UP Elections: BJP’s Tough Road Ahead

This article written by me was first published here https://www.myind.net/elections-bjps-tough-road-ahead

” What happened to Hindus in Kashmir in 1990s is happening again in UP’s Kairana. An exodus of Hindus has been taking place over the past two years from the predominantly Muslim town of Kairana, situated just 124 kilometres from India’s national capital of New Delhi.  At least 346 Hindu families have migrated from Kairana due to goondaism and extortion threats. As per the 2011 Census, Kairana had 30% Hindus while the percentage of Muslims was at 68%. However, the figure now stands at only 8% Hindus and 92% Muslims, as per the local administration.”  Source

Expectedly, Indian media didn’t give prominence to this news. Expectedly, none of the non-BJP parties have made this as an issue. BJP too is all quiet on this. One doesn’t know whether to this expect this or not from a party which is trying broaden its base.

The upcoming elections in UP have the makings of an absorbing contest. A three-way war among SP, BSP, and BJP is looming.  Congress and MIM are looking to capture a share of the spoils. The non-BJP parties know that win here will provide them strategic advantage in the bigger war of Lok Sabha elections in  2019. Congress will aim to salvage its mauled image and earn a chance to claw its way back.

For SP and BSP it is going to be very important to win UP to protect and grow their regional strongholds. For them winning the UP war is an end in itself. But for the BJP, it is going be a very bad election to lose.

A Bihar type Mahagathbandhan isn’t likely

For the above reasons, every major party will fight it out right to the end. ‘Outside’ parties like MIM, JDU and Communists might be an exception to this. In Bihar, both Nitish and Lalu felt threatened by BJP and realized that they needed each other so they decided to set aside their rivalry.  Mulayam \ Akhilesh and Mayawati don’t seem to face an existential threat. They seem to be sure of their respective voter bases. The outside parties may enter into tactical understanding at constituency level to improve their yield. Eleven other parties have given an indication for forming their own grouping with the intention of contesting all 403 seats. (Read ) Such a grouping may also reach an understanding with Congress, or BSP, or SP. However, chances of a Bihar type ‘Mahagathbandahan’ of dominant parties are remote at this time.

In a tri-polar or a multi-polar contest, any party crossing 25% votes share can take disproportionately larger share of seats.  The political parties would surely factor this in while crafting their strategies. But before we come to their strategies let us see what are the issues in this election.

What do the people of Uttar Pradesh want?

Do the UP voters care whether their election is of national importance or not?  Should a voter be living in Charisara village in Basti district or to the one living in Kanpur bother about it? If not, what do they want? There are several possibilities:

1. If the national mood of hope and aspiration for a better life generated by Modi’s 2014 campaign, his government’s performance, and his sustained outreach to people has reached the nooks and corners of UP’s villages and town, the voters will be looking for development in their ‘line of sight’ or in their own neighborhoods.  They will be looking for jobs and livelihoods. They will be looking for electricity, roads, irrigation, and hospitals. They will be looking for credibility of those who promise.

2. UP clearly has a serious law and order problem exacerbated by communal extremism. As incidents in Kairana show, shifts in religious demographic profiles are tinderboxes of violence.  When people are fearful about their lives and property, development promises cannot work. They will be seeking relief from criminality and riots which have brought them unending troubles. If they are angry about bad law and order, they will make very determined voting choice if such a choice is available. But if they are not very optimistic of any party bringing them succour, they may get influenced by any of the factors given below.

3. The voters’ choices may get swayed by appeals to their of castes or religions.

4. If none of the above (aspiration and hope, anger, fear) are dominant the voters may go by purely local factors for tangible and immediate gains. Local leaders can sway their choices. The election will then be purely a transactional exercise for the voters.

We don’t know whether shifts in religious demography in favor of Muslims is worrying a large enough number of voters or not. It is also possible that such worries may remain underground if no major political party articulates it. This seems to be the case.

What are the strategies of various parties?

Various political parties must be assessing the above factors and formulating their strategies.

Samajwadi Party

As an incumbent, the SP has a lot to answer about. Muzzafarnagar riots, Dadri crimes, and total failure of state to prevent takeover of Jawahar bagh in Mathura by a cult and in failure in preventing subsequent deaths are all fresh in minds of people. SP will also have to explain its development record. It seems to be taking its core Yadav and Muslim voters for granted. It needs to attract other voters to cross 25% mark from the previous 22.3% share in 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

Akhilesh is trying to brand himself on development plank with the help of some marquee projects like highway from Lucknow to Agra and onward to Delhi via Yamuna Expressway, 4 lane highways linking 44 district headquarters, and the Lucknow Metro.

Right now SP appears to be on a slippery ground. How Mulayam and Akhilesh handle the challenge confronting SP remains to be seen.

Bahujan Samaj Party

Like SP, the BSP has a stable voter base. Its core voter base is that of Dalits. In the past, Mayawati has managed to stitch together support of Muslims, other scheduled castes, and even Brahmins. BSP’s vote share has been plunging from its high of 30.4% in 2007 to 19.8% in 2014(Loksabha). Mayawati will have to widen BSP’s appeal outside its core voter base amid stiff competition from other parties. Recently she has criticized both SP and BJP for Mathura violence. She has worked with Congress during Rajyasabha elections.

The above gives some indications that Mayawati will make of ‘law and order’ a poll issue. Known to be feisty fighter, Matyavati must be working very hard on the ground for some time now. She probably knows ground realities better than others. Though BSP comes from a low of 2014, it seems to be on an ascendant. Eleven other parties’ coalition may transfer some votes to BSP. If Congress realizes that BJP is gaining ground it may transfer its votes to BSP to stop BJP. This may be a last minute tactical shift but it can’t be ruled out.


Congress is fighting a battle for survival. It may not get significant vote share. But it is interesting to check out its strategies crafted by Rahul Gandhi with the help of Prashant Kishor because it tells us what they think of situation on the ground.  Indications are that Rahul’s efforts to woo Dalits haven’t been successful and that it is considering pitching for upper castes, particularly the Brahmins who at 13% form a sizeable group.


BJP is riding on its spectacular show in Loksabha elections in 2014 and PM Modi’s massive outreach which continues. BJP then won 71 out of 80 seats. It captured a vote share of 42% share up from its meager 15% in 2012 Assembly elections. In months to come, Modi’s Jana dhan Yojana, targeted subsidies, rural electrification drive, India’s growing global clout and of course his rousing rallies should give a vast ‘air-cover’ to BJP’s ground forces. Some may say that in assembly elections local issue matter more. This is a valid point but it is difficult say that urban and rural voters aren’t clued into what happening in the world. They are good talking points for BJP to project its strengths.

BJP president Amit Shah is mobilizing and directing of its ‘ground forces’. Shah is tapping party workers at booth level and is drawing up plans for reaching out to specific caste groups and their leaders. He has addressed tens of thousands booth level workers for preparing for the battles in their booth areas and constituencies. (Read ) Out of 1.38 lakh polling booths in UP, BJP has so far formed booth committees —with at least 10 members including one president, three vice-presidents and two secretaries — at around 1.07 lakh booths.  A booth management committee in Lucknow HQ makes thousands of calls every day to monitor work. Grassroots level work by the RSS and its cadres provide a solid foundation for election management.

Knowing that BJP is out of power in UP for last 15 years and that it has affected party’s working, Shah has introduced electronic monitoring and communication system for connecting its booth level workers with party leaders.

BJP ‘s message of development is likely to be delivered by reaching out to all castes.

BJP is making special efforts to woo Dalit votes by giving huge recognition to their icons like Ambedkar. It is sending a message through Buddhist monks that Mayawati’s BSP has gone away from Dalit cause of Ambedkar and Kanshiram. A Dhamma Chetana Yatra of 75 monks is winding its way through parts of state carrying this message. Local BJP leaders are supporting this Yatra.

BJP may also attempt consolidation of Hindu votes through various issues mentioned above. Local situations will dictate its choices. But it seems that it won’t make state-wide issue out of them.

BJP seems to be waking up to UP’s precarious law and order situation, terming it as ‘goonda raj’.

Whether it can deftly weave together themes off development and uprooting the goonda raj is yet not known.

Chief Ministerial Candidates

While SP and BSP’s choices are obvious, both BJP and Congress are in dilemma about CM Candidate -to project one or not? If yes, whom to project?

It is obvious that their own realities rather than poll strategies will force their choices. The big question for BJP would be -‘who can inspire confidence about party’s development promise through dynamism and personal track record, while giving comfort to all sections of the society?” BJP must be finding it difficult to come up with a good answer.

Congress must be hoping that a good ‘face’ like that Rahul or Priyanka might be magical answer to its woes.

The battle lines

BJP has declared SP as its principal opponent. At the same time, it is working on ground to pull the rug from under Mayawati by going all out for Dalit votes. SP is targeting BJP over communalism hoping to attract Muslim vote and support of other parties. SP will at least expect to blunt their attack. It is thus hoping to soften the anti-incumbency forces.  Mayawati is taking on both SP, BJP. She might reach some tactical understanding with Congress. It will be interesting to watch how the MIM factor plays out. BJP must be hoping that with all other parties trying to attract Muslims, they won’t vote against it en block.

It seems that all parties are relying on caste equations and local negotiations, albeit with some message like development. Their assessment seems to be that the voters won’t take them at face value for their promises.

Assam had huge anti-incumbency factor of 15 years of Congress rule which delivered little positive and contributed in making illegal immigration from Bangladesh into an existential threat for almost all sections of the society. Sonowal’s strong leadership channelized voters’ anger and fear and converted them into hope.

BJP seems to think that UP has no such state wide existential threat.

Voters in UP have aspirations, but they need to be converted in hope. They have anger (about poverty, lack of jobs and livelihoods) and fear (of poor law and order) but the society is hopelessly divided on caste and religious lines due to decades of so called ‘social engineering’ by parties like SP and BSP. Congress tried to exploit it cynically while BJP was content in merely looking on.

UP is more similar to Bihar in this, except that alliance SP and BSP seems to be unlikely. But here BJP is up against formidable fault lines in the society and absence of any powerful emotions like hope or anger which can move people to vote.

UP, like Bihar, isn’t Assam. But is BJP determined to keep it that way?

Straws in the wind

BJP must be banking on the momentum of its superlative performance in 2014 Loksabha elections and Modi’s magic. Yet, it may find it difficult to come close to that kind of performance for the reasons mentioned above.  But will BJP succeed in crossing 25% vote share and even go up to 30% to ensure a good majority on its own? Panchayat elections held in 2015 might give us some clues.

BSP supported candidates won 28 of 52 seats in Aligarh district, 21 of 51 in Agra, and 26 of 86 in Azamgarh. BSP supported candidates defeated relatives of SP ministers in several places. Its candidate won even in Tamausi village which was adopted by Mulayam. More significantly, BSP supported candidates won seats in villages adopted by PM Modi.  BJP could win only 8 out of 48 seats in PM Modi’s Varanasi constituency while BSP did well there. (Read andthis )

These straws in the wind suggest that BJP shouldn’t be complacent. It isn’t.

BJP may score a win

BJP is getting into this war with a strong organization and Shah’s formidable election management for negotiating local caste alliances. It is relying on Modi’s development and corruption-free track record and charisma. But BJP has to overly depend on caste arithmetic. SP and BSP are good at it, but it isn’t BJP’s strength. That is the reason why SP and BSP could win in UP but BJP was forced out of power for 15 years.

BJP seems to be waking up to the ‘goonda raj’ in UP. But by ignoring shifts in religious demography that further worsens law and order, BJP may be trying to be right in others’ eyes. This is always problematic. BJP seems to be trying too hard at it. Worse, it is not addressing shifts in India’s religious demography which is growing into a national issue. (Read more about BJP: http://indiafacts.org/is-bjp-failing-pm-modi/ )

The worrying fact is that BJP is playing the game set up by its opposition. BJP is without an overarching emotive promise which can galvanize this fractured society to come out its nooks and crannies, to come together and vote for it.  It is yet without a state level leader who can carry this campaign. BJP is playing to its weaknesses.

BJP may yet win UP election or scrape through it given the multi-polar contest. It has a very tough road ahead.


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