There was much noise around the publication of exit polls in Western Uttar Pradesh this week. These exit polls showed that the BJP had an edge though the polls were only released on the Internet edition of the Dainik Jagaran, one of the most circulated Hindi newspapers, and did not appear in its print edition.
The case was brought up immediately as a breach of the electoral code by the Election Commission. It is unclear whether these exit polls can actually sway other voters, but the fact that the Dainik Jagaran published is suggestive of the media bias towards certain parties. The DJ is known for its pro-BJP stance, going back to the 1990s, as an article in Frontline recently explained.
Today’s piece in the New York Times on the UP elections is particularly interesting in that it raises an important issue for political scientists: that of who gets credit for what?
The federal structure of governance in India makes this question particularly elusive and elicits sometimes confusing answers. In the district where I conducted research in 2015, the marked improvement in roads and infrastructure was often attributed to the change in majority in Delhi, even though most infrastructure projects take years to materialize. The case of the Lucknow-Bahraich road, which is a national highway is revealing. While it was completed in late 2015, it was originally approved and funded by the Congress-led UPA government.
The disappointment with Modi as reported in the piece below does not necessarily mean that voters do not neatly understand the mechanics of legislation and policy implementation (casual discussions reveal that they do, often to a surprising level). For instance, the demonetization has been largely blamed on the Modi government (even though BJP supporters are more likely than non-supporters to say that the common man was not affected…). And the rampant corruption and the poor state of infrastructure rightly attributed to Akhilesh Sarkar. While the central government pays for teachers’ wages for instance, the building and maintenance of schools is a responsibility of the states.
In passing, the article fails to mention the ‘elephant’ in the room (pun intended): the BSP and its leader Mayawati. They are far more competitive in the rest of Uttar Pradesh, so quoting polls that have the BJP and SP/Congress in a dead heat is potentially misleading.
Besides, who trusts polls in the Trump era?
Lucknow will vote on Sunday this week (as a Phase II district) and as I was chatting with a friend earlier today, I was reminded of how unique the politics of Lucknow are in Uttar Pradesh. The parties that compete in Lucknow are the same parties that compete across the state, but the presence of a significant Muslim community, and the cleavages within that community make the competition uniquely interesting. Lucknow has historically had a large Shi’a Muslim community. The Shi’a presence goes back to the pre-colonial days of the Nawabs of Awadh.
The rivalry between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims reverberates in the city of Lucknow, and by some accounts, Shi’as nurture more resentment towards Sunnis, than Sunnis nurture toward Hindus. Muslims are usually perceived as a vote bank of the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, but Muslims in Lucknow do not vote en masse for the party. Shi’as historically supported the BJP, despite its anti-Muslim rhetoric. Atal Vihari Bajpayee, the former Prime Minister of India, could always count on the Shi’a vote to win his seat in the Lok Sabha.
It is unclear which party will effectively pull ahead in Lucknow, a city that is on average richer, and more educated than the rest of the state.
Polls opened in the Western part of the state yesterday, and participation seems to have been lower than in 2014 (Lok Sabha elections). The Western part of UP stands apart for different reasons. It is among the most developed, given the proximity to the National Capital Region or NCR. The northwestern districts of UP also have a large Muslim (Jat) community. Lastly, these districts have a history of Dalit empowerment that other districts in the state (with the exception perhaps of the main cities) do not share. It is unclear which party will pull ahead. The importance of the Muslim vote would make the SP a likely winner, but the area has also experienced communal violence in 2013 (Muzzafarnagar) and 2015 (the Dadri ‘beef’ incident), so the BJP may have a shot if able to rally the Hindu vote.
On a different note, I realized today how ironic the Congress-SP alliance was. After all, the historic leaders of the SP, such as Mulayam Singh Yadav politically emerged in the 1970s and 1980s with their challenge to Congress hegemony and their often painful experience of repression during the Emergency.
The first phase districts go to the polls on February 11th. These are mostly western districts where the BSP has traditionally had a strong presence. Meanwhile, in Bahraich district of Northern UP, the SP and BSP are neck in neck. The BSP seems to have given tickets to a wide range of candidates, and certainly not exclusively Dalit candidates. In Bahraich district, for instance, the BSP gave a ticket to a prominent Thakur, in the hopes of rallying Hindus (and not just Dalits), in a constituency that has a large Muslim community.
It is unclear whether the SP will suffer from being the incumbent. When I left in 2015, there were very strong anti-incumbent feelings and many predicted the return of Mayawati. But Akhilesh seems to have benefitted from the recent family feud. Many, in Lucknow at least, would seem happy with a SP sarkar as long as MSY remains sidelined. Akhilesh is also a young candidate, who has invested heavily in rehabilitating parts of Lucknow and seems more in tune with UP’s relatively young(er) voters.
The BJP performed extremely well during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, gaining 71 seats out of 80 in the state of Uttar Pradesh. But its strategy in UP ahead of the state polls has raised questions…