A day before Election 2019 results, UP — the acronym for Uttar Pradesh — can also stand for ‘Unnerved Pollsters’. The exit poll prediction for India’s decisive state is diverse and divisive as it projects a Modi wave drowning the grand alliance. And, as a natural corollary, PM Modi returning to power.
This flies against the perception that gained traction by the time Phase 3 of voting in Uttar Pradesh was over, that after the high of 2014 and 2017 that gave the BJP bucketfuls of seats, voters have retreated back to the comfort zone of caste, especially with the caste gladiators of the Samajwadi Party, BSP and Rashtriya Lok Dal crafting a potent-on-arithmetic mahagathabandhan or MGB.
The wait between the last vote polled and the day results are announced has become like surviving at the edge of the working end of a sword — both for those whom the exit polls have declared as victors and the others, who shall live to fight another day.
On May 19, I found that voters in Varanasi for the last of the seven phases had become battle-weary and perhaps much more in sync with every issue that drove the polls.
Exactly which wave is this? As the largest Indian state, Uttar Pradesh will play a decisive role in Lok Sabha 2019. (Photo: PTI)
One day before results, UP’s Modi vs Gathbandhan challenge boils down to a chemistry vs arithmetic battle. If chemistry wins, Modi and the majority of pollsters will win and if arithmetic triumphs, the gathbandhan will trounce its rivals.
Chemistry is easy to predict in a 2014-like poll. But in 2019, quantitative and qualitative assessment of social chemistry in the absence of a tidal move in a caste and community cauldron is difficult to decipher. Since a lot of number crunching is based on arithmetic, with chemistry superimposed on it, I thought it was worth the effort to deal purely with numbers and ground assessment to judge who will win or lose UP.
Since I am drawing from my experience of tracking elections in UP for almost 30 years, past poll results and back-of-the-envelope calculations, this is not a challenge to the projections made by scientific, driven-by-formulae and astute minded pollsters.
A lot will depend on how fair voters have been to the reporters on the ground and those who met them with pollsters’ questionnaires. In the 1977 elections, voters misled pollsters. Late PM Indira Gandhi post-emergency was too formidable a leader and voters were not ready to commit on record that they were going against her. Then, in 2004, pollsters said Atal Bihari Vajpayee riding India Shining would win 35-odd seats in UP and be PM again. The voters had misled the pollsters
Similarly, a question being asked is, voters exercised their right to a secret vote in 2019. In the ultimate analysis, there is a possibility that one of the two, reporters and pollsters, may go wrong?
Politics of arithmetic
On January 12, when Akhilesh Yadav offered a bouquet to Mayawati of the BSP at a joint press conference, the SP-BSP alliance was officially born. the subtext of the alliance was that UP’s new partners, the SP, BSP and RLD, had shut the doors upon the Congress. The perception that gained momentum was that the parties had lost the chance to make it a Bihar-like two-way contest — BJP vs the rest in India’s most electorally critical state
But I felt that by keeping the Congress out — or the Congress by staying out — had made a move which eventually may help the gathabandhan and hurt the BJP.
My opinion No.1 on Uttar Pradesh 2019 is that sometimes, alliances are strategic and at times, a separation is tactical.
Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi in an interview with India Today virtually endorsed my assessment when she said, “In places where the Congress is weak we have fielded candidates who will cut BJP’s votes”. She was responding to a query on whether Congress will hurt the SP-BSP-RLD alliance or the BJP.
Now, every party fields what in UP parlance is called “vote-katua” (vote cutting candidates) — but only the naive or brave admit it
Why is Congress missing in anti-BJP gathbandhan?
The 2017 UP assembly polls were a learning curve for the BJP’s opponents in the state. The Akhilesh Yadav-led Samajwadi party was hit by a “parivar war” with party CEO and father Mulayam Yadav backing uncle Shivpal Yadav staging a coup against the Chief Minister. Muzaffarnagar riots were still polarising voters. The young CM’s attempt to drive a development narrative with the Agra-Lucknow Expressway, the Lucknow metro and 19 lakh laptops for students was failing.
When tensions were running high: The 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots sharply polarised voters in UP. (Photo: PTI)
Desperate Akhilesh turned to Rahul Gandhi and the Congress, hoping that the “UP ke ladke” pitch and collective vote strength would help both the parties edge out BSP’s Mayawati and stun the BJP.
But the coming together turned out to be a tactical mistake.
In a communally surcharged atmosphere, the BJP argument that Akhilesh-Rahul was a tie-up to corner the minority vote — which ignored majority aspirations and apprehension — gained traction. The March 4, 2017, Varanasi joint roadshow by Akhilesh and Rahul had the participation of over 30,000 Muslims. The BJP successfully encashed the sea of white skull caps visible behind the young duo in the road show as proof of its argument.
The boys flopped. The BJP gained.
Why was 3 the lucky number for Mahagathbandhan?
For 2019 in UP, three parties, the SP, BSP & RLD, found it easier to come together due to one oft-ignored fact — each one of them has a core vote bank.
The SP has Yadavs, the BSP has Dalits and the RLD of Ajit Singh has Jats. Plus the three parties are acceptable to the minorities as the three founders of the parties, Mulayam Yadav of SP, Kanshi Ram of BSP and Charan Singh of Lok Dal, had created a unique coming together of their caste with the minority in UP. Mulayam created “MY” of Muslims and Yadavs, Kanshi “DM” of Dalits and Muslims (the first organisation he created was BAMSEF, the Backward and Minority Communities Employees' Federation) and Charan Singh cultivated “JM” or Jats and Muslims to control western UP.
Pet vote banks give the three-party alliance the operating advantage of “transferring” votes to each other, with the Muslims more likely to gravitate towards their candidates as their collective vote bank places them closer to defeating the BJP. Congress, on the other hand, doesn’t really fulfil this basic requirement. It’s still popular among several castes in UP and is trusted by Muslims, but has no transferable loyal vote bank. Plus all three parties originally owe their birth and rise to “anti-Congressism” and a tie-up like the BSP-Cong twice in the past can lead to the Congress regaining ground it lost to these parties.
Exactly whose votes will the Congress cut in UP? (Photo: Reuters)
Remember, the Congress was the master of Uttar Pradesh till 1989. The Ram Mandir movement helped the BJP rise but the Congress base largely went to Mulayam and Kanshi Ram. And that’s why the most vocal opponent of the Congress entry in the UP alliance has been BSP’s Mayawati.
Will the tactical separation work?
First, can the Congress, as admitted by Priyanka Gandhi field candidates that will hurt the BJP, not just in a few seats but across UP, without consulting someone or all in the alliance? The answer is a flat emphatic NO. There are no confirmations available but it’s a known fact that Priyanka Gandhi is said to enjoy a decent working relationship with Akhilesh Yadav.
My Opinion No.2 for Uttar Pradesh 2019 is that the tactical separation of SP-BSP-RLD keeping Congress out to hurt BJP was not by default but by part-design.
The Numeric arithmetic
To calculate how UP may have voted in 2019, let us take the 2014 results as a benchmark. UP was swept by a Modi wave, complimented by the fact that the voter was out to uproot the Congress and anyone like the SP and BSP which could help the party return to power. There was acute polarization between communities due to the Muzaffarnagar communal riots. And Akhilesh Yadav since his 2012 win was proving to be a listless Chief Minister.
All these factors added an upward swing to the BJP’s effort in each seat and a reverse swing to the SP and BSP’s chances — the BJP won an unprecedented 71 of the 80 seats in UP and one big contributor was the ground reality that the SP, BSP and RLD had fought against each other and it was a five-cornered contest in west UP and four-cornered in central and eastern UP.
Now the three are together. What if we add the votes polled by the three parties in the 80 constituencies in 2014 to start constructing a picture for 2019?
If the vote share of SP-BSP-RLD in 2014 is added up vs the BJP vote percentage, the UP picture for 2019 is something like this:
Margin of 5% or lesser
BJP ahead of MGB - 11 seats
MGB ahead of BJP - 15 seats
Margin of 5%-10%
BJP ahead of MGB – 7 seats
MGB ahead of BJP – 10
Margin of 10%-20%
BJP ahead of MGM – 10
MGB ahead of BJP - 10
Margin of 20% or more
BJP ahead of MGB – 5
MGB ahead of BJP - 6
A simple addition of this tally based on 2014's performance means the BJP can win 33 seats and MGB 41 seats in 2019, leaving out seats like Lucknow, Rae Bareilly, Amethi and Kanpur, where the Congress is the BJP's main rival.
Among the losers could be some cabinet ministers in Modi cabinet.
But voting is not pure arithmetic. Let’s add the ground realities here. Going purely by numbers, the alliance has an advantage which can be defeated by strong polarizing chemistry and success of the BJP to create a diverse bouquet of castes with upper castes, MBC or most backward castes and segments of SCs and OBCs.
Can the Modi wave effectively cut out the Mahagathbandhan arithmetic? (Photo: PTI)
I have six key questions to explain the picture.
Question 1: The BJP in 2014 benefitted from polarization. Was UP polarized in 2019?
Assessment: The answer is, there were attempts to replace polarization with National Security as a unifying issue. It has worked on the ground but it's not as acute as the communal divide of 2014 or 2017.
Projection: This will make it difficult for the BJP to sway voters like the Jats in western UP as in the last two elections. Exit polls show around 50% Jats in 2019 voted for BJP as compared to almost 75% in 2014. But the upper caste is united behind the party, as the exit polls show almost 75% turnout for the BJP.
Question 2: Will the BJP retain or gain MBC votes?
Assessment: In the 2014 and 2017 polls, MBC voted BJP — but since then, in some pockets, there have been noises of discontent from this 20% of UP voters.
Projection: Exit poll shows that nearly 72% of MBC voted for the BJP. Even if BJP manages this volume of MBC votes, it seems that in 2014, the support for the party saturated and in 2019, there is less likelihood of a huge bump.
Question 3: Have the alliance partners managed to transfer their votes to each other?
Assessment: This was the most critical element in the 2019 contest. Experts predicted that the BSP’s SC vote is easy to transfer and the SP’s Yadav vote cannot be ‘shepherded’ towards BSP easily, given the friction between the two castes on the ground. This could be one of the reasons for the MGB’s defeat in several constituencies.
But exit polls have highlighted some very interesting detail.
The exit poll by India Today shows:
57% Non-Jatav SCs voted for the BJP
74% Jatavs voted for the MGB
Which means, roughly 60% SC voted for the MGB.
Exit polls show 75%-odd Yadavs voted for MGB
This could also mean a large percentage of Yadavs may have shifted their vote to the BSP candidates.
Question 4: Who will the Congress hurt in UP — BJP or MGB?
Assessment: The list of Congress candidates indicates curious selection criteria. In nearly 50-odd seats, the party has picked candidates belonging to the upper caste and the same caste as the BJP.
Projection: One quick look at the caste of the Congress candidates and the constituency breakups shows the Congress may hurt the BJP in 35-odd seats.
The Congress list of candidates, however, has another subtext — of the 80 seats, the Congress is hurting the gathabandhan in 13 seats, including some strongholds. Deeper analysis reveals that Congress is hurting the BSP in more seats than the SP.
Saharanpur Lok Sabha seat is a classic example. In a BJP vs MGB (mahagathabandhan) contest. Raghav Lakhan Pal of the BJP on paper would have lost. The numbers in favour of BSP’s Haji Fazulur Rehman would have been difficult to defeat. But Congress candidate Imran Masood, a local, will divide the Muslim vote.
Question 5: When SP-BSP tie UP 1+1 is not Equal to 2
Assessment: The MGB as per the 2014 outcome is locked in 26 close contests in UP. But past polls show that when SP-BSP fight together, they get more votes than their old percentage put together.
Let's compare the SP-BSP combined vote when they fought against each other in 2014 and when they contested together in Gorakhpur, Phulpur and Kairana in 2018:
This provides an indication that when the SP-BSP and RLD contest together, they get a 6%-10% boost in the contest against the BJP as some fence-sitting castes and groups gravitate towards them.
Question 6: How potent is the Modi factor?
Assessment: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s image and the lakhs of beneficiaries of schemes like Ujjwala, PM Awaas Yojana and Ayushmaan Bharat are huge issues in the poll and may override factors like farm distress, unemployment and the launch of GST. They may neutralize a lot of anti-incumbency against the BJP
Projection: The jury is out on whether the Modi factor may be stronger than 2014.
If one incorporates a lot of these factors, a substantial rise in the BJP’s vote share across the 80 UP seats can’t be coming whereas more factors seem to be working for the MGB.
The key will be the close contest seats. If one applies the 6 projections, the end tally may depend hugely on the altered equations on the seats which recorded a 5% or lesser victory margin.
The BJP as per the 2014 polls has a 5% or lesser edge in 11 seats and MGB in 15 seats. If the transfer of votes between SP and BSP is high and the outcomes of three bypolls in 2018 are an indicator, the MGB may wrest many of the close-shave seats unless there are strong BJP candidates. This is aggravated by the fact that in many of these seats, the Congress is working as a spoiler for the BJP. As per 2014's results, these include Kairana (the BJP ahead by 2.14%), Aligarh (BJP ahead by 5%), Hathras (BJP ahead by 5%), Shahjehanpur (BJP ahead by 0.65%), Kheri (BJP ahead by 4.6%), Pratapgarh, Farrukhabad (BJP ahead by 3.7%), Fatehpur (BJP ahead by 0.71%). Bahraich (BJP ahead by 0.13%) and Machhlishehar (BJP ahead by 0.07%).
This means that the Gathabandhan tally could well be heading towards the above 45 seats in UP mark.
The result may tell a different story. It may end up going the way the exit polls have predicted. In that case, please pardon this attempt. It’s just a back-of-the-envelope calculation by a reporter pounding the pavement!