Narendra Modi won’t find Uttar Pradesh a cake walk, here’s why
Many in the commentariat are excitedly predicting a BJP sweep in at next month’s Lok Sabha elections. It is being argued that BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi’s nomination from Varanasi has so electrified the 133 million voters in India’s most populous state that his party could win 35-40 of its 80 seats.
No one has yet explained just how Modi’s mere candidature from the temple town would ensure wins for random BJP candidates elsewhere in the state. Hurriedly rejected is any suggestion that the deeply entrenched caste politics, which has long shaped electoral outcomes in the cow belt state, may stump the so-called ‘Modi wave’.
Of India’s soon-to-be 29 states, UP elects the most to the 545-member Lok Sabha. The two BJP-led governments in 1998-2004 were made possible only because the party won big in UP. Modi won’t become prime minister unless the BJP reverses its recent fate in the state, where it won only 10 seats in each of the last two elections. Hence, proponents of the ‘Modi wave‘ claim UP’s voters will eschew caste loyalties and vote for Modi next month as his ‘development’ of Gujarat, where he has been chief minister since 2001, has impressed them. In truth, though, the BJP might end up far short.
That is because the Samajwadi Party (SP), which runs UP’s state government, and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the main opposition in the state, stand like rocks in the BJP’s way. Statistical evidence suggests the two parties may have permanently rewritten electoral equations in UP giving it a political reality which is markedly different from the one that allowed the BJP to blossom in the UP of the 1990s. Evidently, the SP and the BSP now have a chokehold over their respective vote-banks of the backward castes and the Dalits regardless of a rout or a landslide win for either.
The results of the 2012 assembly elections in the state prove that without doubt. The SP won a massive 223 seats in the 403-seat UP assembly, phenomenally improving on its previous tally of 97 seats. With this win, the SP ousted the BSP government, whose seat share went down from 206 to 80, a comprehensive rout. But the difference in vote shares? SP scored 29.29 percent votes whereas the BSP got 25.95 percent – a difference only of 3.34 percent.
How parties have performed in Uttar Pradesh
So sweeping is that hold that in the last Lok Sabha election of 2009 the SP and the BSP took over 50 percent votes on 44 seats in UP — more than half the state’s total. (On 19 of these, or nearly one in four overall, the two raked over 60 percent of the vote, leaving fewer crumbs for the BJP.) On another 18 seats, together SP and BSP took between 40 and 50 percent of the votes. Contesting on 71 of the state’s 80 seats, the BJP trailed the SP and the BSP in as many as 30 seats. In fact, the BJP was not even the runner-up in 50 seats — so much for its claim that it owns the North Indian heart.
Furthermore, the party was third or fourth in 17 other seats, despite fetching 20-30 percent of the vote. And being third was often no consolation. In Hardoi near Lucknow, the BJP was third but got only 9 percent of the votes while the BSP and the SP took 86 percent.
Overall, the BJP was fourth on 17 seats and fifth on three. It fetched under 10 percent on 14 seats — one in every five it fought in UP — at 2.8, 3, 4, 5, 5, 6, 6, 7, 8, 8, 8, 8, 9 and 9 percents. It even yielded the second spot to the BSP in Rae Bareli, where Congress president Sonia Gandhi won, and Amethi, where Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi won.
Stunningly, the BJP lost its security deposit — polling less than one-sixth of the total vote — on 29 Lok Sabha seats, or 40 percent of the 71 seats it contested. It had polled a whopping 36.5 percent votes across UP in 1998, its best Lok Sabha result ever. But that vote share had fallen to 17.5 percent, or less than half, in the 2009 Lok Sabha election. For Modi to win 35 seats for the BJP, the BJP must poll at least 26-27 percent, the vote share that had brought the SP 35 seats in 2004 Lok Sabha elections.
That won’t be easy. A 10-percent jump jump over 2009 would be unprecedented in UP’s multi-cornered contests. And even that may not help. UP’s multi-cornered contests are so unpredictable that in 2009, the BJP lost five seats despite polling over 30 percent on each. Even a marginally lower vote share can wreak havoc with seat shares. In 2004, the BSP polled a vote share of 24.67 percent, only 2 percent less than the SP’s. But the BSP won only 19 seats to the SP’s 35.
Indeed, the rise and (possibly irreversible) fall of the BJP in UP is the stuff of legend. The party’s heyday in the state began with the 1991 Lok Sabha election when it won 46 of UP’s 80 seats. (UP had 85 seats then. Five went to Uttarakhand when it was sliced off UP in 2000. In this article we speak only of UP’s current 80 seats.) In the 1996 election, the BJP’s tally in UP went up to 49 seats. At the midterm election called after the two woebegone non-Congress, non-BJP governments of 1996-98 collapsed, the BJP hit its apogee in the state winning a record 52 seats.
The BJP’s success in 1991 however, came after it openly backed a Hindu rightist campaign seeking to build a temple for Lord Ram in place of the 16th-century Babri mosque at Ayodhya in UP. BJP veteran Lal Krishna Advani’s arrest in Bihar and the killing of Hindu zealots in police firing at Ayodha six months before the election also boosted its prospects. Then UP Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav (who would later found the SP) lost votes because of the police firing.
For the BSP, the 1991 election was only the second in its infant career. It had won two Lok Sabha seats, including one for its current president Mayawati, in its first attempt in 1989. Though she lost in 1991, the BSP took 10-20 percent votes on 20 Lok Sabha seats in UP that year and over 20 percent on half a dozen.
In 1996, the BJP benefited from the re-emergence of Atal Bihari Vajpayee who was projected as a great unifier. Having stayed away from the Ayodhya campaign through its dominant years, Vajpayee did not have the tag of Hindutva hard-liner that had made Advani unacceptable as the leader of a putative coalition with ambitions to rule India. That coalition necessarily included centrist parties dependent on Muslim votes, a fact that made them no fan of the temple campaign.
In the 1998 Lok Sabha election the BJP hit bullseye. The third-front government was booted and the Vajpayee-led coalition voted in. Mulayam had served as a pathetic defence minister in the outgoing coalition, so he took a hit in UP. The BSP had lately done better, placing third in the 1993 and 1996 UP assembly elections. But in the 1998 Lok Sabha polls it won a mere four seats (down two from 1996), because it still practiced a “Dalit only” policy to the exclusion of other social groups. The BJP thus led the table in UP in the 1991, 1996 and 1998 Lok Sabha elections.
And the fall
Then began the BJP’s downslide in UP. Firstly, spiraling corruption and crime, ministerial scandals, and party infighting destroyed the credibility of its last state government of 1997-2002. (Think BJP rule of Karnataka in 2008-13.)
Secondly, frustrated at their failure to win big in a case of so-near-and-yet-so-far, the BSP and the SP decided to widen their social base and began fielding far more upper caste candidates, the Brahmins and the Thakurs, thus eating into the BJP’s vote-bank.
The impact on the BJP was immediate. In the 1999 Lok Sabha election, the BJP won only 25 seats, less than half of what it had won in 1998. The BSP, which had never reached double digits before, smashed its way to 14 seats. Fighting only its third ever Lok Sabha election, the SP won 20 seats, just five short of the BJP’s figure. While the BSP and the SP would go on to improve their tallies in the 2004 Lok Sabha election, the BJP would return a drastically lower 10 seats in UP, ending up behind the two for the first time. The BJP would stagnate at that number in 2009.
The BJP’s vote and seat shares in assembly and Lok Sabha elections in UP have been in free fall since it failed to retain power at the 2002 assembly election. (That was fought under the chief ministership of Rajnath Singh, currently the party president. Ominously, he was also BJP president in 2009 when it failed to return to power at the Centre.) Despite being in the opposition in UP since 2002 and at the Centre since 2004, the BJP has failed to take advantage of repeated anti-incumbencies of the SP and the BSP, which have between them, run the last three UP governments since 2002.
In the assembly elections of 2002, 2007 and 2012 as well as in the Lok Sabha elections of 2004 and 2009, the BJP lost ground so badly in UP that its vote share in many constituencies, both assembly and the Lok Sabha, fell below five percent.
In 2012, the BJP was not even runner-up in 70 percent of the 403 UP assembly seats. On a quarter of the seats it even struggled to be fourth. On over one in ten it was fifth; on 16 seats sixth; seventh on three seats; and a shocking eighth on one.
To boot, the BSP and the SP won absolute majorities in the UP assembly elections of 2007 and 2012, respectively, even as the BJP’s seats, in only double digits since 2002, fell further each time. What odds then that the BJP can revive its fortunes in the state based on the supposed popularity of one man? Is Modi bigger today than Lord Ram and Vajpayee were at their best in the 1990s?