, our surveys in March told us that many likely BJP and Congress voters would probably vote for Mamata because Suryakanta Mishra was nowhere in the picture as far as leadership was concerned. On the other hand, in TN we anticipated a close race because Stalin was doing quite well among young voters and women. So, given this context, it is fairly obvious that the BJP must announce a CM candidate in Uttar Pradesh.
While there are many arguments (as above) in favour of a CM candidate in UP, let us consider the political circumstances of the State. The following chart lists vote share data for the last six elections (Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha) in Uttar Pradesh.The purpose of the graph is to highlight the volatility of vote shares for each voting group and reliance on specific voting groups and no interpretations are to be made with respect to the likely vote shares in 2017.
There are three trends that are obvious
1. SP has the most stable vote base hovering between 22.3 percent and 26.7 percent with a spike in 2012 taking it to three percent above its previous peak. This is because, by and large, the Yadav-Muslim voters have been strongly and steadily in support of the Samajwadi Party. The party was able to gather additional votes from less steady voting block like Thakurs, other OBC youth and Dalits who may have voted Akhilesh in 2012. However, the SP’s ability to attract voters outside its main voting block is limited thereby building high dependency on Yadavs and Muslims but providing it less volatility in vote share.
2. BSP has been trending downwards from its peak of 30 percent and in 2014 reached closer to its previous low of 2002. BSP’s core Jatav voting block is much smaller than the Yadav-Muslim combination and therefore the party has had to work harder to build numerous cross-caste combinations (Brahmin mostly) plus bring along a myriad of other groups including Muslims, other scheduled castes and some EBCs. Apart from the Jatav voters, all the other groups are constantly wooed by other voting groups making it extremely difficult for the BSP to sustain its overall vote share.
3. BJP was trending downwards from 2004 onwards and then dramatically swung upwards in 2014. BJP’s core upper caste vote has been trending towards until 2012 as some of them defected to BSP or SP depending on who they thought had a better chance as a winner or depending on the amount of effort put by those two parties in wooing Brahmins and Rajputs. In 2014, the game changed. BJP went all out to win most of the upper caste vote and a big proportion of the non-Jatav SC, non-Yadav OBC vote (about 35-40 percent of total electorate). It also won some of the youth vote among even Jatav voters. This created a temporary new voting block of all segments that are at some level in competition with BSP and SP’s core voting blocks. In many ways the BJP managed to end the caste-based split in votes riding on the development agenda of Modi.
Understanding the three pillars of BJP’s strategy in UP 2017
Given the above context and experience in the state, the BJP will be contesting the elections with a three pillar strategy that is meant for winning most of the vote outside the core SP and BSP votes. These constitute about 60 percent of all votes. Each of these pillars are targeted towards certain segments. Different set of leaders / organizations will be responsible for carrying out these strategies.
1. Development & Good Governance
A set of leaders mostly national including the PM & Modi will sell the development track record of Modi at the center and in Gujarat. High GDP growth, low inflation, record FDI, Make in India, Digital India, turnaround of railways & highways, Swacch Bharat, Jan Dhan etc. The people of UP will be bombarded with these successful schemes. The target will be youth who want jobs as well as retaining most of the urban vote. The state lags in development indicators like low per capita GDP. Modi will pitch to sell his trademark dream. Given the overall ratings of the BJP government in the centre, this will have a lot of credibility.
2. Forming a social umbrella cutting across caste lines
While development did trump caste in 2014 LS polls, importance of caste cannot be ruled out. People vote along caste lines in UP and it is no secret. Majority of Jatavs voted for Mayawati and Yadavs for Mulayam even in 2014. Amit Shah, Om Mathur and regional leaders will be the ones responsible for this strategy. Alliances with small parties having presence in a particular caste are being targeted – Apna Dal, Bharat Samaj Party as examples. The aim of this strategy is to mop up small groups of OBC voters apart from winning most of the upper caste rural vote.
3. Consolidation of Hindu votes
This is key to BJP’s victory. Leaders like Mahesh Sharma, Yogi Adityanath will be selectively used to implement strategy. The beef murder issue is back and this will provide fillip. Any attempts by SP to polarize the minority community will give a fillip to this strategy. Separately, the Ram temple issue is being played up by Subramanian Swamy. It is debatable whether this issue still has any takers. It is an emotive issue and has its appeal with a section of voters especially in Ayodhya belt (73 seats). That said, consolidation of Hindu votes in high Muslim population constituencies will not only consolidate the above two segments but also deliver votes from core SP and BSP voters as well.
In order for BJP to be successful in implementing this strategy well in 2017 (like they did in 2014), they need a leader who represents all of these pillars. Modi in 2014 represented all of these values leading to a historic mandate. None of the current leaders in UP are in a position to represent all the three pillars of the strategy. The closest someone comes to it are Varun Gandhi and Smriti Irani. It is no surprise that these two names are also being floated the most on social media. However, while they may do a better job than most other current UP leaders in representing these pillars, they come with big risks. It is unclear whether Varun Gandhi has sufficient maturity and experience to carry the party along with him. Further, he has no experience in governance. Smriti Irani has great oratorical skills but runs the risk of being portrayed as a bahari (outsider).
Are there risks in not portraying a leader?
Unlike Bihar, the risks are far lesser. Nitish enjoyed a 60 percent plus satisfaction rating when the BJP contested against him in 2015. Neither Mayawati nor Akhilesh enjoy those kind of ratings. Also, Nitish commanded good respect and faced less anti-incumbency. Even at a 50 percent satisfaction rating, Akhilesh cannot shift large number of voters from outside the caste base because those voting blocks are likely to have a better offer from the BJP’s 3 pillar strategy. Further he is facing strong headwinds mostly on account of no development and deteriorating law and order in the state.
Mayawati, the maverick and charismatic leader is likely to be far more circumspect given her poor performances recently and thin vote base. While she has less alienation issues, her core base is much smaller making her job much more difficult compared to the Samajwadi Party. However, aggressive pillar no. 3 strategy has the potential of counter consolidation of minority community votes. BSP is seen as the front runner in UP as per initial opinion polls with BJP a close second. If BSP gets a significant chunk of these votes, then the gap between BJP and the BSP alliance would be much lesser than the 2014 election. In line with this strategy, Mayawati has demanded reservation for the minorities and other economically backward class people belonging to other castes (including upper castes).
The only joker in the pack is the Congress party. It is unclear how Prashant Kishor’s (PK) strategy plays out by the end of the year. What is clear is that the Congress party will align with someone, probably the BSP. However, it is unlikely that all the Congress voters will shift to the BSP/SP (as seen in Bengal and other past elections). But, BJP has to be wary of the game plan of PK to target Brahmin voters. A section of Brahmins (floating voters) not happy with BJP’s aggressively wooing OBCs /Dalits may shift to grand old party, if it projects a Brahmin CM or allies with BSP like they did in 2007 and 2012. Further, the BSP is toying with the idea of reservations for upper castes. This can hurt the BJP and projection of a leader may not necessarily solve this problem.
Therefore the most optimal solution for the BJP would be to maintain focus on the 3 broad pillars and project leaders who are seen as credible surrogates for those pillars. This could help mobilise a far larger and wider set of voters and deliver a bumper harvest for BJP in 2017.