Every election brings its surprises. The 2015 Bihar elections had been called early for the BJP, before they were called for the RJD-JDU. And the Nitish Kumar-Lalu Yadav alliance had won by a landslide.
UP and Bihar have a lot in common. Two large, mostly agricultural and poor, dysfunctional states. Yet the outcome in UP is markedly different. Preliminary results show the BJP winning close to 40% of the popular vote, which, by the standard of Indian politics, especially at the state level, is huge. The defeat of the ruling coalition is bitter, given the hopes that had been put in Akhilesh Yadav. And the BSP is in shambles, its leader crying foul over the EVMs rather than pursuing some early form of introspection.
So what happened? Anti-incumbent feelings always run high in state elections, but they seem to have been particularly strong this time. Akhilesh Yadav did try to project a new leadership towards the end of last year, but this move came too late, and the alliance with the Congress brought no benefits – and might have contributed to sinking the ship further.
Demonetization seems to have worked to a large extent in preventing the incumbent and the BSP from using resources on a large-scale with the purpose of buying votes. But even more than that, it is the deep connection that a growing section of the population is starting to feel with Modi (rather than the BJP, in fact). This happened to a large extent in 2014 and while 2017 is not exactly a repeat of 2014, the outcome of this election suggests that people are increasing receptive to the broader discussion about development, rather than basing their voting decisions on patronage expectations (usually along caste lines).
One more thing – unlike in Bihar, the BJP mastered the arithmetic of caste in UP, giving tickets to a large number of non-Yadav OBCs. This middle belly of the electorate is important numerically, and it appears that BJP is inching closer to building a pan-Hindu coalition in North India, which Muslims will be conspicuously left out from in the near future, at least.