Written by Gilles Verniers.

Interpreting massive verdicts such as the recent Uttar Pradesh state assembly elections pose a number of challenges to social scientists. The sweeping character of the results does not provide much variation to work with. In this particular case, the 2017 results are strikingly similar to the 2014 election results, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) bagging nearly 80% of the seats with nearly 40% of the vote share. However, a closer look at the data and the contextualization of the data into a timeline of elections give us some interpretative keys.

Chart 1
Between 2012 and 2017, the BJP scored an impressive gain of 24.7 per cent of vote share, which is more than the total vote share obtained by the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) (22.2 per cent) or the Samajwadi Party (SP) (21.8 per cent). But the SP’s vote share is misleading since they contested in only 305 seats, due to their alliance with the Congress. The SP’s vote share in seats where it contested rises to 28.3 per cent, that is barely one per cent less than in 2012. In contrast, the Congress’ vote share in seats where it contested is only 22 per cent, which indicates that the alliance with SP did not work well. SP supporters did not transfer their votes to Congress supporters to the same extent that Congress supporters did (assuming there were Congress supporters).

The BJP thus retains its upper caste bias, betraying a disjuncture between the PM’s inclusive discourse and the sociology of his party in Uttar Pradesh.

The gap between the BJP and the roughly even distribution of votes between its main opponents maximized the disproportionality effect of the electoral system. In other words, the BJP’s 39.7 per cent vote share converted into 77 per cent of the seats, while the SP’s 28 per cent per cent vote share (where it contested) only yielded 11 per cent of the seats. In other words, the SP goes down from 224 to 47 seats with a one per cent drop of vote share.

The situation is worse for the BSP, who reaped only 4.7 per cent of the seats for its 22 per cent vote share, as well as for the Congress, which, despite bagging 22 per cent vote share in the seats it contested, received less than two per cent of the seats.

Where do the BJP votes come from? One way to find out is to look at the aggregate vote share of major parties. This measure was suggested by Neelanjan Sircar. This vote share increased significantly in 2017, meaning that the share of voters who are not aligned with any major party (and who usually split their votes between small parties or independent candidates) decreased.  Voters tend now to vote more strategically in favour of candidates or parties who stand a chance of winning. It is highly probable that the BJP succeeded in consolidating this ‘floating electorate’.

Chart 2

These voters remained organized around castes and it would appear that the BJP’s strategy to mobilize all non-aligned voters – that is the non-Jatav Dalit, non-Yadav and non-Muslim segments of the electorate – paid off. The BJP distributed 86% of its tickets to these segments of the population. The popularity of the Prime Minister, star campaigner of the BJP throughout polling, the relative weakness of other parties’ leadership and the deployment of an impressive electoral machinery contributed to the consolidation of the floating electorate with the BJP.

The profile of the new assembly however remains heavily skewed in favor of the upper castes, who make up 48% of the BJP’s MLAs and 44% of the Assembly. The BJP thus retains  its upper caste bias, betraying a disjuncture between the PM’s inclusive discourse and the sociology of his party in Uttar Pradesh.

Chart 3

If we break down these large caste groups into jati, we get a more precise idea of the changes at work. As far as the upper castes are concerned, it is essentially a rise of the Thakurs and Banias. Brahmins’ overall representation remains stable. As far as the OBCs are concerned, the Yadav representation falls to its lowest point, only 17 per cent of the OBC MLAs. The BJP strategy of keeping the dominant Yadav at bay is reflected in this chart. Kurmis’ representation increases from 11 to 28 per cent of the OBC contingent. Other lower OBCs, a key target of the BJP, also see their share of representation increasing. But again,  overall, the overall OBC representation remains the same.

These elections also put a halt to a twenty-year trend of growing representation of minorities. Muslims had acquired proportionate representation for the first time in 2012, with 17 per cent of the seats. They are now down to 6 per cent of the seats, that is 25 seats (7 on a BSP ticket, 16 with SP and 2 with Congress). Only 11 of the 68 sitting Muslim MLAs have been re-elected.

In sum, and despite the BJP rhetoric of inclusion, the social composition of the assembly and of the BJP resembles the classic composition of the assembly when the BJP wins: a lion share of seats for the upper castes, a preferential representation of non-Yadav OBCs, and the exclusion of Muslims.

It is striking that the BJP remains on classic track, in terms of strategy and discourse. The involvement of the Prime Minister and the focalization on development and opportunity for all, with an amount of signals to the Hindu base of the party, through short declarations, innuendos and acronyms, adds an extra layer to a fairly classic BJP strategy of consolidation of the upper caste and the lower OBCs.

What differs from the past are the inclusive pro-development discourse and the leadership style of the Prime Minister, who has the ability to rally floating voters through his discourse and charisma. The quality of the RSS groundwork, the professionalization and expansion of the BJP electoral machinery, the saturation of the public sphere since 2014 with the image and voice of the Prime Minister are also contributing factors to the BJP’s massive victory. The BJP was also helped by the weakness of its opponents, particularly of the Congress, which dragged down its alliance partners. These elections demonstrate that a broad anti-BJP alliance may not easily defeat it, the way it happened in Bihar in 2015. The Uttar Pradesh elections and the BJP victories in Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur, where it formed the government, have deepened the distance between the party in power in Delhi and the opposition.

Gilles Verniers is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and the Co-Director of the Trivedi Centre for Political Data at Ashoka University. He tweets at @gilkumar. Image Credit: CC by Uttar Pradesh Elections/ Wikimedia Commons.