After the Samajwadi Party (SP), Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) ironed out a potentially game-changing anti-BJP alliance, Uttar Pradesh looked destined for a polarised contest.
While the final moves are yet to be played on the chessboard, the Congress’ decision to test the ‘Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra factor’ and field reasonably strong candidates, mostly new entrants or former MPs (it has declared more than three dozen candidates already), has pushed the battle to a three-way battle on paper, with seat-to-seat contests.
Congress as spoiler
Not only is the social arithmetic of the SP-BSP-RLD a new challenge to the BJP, which thumped a divided opposition in 2014 and 2017, the unpredictability of the Congress, in both winnability and potential to cut into votes either way, comes with both advantages and pitfalls for the ruling party.
The second emerging battle is for the anti-BJP space between the alliance and the Congress, which though not a real challenger on all 80 seats, has become difficult to ignore, for both the BJP as well as the “gathbandhan.”
In 2014, the BJP drubbed a divided opposition to win 73 seats along with its ally Apna Dal. In the 2017 Assembly polls held soon after demonetisation, the SP and the Congress came together — a tie-up that proved to be a disaster — to take on the BJP. The BSP went solo, unsuccessfully putting its money on the risky Dalit-Muslim card.
While the 2014 win was largely due to the Modi factor, the 2017 victory was a bouquet of smaller victories — the BJP added another ally in the form of the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party, poached several key OBC leaders from the BSP like Swami Prasad Maurya, and was successful in polarizing the narrative among the OBCs against the Yadavs.
In 2019, however, the base support of the SP-BSP is much more formidable: Yadavs, the largest OBC community, and the Jatavs, who are roughly 12% of the State population. The RLD, though battling for survival, still has a presence among the Jats in West UP.
And along with the Jatavs and Yadavs, the alliance has the potential to consolidate the usually divided Muslim vote (19.5%).
While voting patterns cannot be examined through simple arithmetic, it is significant to note that the combined vote of the SP-BSP-RLD in 2014 and 2017 was 42.98% and 45.83% against the 43.64% and 41.35% of the BJP and its allies.
Among the BJP’s strengths could be the overarching appeal for Mr. Modi against the open-ended game of the opposition, upper caste support, potential polarisation of non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav Dalits, derailing of the opposition narrative after the Pulwama attacks. In addition is the communally polarising rhetoric like that seen in Saharanpur on Sunday where CM Yogi Adityanath deliberately but erroneously referred to the Congress candidate Imran Masood as a relative of the Jaish-e-Mohammad head Masood Azhar.
However, things that could work against ruling party are the stray cattle menace, non-payment of sugarcane dues, agrarian disenchantment, unemployment, anti-incumbency against the sitting MP and dissatisfaction among a section of OBCs and Dalits who voted the BJP in 2014. The emergence of the Congress could also dent its upper caste vote.
2019 is also also about vote transfers.
While the RLD looks strong in Muzaffarnagar and Baghpat, it faces the test of transferring its core votes — especially of the Jats — to the SP-BSP on other seats in western U.P. In Purvanchal and central U.P., the BJP will be bolstered by the Apna Dal (AD) and the SBSP of Om Prakash Rajbhar. After months of bickering, the BJP seems to have placated the two with plum government posts — the AD has climbed down to agree to contests just two seats as it did in 2014, while the SBSP is yet to announce anything.
The Congress meanwhile has formed alliances with three small OBC-based groups of Kurmis and Kushwahas.
The SP-BSP alliance is supported by the Nishad Party, of riverine MBCs, whose candidate Praveen Nishad secured Gorakhpur last year. The victory in Gorakhpur and Phulpur and Kairana bypolls demonstrated the winning potential of the SP-BSP-RLD combine.
But the SP’s Yadav vote is still untested as none of the three seats had an SP symbol. While the Jatavs are easily transferable, the same cannot be said of Yadavs whose political and social relations with the BSP have not been amicable. Perhaps, factoring this and the fact that key Yadav seats like Ghazipur and Deoria having gone to the BSP, SP chief Akhilesh Yadav has chosen to contest from Azamgarh to fill in the vaccum in the absence of his father.
Another challenge for the alliance, is to move beyond arithmetic and build a narrative on agrarian disenchantment and joblessness.
The resurgence of the Congress has complicated the Muslim vote. All the candidates are yet to be declared, but several seats are destined to witness triangular fights, with the BJP potentially looking to benefit in Saharanpur, Amroha, Bijnor and Sitapur.