The BJP landslide in Uttar Pradesh has raised many questions, given the importance of the Muslim community across the state, and its demographic dominance in certain areas, such as the Northwestern districts of UP. The question is, to what extent that communal polarization account for this outcome?
The BJP turned out to be more prepared for this election than the other parties. More resources, more staff on the ground, which presumably allowed the party to carry its message across more forcefully. It is unclear whether the message at the local level was communal (or more communal than say, the speeches given by political leaders). What is clear however, is that the strategy pursued by both the SP-Congress and the BSP helped the BJP assemble a large pan-Hindu coalition. While the size of the coalition remains large (40% of the votes), it includes a diverse array of caste groups (according to exit polls): Brahmans, Thakurs and Rajputs of course, which form the bedrock of the BJP vote in North India, and many non-Yadav OBC caste groups.
While the SP-Congress did not make specific communal appeals, it continued to be associated with the idea of a ‘Muslim sarkar’ which, for many BJP voters who deeply distrust Muslims, was a strong rallying cry. But the BSP strategy of wooing Muslim voters aggravated this feeling among many Hindu voters that this election was about winning Muslim votes and not about them. For the SP and the BSP, the result was unambiguously disastrous. The SP was not able to garner enough Muslim votes, and possibly lost a lot of Yadav votes, and the BSP succeeded in dividing the Muslim vote, while not garnering enough support overall.
What does this mean for the political representation of Muslims in Uttar Pradesh? The BJP made no effort to reach out to the Muslim community during the campaign, and the Modi-Shah electoral strategy suggests that this is unlikely to happen in the next few years. Muslims are politically underrepresented in the new Vidhan Sabha. Whether the SP can craft a new message that solidifies the Muslim vote around it and at the same time appeals to larger number of Hindu voters remains to be seen. The BSP’s future remains extremely uncertain, given the severe electoral losses of 2014 and 2017. The BSP has historically not included Muslims in its ‘bahujan’ coalition.
While the BJP perhaps used less incendiary language than usual towards Muslims, its messages resonate among Hindu voters at large far more than it did 10 or even 20 years ago. The idea that Hindus should really just vote for a Hindu party has made considerable progress, at the expense of support for a pluralist democracy which accommodates all faiths and identities.