POLITICS

Why It's So Difficult To Read This Uttar Pradesh Election 

Anyone who claims to know is bluffing. 

20/02/2017 8:10 AM IST | Updated 11/03/2017 7:36 AM IST
Cathal McNaughton / Reuters
People queue to cast their vote during the state assembly election, in the village of Kairana, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, India, February 11, 2017. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

A Muslim friend in Hardoi, a classmate in Lucknow in another era, messages me on Facebook. He says he's only hearing 'Modi, Modi' in his constituency and around, and Muslims are getting divided between the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP). This was yesterday morning, as he went to cast his vote.

It's changed, he told me later in the day. Muslims realised how heavy the BJP consolidation was. Even some Jatavs, Mayawati's own caste, were voting Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) because of a Hindutva campaign. Realising this, Muslims have consolidated behind the SP. He estimates that at least 70% Muslims in his constituency voted for the SP - he went around the area getting a sense. He lives there, he knows his universe. He thinks it's enough to make the SP candidate win, because the SP is getting some extra votes beyond M and Y, Muslim and Yadav.

But to win from a BJP ticket, he went around asking Hindu voters asking them if they want Ram mandir to be built in Ayodhya. When voters said they have heard this forever, he replied, "Did you see the decisiveness with which demonetisation was announced overnight?"

In recent past, he says, BJP candidates used to make a passing visit to Muslim settlements to ask for votes. This time, the candidate didn't care. A recent turncoat from the BSP, he had good relations amongst Muslims. But to win from a BJP ticket, he went around asking Hindu voters asking them if they want Ram mandir to be built in Ayodhya. When voters said they have heard this forever, he replied, "Did you see the decisiveness with which demonetisation was announced overnight?" There was even an audio recording circulated that promised the Ram temple in Ayodhya.

That, he says, brought about a near consolidation among Hindus. Then he contradicts himself.

Adnan Abidi / Reuters
Supporters wave towards a helicopter carrying Keshav Prasad Maurya, the Uttar Pradesh state's president for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), during an election campaign rally in Bah, in the central state of Uttar Pradesh, India, February 2, 2017.

He says about 65% Baniyas, upset with demonetisation, voted for the SP candidate as a negative vote for the BJP, to send a message to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. There are women and youth across caste and community lines who voted for Akhilesh Yadav. Poor women are happy about the Samajwadi Pension Yojana, he claims. There are women in his family who never cared to vote but voted this time for Akhilesh Yadav, not to defeat BJP.

This wouldn't have mattered much had Muslim votes been divided, but now that the SP candidate got a bulk of Muslim votes, my friend thinks he is likely to win.

But who knows?

The reason why this election is so difficult to read is because, in the absence of a perceptible wave, or leher, we have only one metric to understand voter behaviour: caste.

But there's a lot more than caste going on in this election. If even a handful of Jatavs can vote for a BJP candidate for Ram Mandir, if even a handful of Baniyas can vote for the Yadav-Muslim party that is the SP, it tells you that the measuring scale of caste is broken.

The reason why this election is so read is because, in the absence of a perceptible wave, or leher, we have only one metric to understand voter behaviour: caste.

It may seem like demonetisation is neatly about caste - only Baniyas are upset - but you can find many Baniyas claiming to be ok with demonetisation. And do you really think only Baniyas are into trade and commerce? There are a lot many Brahmins too. Is there any way a travelling journalist or an opinion poll can measure how many new votes the BJP is getting, or old votes it is losing, because of demonetisation?

You can meet urban Yadavs voting BJP and rural Brahmins voting BSP. In Barabanki, this writer met angry Kurmis ready to vote for a Muslim candidate of the BSP because neither the BJP nor the SP had given ticket to a Kurmi. Is there any conventional wisdom that will tell you it's possible for Kurmis to vote for a Muslim candidate of the BSP in a election largely considered a battle between the BJP and the SP-Congress?

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing an election campaign rally at Barabanki on February 16, 2017 near Lucknow, India.

We know how to add the caste maths, but do we have a metric to measure voter behaviour on account of such attributes as a candidate's personality, accessibility, past record, criminal antecedents?

In Aligarh, I met a Dalit running a tea shop who was voting for the BSP, was a fan of Modi thanks to demonetisation, but liked an upper caste Congress candidate in a neighbouring seat a lot.

We know how to add and subtract caste figures, but do we know how to run through complex equations of caste, candidate, religion, candidate, development, law and order, demonetisation, and other factors? For one voter demonetisation decides her vote, for another law and order, some rise above caste and some press the EVM button for their religion.

Not just journalists and psephologists, even politicians don't really know what's cooking inside the voting machines.

Not just journalists and psephologists, even politicians don't really know what's cooking inside the voting machines. The estimates made by booth workers, candidates, pollsters and pundits could all be proved wrong. There will be many who will get it right, but by chance. People who claim to know for sure who's wining which seat will be in for a surprise too many.

It is only in retrospect that people, including yours truly, will build ex post facto narratives of what happened in this election, condensing a million complexities into a few keywords.

For now, anyone who claims to be able to read this election is bluffing. Or may be your correspondent is just a bad reporter playing it safe.

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