UP 2019: Poll math and anti-incumbency to outshine Modi’s charisma

UP’s importance in a national election can be hardly overemphasised, and the battle of 2019 might be won or lost here. Modi won 73 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in 2014 on the promise of prosperous future and hope of a new India. In 2017, riding high on the surge in Modi’s popularity post demonetization and surgical strike, BJP won over 80% seats in the assembly election. These massive verdicts give an impression that Modi would have an enormous advantage going into 2019 elections. However, before concluding so one should take into account two crucial changes since 2017. One, the principal opposition parties, Samajwadi Party (SP), Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), are fighting in an alliance which has changed poll arithmetic. Two, after five years at the centre and two years in UP, BJP’s popularity has taken some beating. To get a feel from the ground, we travelled over 550 kilometres crossing 11–12 Lok Sabha constituencies over two days. Based on feedback from the ground and changed poll arithmetic it seems that BJP is in trouble in Uttar Pradesh. Here are key takeaways and a comparison with the mood we sensed during our 2014 visit.

Caste is taking over the discussion on development: In stark contrast to 2014 when development dominated the conversation, in the recent trip, we sensed overpowering caste undercurrents. Sentiments amongst Dalit and Yadav voters ranged from cannot vote for BJP despite good work done in the constituency to calling 2019 election a caste war. Also note, positive feedback for the constituency was more of an exception than a rule. Even if one disregards the extreme responses, he can sense that they are rooting for parties representing their castes. Similarly, upper caste voters, whether happy or unhappy with the government, indicated that they will vote for the BJP. At several places, we were told that this village has mostly people of a particular caste and votes will go to the corresponding political party.

Gathbandhan is working without any hitch: When two arch-rivals in politics come together for any election, there is a legitimate question on transferability of votes. Traditional voters of SP and BSP without any exception gave us a firm and affirmative answer when asked whether SP and BSP should have come together? We checked with several SP voters in constituencies given to BSP and vice-versa. Contrary to the perception that voters would see the alliance as a distasteful compromise they looked rejuvenated on the formation of gathbandhan. Amongst the core voters, the word Gathbandhan had replaced SP and BSP. The answer to this quandary lies in real or perceived alienation felt by the Dalit and Yadav voters. We came across several instances where they complained that now their FIRs are also not registered by the police. To an extent, their party’s participation in power was seen as a basic need. This probably explains the seamless transfer of votes in bye-elections of Gorakhpur, Phulpur and Kairana.

Upper castes are firmly backing Modi: On the other hand, the upper caste voters were rooting for Modi. Several BJP supporters stated national security is the decisive issue. One statement that stays with us — “yeh vote desh bachane ke liye hai” (this vote is to save the nation). Interestingly, a very few voters talked about development by the centre or the state except in two contingencies (one was PM’s constituency Varanasi). This is in sharp contrast to 2014 when people saw Modi as development messiah. One would wonder, whether national security is the most important issue or is it the absence of development in the state leaving no option.

Modi still popular; Yogi disliked by BJP voters as well: Modi remains overwhelmingly popular amongst BJP’s voters. However, his popularity amongst others varied sharply ranging from mild satisfaction to anger. People who were positive towards Modi were impressed by his performance on national security and non-corrupt image. On the other hand, several voters cited non-delivery of poll promises, especially jobs and recovery of black money and deposit of Rs15lac in voters’ accounts (ironically a promise that Modi never made). In a nutshell, view on Modi was in line with their voting preference. On the other hand, Yogi was unpopular across the state. Naturally, the Gathbandhan voters did not like Yogi, but even BJP voters were unhappy with him

Farm distress amplified by stray cattle: Stray cattle is a real issue faced by the people in rural as well as urban areas. This was one of the critical reasons for dissatisfaction with Yogi is stray cattle. While in urban areas cattle is causing some inconvenience in the rural parts they are inflicting economic damage and hardship onto the farmers. A lot of farmers identified cattle as the most important issue, and that drives their vote against BJP. Even BJP supporters were quite irritated with stray cattle.

Balakot not a vote swinger: Balakot did not have top of the mind recall, and in our interactions, over two days it came up for discussion on its own only twice or thrice. Views on Balakot largely reflected the voting preference of the people. The arguments on its relevance and effectiveness were similar to any prime-time debate on national television on the issue. BJP supporters were pleased to call it a paradigm shift in India’s security doctrine while people on the other side questioned claims made by the government and some went on to ask how does it change our lives?

Congress and NYAY nowhere in the discussion: The Congress’ negligible presence in the state is well known, but we were dumbfounded to see zero discussion about the party and its flagship promise NYAY. Even when we initiated a debate about the party or NYAY, we were not able to get the voters engaged in a dialogue. Congress candidates were not in the recognition set forget about consideration set. A very few people who bothered to discuss NYAY said they do not think this promise will be honoured. Note that, Priyanka Gandhi is campaigning in the region we visited and that has, so far, not changed the fortunes of the party.

2019 quite unlike 2014
1. From euphoria about Modi to normalcy: 
During our 2014 visit, we had seen a distinct euphoria for Modi. Every discussion on the ground started with Modi and what he could do for India. In 2014, the one who was not voting for BJP was apologetic about it, and in 2019 many of the BJP’s core voters were explaining why they will vote for Modi again. Most of them cited larger goals for India as their reason for voting for him back rather than delivery of promises he made in 2014.

2. Caste again the focal point: In 2014 we met hordes of voters who said they would vote for Modi as he is the only one who can take this country on the path of development. During this visit, we found a lot of those who broke ranks in 2014 are returning to their respective caste-based parties. There were hardly any voters who said they had voted against BJP in 2014 but will vote for BJP in 2019.

3. Excitement to aridity: In this trip, we saw a very few hoardings by political parties, did not come across any political procession and several voters were still not tuned into election mood. This compares with our December 2013 visit when people were already in anticipation of the elections scheduled four months out and were not only excited to talk about it, but several voters were quite thrilled about the opportunity to vote for Modi.

4. Modi’s message not addressing people’s issues: Modi’s 2014 campaign was entirely in sync with voters’ psyche — new and prosperous India. In 2019, BJP is focusing on national security while people are more concerned about jobs, farm stress and development. No doubt that Modi enjoys a modicum of goodwill on national security issue and the same might be resonating with a section of voters. However, by diluting the focus on jobs, farms and development, Modi is probably not talking to a large segment of people.

Forecast: BJP will win ~30 seats

The forecast for 2019 is based on constituency wise vote share data for 2014 and some assumption based on our trip in the state and results of three bye-elections. Following are underlying assumptions:

Complete vote transferability between Gathbandhan parties.

Modi will find it difficult to attract new voters as those who did not vote for Modi at the peak of his popularity in 2014 are unlikely to vote for him in 2019

Modi and BJP’s popularity lower than 2014, especially amongst lower castes. Some of the voters who voted for Modi will gyrate back to the parties representing their caste.

Congress not in the reckoning in UP and hence unlikely to cut into Gathbandhan’s vote.

The minority might vote en masse for Gathbandhan as that is a winnable alternative against BJP. Congress might see some decline in votes from this segment.

The base case forecast of 30 seats for BJP factors in a vote share swing of 3% from BJP to Gathbandhan. The possibility of some of the Congress votes shifting to Gathbandhan offers a cushion to this forecast. A 3% vote share swing is possible considering:

Modi and BJP were at the peak in 2014 and opposition were decimated.

In 2014, NDA polled 43.6% more than double of 21.1% in 2009. A decline of 3% from this high level is highly probable.

Its 43.6% vote share is significantly higher than the previous highest vote share of 37.3 in 1998 and 34.4 in 1996 when BJP had emerged as a strong force in the state (post-Ayodhya movement).

This article was originally published here

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