Election fever is breaking out in Uttar Pradesh

In a tight, dirty race, which of the electoral horses in a three-party race will cross the line first in UP?

In legal circles it is said that hard cases make bad law, but in electoral politics the opposite is true, and a crunchy election may be a decisive pinch point and an interesting, perhaps reliable indicator of the future course of events.

At present several Indian states are electing their assemblies, which is done every five years. For those not familiar with the Indian political structure, the simplest way to describe it is to say that it’s mostly like the US federal system, but with bits of the British parliamentary arrangement thrown into the mix.

Formally it is federal, with state and national capitols as in the US. In Delhi, the Federal government consists of the lower chamber, or Lok Sabha, which corresponds to the US House of Representatives (British House of Commons); and the upper house, or Rajya Sabha, corresponding to the US Senate, and rotated one third every two years, exactly like the US Senate except that members are indirectly elected by state and territorial legislatures, with a dozen seats awarded at the discretion of the President (on advice from the PM). In this eccentricity it most closely resembles the British upper chamber, the House of Lords, which used to be mostly hereditary, but which is now changing in the direction of political appointment.

Like the US the Indian system has a president but she is more like a titular head of state (a ceremonial ‘monarch’ as in Britain, except temporary) than an elected US president with real executive powers. In India, as in the UK, executive orders are passed through the Houses of Parliament and the prime minister; and the head of state merely signs them as a formality.

So, each Indian state elects a number of local representatives (members of the state legislative assembly, or MLAs), a state chief minister (like a US state governor – Indian states also have a governor qua governor, but the position is merely ceremonial), and a number of representatives sent to Delhi to sit in the national assembly (commonly referred to as members of parliament, or MPs). The national, federal assembly (Lok Sabha) is elected every five years. For example, the last national election was in 2014 – the BJP won and Narendra Modi became prime minister. The next national election will therefore take place in 2019. The state elections are also every five years but they vary, or are staggered, and this leads to much tea-leaf reading for signs about what the next national government might be.

At the moment in India, elections for the states of Goa, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh are ongoing. Goa, for example, voted on 4 February but the result will be announced on 18 March. Incidentally, that state is not a BJP stronghold and looks to be a three-cornered fight between it, Congress, and the new disruptor, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). For all the details see http://www.elections.in/goa/. It’s a unicameral capitol, legislative only (Vidhan Sabha is the name of a state assembly), with no upper house (Vidhan Parishad), and just 40 MLAs – a fairly straightforward vote.

Like Goa, the state of Punjab voted on 4 February and will declare its result for the unicameral, 117-seat Vidhan Sabha on 15 March. The BJP is expected only to attain third place after a short-sighted alliance with the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). Conventional opinion expects the real fight to be between Congress and, again, the AAP. As with Goa, the BJP is not overly anxious about the result, neither expecting too much nor setting any great store of prediction by the result. Nonetheless, it has screwed up in Punjab over the past few years.

It is a completely different situation for the BJP in Uttar Pradesh (‘pradesh’ means land or territory and ‘uttar’ means north), the third state currently in the process of electing its new state assembly. Here the BJP desperately hopes if not to win then to come a very close second in a tight and dirty race.

A truism of Indian politics is that the road to Delhi (to Washington DC, so to speak) passes through the UP city of Lucknow. In other words the future master of India must first win the state of Uttar Pradesh. This may have become an heuristic of Indian politics because it is where the Gandhi family has its pocket boroughs, or safe family seats, of Rae Bareli (the fragrant Sonia Gandhi) and Amethi (her talented son, Rahul). I always feel compelled to point out that despite these billionaires being the local squires for decades, their districts boast some of the the worst roads and rates of child malnutrition in the subcontinent.

The state is currently under the leadership of the Samajwadi Party, with Akhilesh Yadav as chief minister. The Yadavs are a numerous caste in a state that for all its size and influence remains poverty-stricken and backwards (only 50% of average national income and 30% of people still below the poverty line). CM Yadav has performed well over the past term with roads and infrastructure projects actually progressing, but a tradition of chronic and egregious corruption, whose banner for many years was held aloft by Mayawati, leader (or owner) of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), is still rife. The BJP is coming up on the outside lane to challenge the incumbent administration, but it’s not clear Modi’s mount will have the legs for the final furlong.

In an excellent, perceptive article for daily O, Minhaz Merchant points out that although his campaign has been poised and well-paced, Akhilesh Yadav has made a couple of grave errors that might cause him to stumble on the finish line. First, this is the heartland of the old Mughal empire, and there is a large and influential Muslim population in the state. Yadav attempted to co-opt their votes but this seems to have alienated some of the Samajwadi Party’s even more vital Hindu voteblock. Will those alienated voters flock to Modi and the BJP?

The other main challenger, Mayawati’s BSP, is comprised of the ‘working class’ vote, which means the lower castes (dalits and others) and Muslims. Two things threaten her. First, if the SP’s appeal to Muslims has been somewhat successful, Mayawati will be damaged. At the same time, the SP could still also be damaged overall if it leaks previously loyal Hindu votes. Second (and again this threatens both Yadav and Mayawati), if the Hindu vote is coalescing and alienated from both the SP and the BSP, where will it coalesce to? With the poor more than 70% happy with Modi’s recent demonetarisation programme, and with the new bank accounts and other measures by Modi that have benefitted them in compound manner, will lower- and middle-class Hindus find the BJP to be their citadel in Uttar Pradesh? Will Muslims also move toward Modi, as happened in Gujarat in the general election of 2014? In other words might this not be about religion and ethnicity so much as something new?

I find it interesting that the poor in India are growing more aspirational and more inclined to see themselves as poor instead of Hindu or Muslim, dalit or untouchable. The identity politics pioneered by the Congress Party to divide and rule the masses are now after several decades starting to wane – as indeed they are also in the West (witness Clinton’s recent defeat after a campaign based entirely on salami-sliced voter silos) – and economic interest is at last resuming its importance in voters’ minds. God help the BSP, SP and Congress if so.

For Modi, of course the result will be seen – rightly – as a referendum on the recent demonetarisation, and a bellwether for the next general election, due in 2019.

So who will win? Out of 404 UP Vidhan Sabha seats the Congress Party, shattered now and a useless partner for the SP, will probably win no more than 25. This, says Minhaz, was Yadav’s second fatal error. For the SP allocated far too many seats to Congress (i.e. constituences where the SP would not contest): 105 of them. On current projections that means 70 seats lost from a possible total of Congress partner constituencies, leaving the SP with an uphill struggle to win a majority that already looks as though it is being eaten into by disaffected Hindus. Minhaz:

If the Congress ends up with just 25 seats, Akhilesh will need to win over 175 seats of the 298 the SP is contesting to secure a majority in the assembly. That represents a strike rate of nearly 60 per cent (175/298) and is improbable.

In the 2014 general election the BJP, as part of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) swept to power in Uttar Pradesh with more than 42% of the votes (the SP won 22.2% and the BSP 19.6%, with Congress way behind on 7.5%). Modi himself was elected from a UP constituency, Varanasi. The BJP won 71 out of 80 seats, a revolution compared to the previous general election in 2009, when the party limped home with only 10 seats.

State elections are not, of course, general elections, and I would hate to make a prediction about this one because predictions are difficult, especially where they concern the future. Nevertheless, I would guess at a 60-70% likelihood that the BJP might just scrape it. I am thinking still of the recent municipal elections in Mumbai where the Shiv Sena – the chauvinist Hindu party still run (or owned) by Bal Thackeray’s son – was utterly trounced in almost all wards by the BJP. Again, this seems like (unscientific but instinctual) evidence that voters are thinking less in terms of ethnic and religious identity and more in terms of economic and class interest.

If that is the case, and the workers and poor of India are beginning to see that the policies Modi has put in place over the past two or three years are truly bearing fruit (and promising more to come), then the BJP could swing it. I know I am looking at things from London not from India. In certain respects this gives me a little bit of objective advantage as I am not immersed in the emotional cauldron that is Indian politics. It might also mean that I am too far away and that I’m getting it all wrong. But I do have a feeling that I trust.

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