[This article first appeared in HuffPost India on 22 February 2017]
ALLAHABAD: Elections are those strange things in which no claim should be taken lightly. One of those claims could capture public imagination, metamorphosing into reality. The perception is the truth.
In UP’s month-long election, there’s a round of polling every fourth day. Every fourth day, the key players have an opportunity to alter the perception for the next four days. The Jat desertion of the BJP in the state’s western corners helped create the perception that the BJP was a weak force.
In the second phase too, there wasn’t the sense that the BJP has swept it. High Muslim population, some Yadavs and a weak BSP gave the impression that the SP-Congress alliance couldn’t have done too badly. In the third phase, however, the BJP is perceived to have done well in Awadh, the heart of the heartland, the region that has seen the rise and fall of empires.
Among this vast state’s disparate regions, Awadh sees the greatest swing of both vote shares and seats, according to data analysis by Gilles Verniers of Ashoka University. The flanks around Awadh are less unstable. The treacherous land of Awadh has a high upper caste population, high non-Jatav Dalits, and important urban areas such as the capital, Lucknow. All of which make it a fertile belt for the BJP’s lotus to bloom again.
Who’s to say what totals actually lie in the dull looking voting machines. Yet the Samajwadi sweep of this region was so complete in 2012, it’s obvious as daylight they can only diminish from the peak. As people debate the scale of the diminution, the question is no longer whether the BJP is doing badly, but if the BJP has already edged past.
The people of the potato belt, dominated by the Yadavs of the Samajwadi Party, also pressed the EVMs in the second phase. The districts of Farrukhabad, Etawah, Mainpuri and Kannauj are together a fortress of the Yadav clan. Not even Hurricane Modi could conquer it. In 2017, it’s been easy to spread the word that the Yadav Mahabharat has brought down some of the fort’s walls. Whether these rumours have any truth in them or not is immaterial. As they spread by word of WhatsApp, they augment the perception for the next four days: the SaPa-Congress Alliance suddenly looks like it’s losing speed.
There’s a new energy in the BJP’s campaign, and a growing sense of panic amongst the Alliance.
Such is the numbers game that the BJP has a natural advantage in this election. But while a number of issues plagued the BJP, from bad ticket distribution to Baniya anger over notebandi, Akhilesh Yadav seemed to have been magically devoid of the curse of anti-incumbency. Whatever anti-incumbency he had, he bundled it in the figure of Chacha Shivpal Singh Yadav and banished it to the innards of the family fort in Etawah. The election was now Akhilesh’s to win, and the BJP’s to lose.
However, Lady Luck never promises to be with anyone forever. Akhilesh Yadav seems to have reached a high point on 16 January when he won the cycle symbol at Nirvachan Sadan in Delhi, against all odds. Destiny seemed to be on his side. A frustrated opposition kept saying that the family feud was a grand soap opera written by patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav to make Akhilesh look good. In saying so, the opposition betrayed its anxieties.
Akhilesh Yadav’s family crisis left him with no time to campaign. Who wins elections without campaigning? Converting his goodwill into a wave needed a high-pitched campaign but an overconfident Tipu, as Akhilesh is called by his family, wasted long hours over the next fortnight fixing an alliance with the Congress party which wanted to make hay while the sun shines, grabbing a lot more seats than it deserved.
Brand Akhilesh lost the momentum, turning what could have been a referendum on Akhilesh into a sudoku of caste and candidates. Now you have Akhilesh and wife Dimple helicopter to seven public meetings a day, often pleading with voters to forgive the MLA’s sins and vote for Bhaiyya, the moniker apparatchiks use for him.
Every district you go to, you hear about the SP losing a seat or two as the citizenry complains of the apathy of the sitting MLA. After all that Akhilesh did to change the perception of the Samajwadi Party, this is his worst nightmare come true. Belatedly, he’s been pointing out the BJP doesn’t have a chief ministerial face. That’s too little too late, as a clever BJP is propping up the BSP to make voters think less and less of chief minister Akhilesh Yadav.
The growing sense of the BJP’s strength in phase four onwards is not unfounded. In 2014, the BJP’s combined vote share with Apna Dal in UP was a whopping 43.3%. Subtract from it the Jats who deserted BJP for honour, the Baniyas who are deserting for notebandi, the Yadavs and Dalits because it’s not a Modi election, the floating voters because it’s not an anti-UPA2 election, and so on. You would still have the BJP comfortably above the 30% vote share traditionally needed to occupy treasury benches in the UP Vidhan Sabha.
The only way Akhilesh Yadav could have beaten the BJP’s arithmetic was with an Akhilesh wave, doing a Modi on Modi. A month ago, that is where the election seemed to be headed. A month later, mid-way between the election calendar, best friends Akhilesh and Rahul Gandhi are reduced to the Yadav and Muslim votes, with potential incremental votes drifting to the Bahujan Samaj Party. The M-Y fusion is helping the BJP stop its attrition.
In a complex, three-cornered election, there may be undercurrents yet to make themselves visible as a wave. Maybe women and youth are voting for Akhilesh silently, without telling the EVMs their caste and religion. Perhaps the traders are quietly voting for whoever can defeat the BJP. Or perhaps not. The Met department can’t foresee political winds. Who knows what the next four days will have us believe? For now, Lady Luck is looking grumpily at Bhaiyya.