These days, every conversation about India’s 2019 general election begins and ends with the same knowing admission: “In the end, it will come down to Uttar Pradesh.” The state has outsize electoral influence: accounting for eighty seats (out of 543 in India’s lower house of parliament, the Lok Sabha) and home to roughly 230 million residents, Uttar Pradesh (UP) is the single biggest prize in this spring’s national election. For both the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and a bevy of opposition forces, the state is make or break.
In the 2014 general election, the BJP won seventy-one of UP’s eighty parliamentary seats (and a coalition ally, Apna Dal, bagged another two). The BJP’s historic parliamentary majority—the first in three decades—would have been unthinkable without this massive showing in UP. The state accounted for one of every four seats the party won in 2014. But, as campaigning for 2019 soon begins in earnest, this dominance has a downside: unless it can run the table in UP for a second consecutive election, the BJP will struggle to replicate—or even approximate—its majority.
While BJP strategists are confident the party will pick up new seats in places where it has only recently emerged as a player—such as India’s northeast and eastern regions—it would be difficult (if not impossible) to compensate for a hefty loss of seats in UP. Yet sweeping the state is a daunting prospect in light of the alliance the state’s two primary regional parties—the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP)—recently stitched up. These two rivals have bitterly fought each other for dominance of UP for two decades, yet they cast aside their long-standing differences in a last-ditch effort to keep the BJP at bay. Reflecting on the 2014 rout, leaders of the two parties reluctantly concluded that they might lose together but that they would surely lose separately.
So far, the UP discussion has almost exclusively focused on seat projections. Forecasts of this kind, in the absence of credible survey data, are extremely difficult. Any conclusion hinges on whether a given forecaster believes elections in India are more about arithmetic or chemistry. Arithmetic suggests the formidable BSP-SP mahagatbandhan (grand alliance) will easily cut the BJP’s seat tally in half, if prior electoral performance is any guide. But analysts who prioritize the chemistry of campaigns are skeptical that one can mechanically add up past vote shares and predict the future.1
Rather than wade into the guessing game around the number of seats various formations will lose or gain, analysts can learn much by focusing on three issues critical to sealing the final UP outcome: voter mobilization, Hindu voter consolidation, and rural anxiety about the economy. In the 2014 election, the BJP exploited unprecedented voter turnout, a unique cross-caste coalition of Hindu voters, and a souring economy it could place at the door of the incumbent Indian National Congress government. Replicating these conditions this spring will be an uphill task.
From National to Regional and Back Again
For the past few decades, political competition in UP has centered around two regional, caste-based parties—the BSP and the SP. The BSP, founded by Dalit activist Kanshi Ram in 1984, is dedicated to uplifting India’s historically disadvantaged communities—Scheduled Castes (SCs), also called Dalits and formerly known as untouchables; Scheduled Tribes (STs), also termed Adivasis; and the Other Backward Classes (OBCs). In particular, the party has rallied to the cause of Dalits, a Hindu community of lower castes considered so impure that it did not even figure into the formal caste hierarchy. Since 2003, the party has been run by Kanshi Ram’s protégé, Mayawati, a four-time chief minister of UP.
For more than a quarter century, the BSP has jockeyed for political space with the SP. The SP initially formed as a splinter group of the Janata Dal—a center-left party that headed the central government between 1989 and 1991 before fracturing nearly a decade later. Like many Indian political parties, it is a dynastic party dominated by a single family. The party’s founder, Mulayam Singh Yadav (the family patriarch), is a veteran OBC leader from UP who has thrice served as the state’s chief minister. Between 2012 and 2017, Mulayam’s son Akhilesh Yadav served as UP chief minister, and he currently serves as party president. Today, all five members of parliament from the SP are members of the Yadav family.
The national parties—the BJP and the Congress—have been minor players in UP’s politics in recent years. After dominating UP for four decades after independence, the Congress Party’s fortunes have steadily declined (aside from a few moments of temporary resurrection, such as in 2009, when it captured twenty-one of UP’s eighty Lok Sabha seats). The last time a Congress chief minister presided over UP was in 1989. The BJP’s trajectory has been much more complicated. The party came to power twice in the 1990s on the back of pro-Hindu nationalist sentiment, but then vanished until 2014, when the Modi wave propelled its electoral sweep of the state’s parliamentary seats. Three years later, the party stunned political observers by securing a three-fourths majority in the state assembly on account of Modi’s unparalleled popularity. For the first time in fifteen years, the BJP claimed the government of India’s most populous state.
Shocked by the BJP’s sudden rise, the BSP and SP were compelled to join hands. In 2018, the two parties announced that they would contest Lok Sabha bypolls in Gorakhpur and Phulpur together in a concerted effort to keep the seats out of the BJP’s hands. They won both seats handily—an embarrassment to the BJP and its newly installed chief minister, Yogi Adityanath.
As India readies for the 2019 general election, the BSP and SP have once more announced a pre-poll alliance, with each party contesting thirty-eight seats. This will leave two seats for the Congress (those held by Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, the party’s respective former and current president) and two more for the Rashtriya Lok Dal, a smaller political party with a base in western UP.
The Congress, for its part, will contest the 2019 elections in UP on its own, even announcing that Priyanka Gandhi (Rahul’s sister and Sonia’s daughter) will play an active role in the party’s campaign in eastern UP. Although Priyanaka Gandhi has campaigned for the Congress before and has served as a pivotal backroom player, her entry into day-to-day politics came as a surprise, given that she has enjoyed a relatively low profile largely free of the rough-and-tumble of India’s retail politics.
Given the opportunistic alliance, the eleventh-hour Congress surprise, and the fact that Modi remains popular in UP even as his party’s brand has dipped, the UP outcome is virtually impossible to predict at this point. But at least three structural factors will help determine how much the opposition will be able to put a dent in the BJP’s position.
Maintaining the Enthusiasm Advantage
First, the BJP’s success in 2019 will depend on whether it can mobilize supporters and potential swing voters to go to the polls. Voter turnout in India’s sixteenth general election in 2014 reached a record 66.4 percent; turnout in UP, while only 58.4 percent, was still the highest ever recorded in the state—a massive jump of 10 percentage points from its 2009 level.2
Whether due to anti-incumbency trends or Modi’s popularity, the BJP reaped the benefits of this surge in political participation. Across India, the party’s performance improved the most in constituencies that saw the greatest rise in turnout. This correlation held up very well in UP (see figure 1). On average, a 1 percentage point increase in turnout was associated with a positive 0.6 percent bump in vote share for the BJP. In addition, the party particularly profited from increases in women’s turnout at the ballot box—which is rising more rapidly than men’s. The BJP’s ability to retain—and perhaps build on—its support among women voters will be crucial for continued success in the 2019 polls. This explains in large measure why the BJP is casting its signature welfare schemes—from universal banking to universal healthcare—as pro-women, insofar as these policies are aimed at bolstering women’s agency.
In 2019, the BJP must not only snatch votes away from its opponents but also ensure that its own voters show up on election day. One key demographic that has often stayed away from the polls is young voters. According to National Election Study data, turnout among young voters (defined as those between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five) lagged behind the national average by 3–6 percentage points between 1999 and 2009. In 2014, this gap evaporated: youth turnout exceeded average turnout by 2 percentage points. Here too, the surge in young voters helped fuel the BJP’s significant gains in 2014. States that possessed a larger share of first-time voters in 2014 (those between the ages of eighteen to twenty-two who had not previously voted in a general election) also saw the largest increases in the BJP’s vote share (see figure 2). UP was a particular outlier.
However, there are serious doubts that the BJP can replicate this mobilization. The novelty associated with Modi’s candidacy has dimmed, as have citizens’ perceptions of the BJP’s economic performance. Much as voter turnout for the Republican Party in the United States is dipping due to an enthusiasm gap compared to Democratic Party voters, the BJP, too, is in danger of ceding its momentum to the opposition. In 2014, the BJP contested elections as the outsider; in 2019, it is the incumbent at both the state and national levels, making an anti-establishment campaign untenable.
Consolidating Hindu Votes
The UP electorate is notoriously fragmented by caste and religion. While UP voters do not determine their political preferences solely on the basis of caste, caste identity does serve as an important filter for political behavior. Historically, the BJP’s core voter base has been comprised of Hindu upper castes. But in recent years, the party has greatly expanded its outreach to lower castes, not least by leveraging the social services provided by the various affiliates of the Sangh Parivar (the family of Hindu nationalist organizations of which the BJP is the political affiliate).
In 2014, the BJP focused its efforts on Hindu OBC and Dalit jatis (castes) that have been underemphasized by the SP and BSP, respectively. In particular, the BJP set its sights on non-Yadav voters from the SP and non-Jatav voters from the BSP (the Yadavs and Jatavs are the respective castes that Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati hail from), claiming that these voters had been marginalized by their more dominant brethren. The strategy paid off handsomely: in addition to consolidating its upper caste support, the BJP attracted large numbers of lower OBC and Dalit voters to its fold.3
Unless the BSP-SP alliance can reverse this Hindu caste consolidation, it will find 2019 to be very rough going. An analysis of polling booth data compiled by Raphael Susewind allows for an examination of the BJP’s 2014 performance based on the Hindu-Muslim breakdown of voters at each of UP’s 140,000 polling booths.4 The BJP dominated its rivals in booths where the Muslim share of voters was below the seventy-fifth percentile (see figure 3), which translates to a Muslim electorate of roughly 20 percent. Above that point, the BJP’s vote share drops off drastically—a sign of the party’s difficulty in minority-dominated areas. While the opposition can be largely assured of winning booths with large numbers of Muslim voters (assuming that the various opposition parties do not dramatically fragment the vote), it has a good deal of ground to make up elsewhere.
The BSP-SP duo will also strongly contest the seventeen seats constitutionally reserved for SCs. In these seats, candidates must hail from a Dalit jati to stand for election, and Dalits themselves must make up, on average, one-quarter of the electorate. In 2014, the BJP won all of these seats—landing a particularly harsh blow against the BSP given its typically staunch Dalit voter base (see figure 4).
Yet there are emerging signs that Dalits are no longer as favorably inclined toward the BJP. According to a Mood of the Nation survey conducted in May 2018 by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Dalit support for the BJP has sharply fallen off from its previous levels (see figure 5).5
There are multiple reasons why Dalit voters across India might question their previous support for the BJP. In April 2018, India’s Supreme Court introduced new safeguards to prevent the misuse of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, which had been enacted to protect these disadvantaged communities from hate crimes. The justices introduced these new rules to prevent overzealous prosecutions, but the move enraged many Dalit citizens. Although the government ended up asking the court to review its ruling, the decision wrong-footed the government (which was already being criticized for its lax implementation of the law). More recently, the central government decided to amend the constitution to grant a 10 percent quota (for higher education and civil service posts) for economically weaker sections of the populace not already covered by affirmative action. This decision triggered fears that the government could unwind caste-based forms of reservation in favor of class-based quotas. While no such move appears to be in the offing, some Dalits are concerned that this new policy is a harbinger of things to come.
Lastly, there are issues specific to UP that have galvanized Dalits. In addition to a spate of anti-Dalit violence perpetrated by members of upper castes, there is a stark gap between the BJP’s rhetoric of caste inclusion and its upper caste–dominated administration in UP. Although Dalits make up 20 percent of UP’s population, there were only four Dalits inducted into Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s first cabinet (out of forty-six ministers in total). The Dalit community is also underrepresented in the bureaucracy: according to the Hindustan Times, out of seventy-five district police superintendents in UP, just nine came from the Dalit community (as of July 2017).
Addressing Rural Anxiety
The third factor likely to shape electoral outcomes in UP is the rising discontent of India’s rural citizens. Although Uttar Pradesh is India’s most populous state, its residents are not primarily concentrated in urban centers. According to the 2011 Census, nearly 78 percent of the state’s population lives in rural areas—only five of India’s thirty-five states and territories have higher rural population shares.
This sizable rural majority spells trouble for the BJP. The party lost assembly elections in three states with similar proportions of rural residents—Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh—in December 2018. Many analysts have attributed the BJP’s losses to agrarian distress amid falling crop prices and growing farmer indebtedness. The data bolster this narrative: political scientist Neelanjan Sircar found that the BJP performed worst in regions with a large share of agricultural workers, a trend absent in the 2013 state elections.
Opposition parties have tapped into farmers’ anger, promising in several states to waive their outstanding loans if elected. While the consensus among economists is that farm loan waivers make for bad economics—they create a moral hazard and harm credit culture—their popularity with rural residents makes for good politics.
Agrarian distress opens a number of potential vulnerabilities for the BJP across UP. While the party (along with coalition ally Apna Dal) lost only seven of UP’s eighty seats in 2014, three of those seats were in UP’s twenty most agricultural constituencies (see figure 6). This set of constituencies also includes six of the seventeen seats that the BJP won narrowly in 2014 (by a margin of less than 10 percent). This does not bode well for the BJP considering the party recently lost the two aforementioned parliamentary by-elections in seats that it previously had won by more than 30 percent. In the December 2018 state elections, the BJP vote share declined by an average of 6 percent. These six vulnerable constituencies—Sitapur, Kaiserganj, Shravasti, Misrikh, Kaushambi, and Hardoi—will be important seats to watch for opposition inroads in 2019 (the latter three are also reserved for SCs).
Insiders have long claimed that replicating 2014 is a pipe dream for the BJP. The last general election result was a perfect storm of anti-incumbency voter bias, a slumping economy, and a presidential contest with only one compelling candidate. While a sweep of UP may no longer be in the cards, the BJP must retain a strong majority of seats there. To have a shot at doing so, the party will have to energize its base, keep its coalition from fracturing, and address (or, more accurately, be seen to address) the needs of India’s rural dwellers. If it fails, a second term could be jeopardized. To paraphrase an old U.S. electoral maxim: as Uttar Pradesh goes, so goes the nation.
This article is part of the “India Elects 2019” series, a collaboration between Carnegie and the Hindustan Times. The authors are grateful to Samuel Brase and Ryan DeVries for editorial assistance and to Jocelyn Soly for help with the graphics.
Jamie Hintson is a James C. Gaither junior fellow with Carnegie’s South Asia Program.
1 For starters, parties in an alliance very rarely succeed in the wholesale transfer of votes from one party to another. Second, a successful alliance on the ground means the integration of party cadres and activists from all sides—a thorny task. Finally, although poorly quantified, there are significant campaign effects in Indian elections. The gravitational pull of a dominant leader like Modi, a campaign strategy built around religious polarization, and the role of the media (and social media) all complicate simple projections.
2 Unless otherwise indicated, all electoral data come from Francesca R. Jensenius and Gilles Verniers, “Indian National Election and Candidates Database 1962–Today,” Trivedi Center for Political Data, 2017. The full database can be accessed here: http://lokdhaba.ashoka.edu.in/LokDhaba-Shiny/.
3 Unsurprisingly, given the BJP’s Hindu nationalist ethos, the party earned the vote of just 10 percent of UP’s Muslims (although this represented a 4 percent increase from 2009).
4 Susewind constructs booth-level estimates of religious composition with an algorithm that matches voters’ names on electoral rolls to their likely religious identification. In 2014, there were 140,682 polling booths in Uttar Pradesh. Susewind’s data set has demographic and vote share data on 137,304 of these (or 97.6 percent). The analysis here is based on Susewind’s slightly smaller sample.
5 Lokniti-CSDS-ABP News Mood of the Nation Survey, Round 3, May 24, 2018.