10/02/2017 6:37 PM IST | Updated 10/02/2017 8:16 PM IST

Why The First Phase In UP Elections Is The Most Important

There’s no wave yet, but rumours about how voters have done in the first phase could change that.

Anindito Mukherjee / Reuters

BAREILLY -- Voters are set to cast ballots for 73 seats across 15 districts on 11 February, in what is the first of seven phases in the assembly elections in this Brazil-sized state. While the border region of West UP is an outlier in many ways, it is the most important of the seven phases.

It's the most important phase simply because rumours about how people vote in this phase would be used to influence further phases. There is no visible wave in this election, at least not in west UP. But the public sense of what happens in the electronic voting machines on 11 February could well create a wave.

Some say that's an overrated phenomenon in assembly elections, where the local is more important. But leaders of the Bhartiya Janata Party and the Samajwadi Party are especially busy saying they are doing well in the first phase. The BJP will win 90 seats in the first two phases, national president Amit Shah has declared. The wind, it is hoped, will flow from west to east.

It's the most important phase simply because rumours about how people vote in this phase would be used to influence further phases

The region that will vote on 11 February is largely situated between the Yamuna and the Ganga. Of the 73 seats here, the Samajwadi Party had won 24 in 2012, a strike rate of less than 33 per cent. This was in contrast to the 224 of 403 seats that the SP won across the state, a strike rate of over 55 per cent.

In other words, this is Samajwadi Party's weakest area, not now but since the party was formed. Just as the "aloo belt" that will vote in phase three is Yadav-dominated, the first phase areas of upper and middle doab are Jat dominated. The near absence of Yadav voters is what makes the SP weak here.

Anindito Mukherjee / Reuters

That high concentration of Muslim voters – on average around 30 per cent - makes it a fertile place for Hindu-Muslim communal polarisation. That is why the Dalit-Muslim combination works well for the Bahujan Samaj party here, as Muslims in many places don't find the Samajwadi Party winnable.

In 2012, the BSP won 23 of these 73 seats. The party won only 80 seats across the state, making this region a stronghold. This election too, the BSP is expected to have its highest strike rate here. Even in 2014, it was the BSP and not the SP that was seen as the main contender against the BJP in these areas.

Saffron attrition

The BJP won only 12 of 73 seats in 2012 but if one were to extrapolate its 2014 performance in these areas, it make the BJP a winner in nearly every constituency. However, the BJP is facing serious attrition from its 2014 Hindu consolidation.

It is the Jats who are most important in this region, affecting about 50 of 73 seats. In 2012, the Ajit-Singh led Rashtriya Lok Dal won only nine seats in Uttar Pradesh. In 2014, communal polarisation shifted Jat votes en masse to the BJP. The BJP's vote share in this region was over 50 per cent, as compared to the state-wide average of 44 per cent. Upset with the party, Jat votes are moving towards the RLD again, though the BJP will still get some of their votes. The split in Jat votes is likely to hurt the BJP more than benefit the RLD, which by all accounts is expected to do better than its 2012 tally.

Anindito Mukherjee / Reuters

In 2014, communal polarisation and the Modi wave helped the BJP win some Yadav and Dalit votes too, across the state. That is not happening this election. Besides, a substantial section of upper castes is silently deserting the BJP.

What still keeps the BJP in the game in a big way is the consolidation of non-Yadav and non-Jat OBC votes – the lower OBCs such as Mauryas, which is the caste of the BJP state president Keshav Prasad Maurya. Travelling across the first phase regions over the past two weeks, this writer found scarcely any lower OBC who wasn't voting for the BJP.

In many seats in the first and second phase areas, upper caste Hindu voters upset with the BJP over demonetisation said they will still vote for the BJP as they didn't want to vote for a Muslim candidate of the SP or BSP. When they can find a good upper caste candidate of a party other than the BJP, a substantial section of upper caste voters is going with them.

Gatbandhan for Muslims

Similarly, Muslim voters are clear their first choice is "Gatbandhan". The Congress-SP alliance has helped consolidate Muslim votes towards it. In fact, one finds Muslims the only voters using the word Gatbandhan, meaning alliance. The BSP isn't the first choice of Muslim voters.

And yet, given that these parts are said to be mainly strongholds of the BJP and the BSP, the former's loss is BSP's gain.

After polling ends on 11 February, word will spread about who has voted how, and a lot of meaning will be seen in the voter turnout figures.

After polling ends on 11 February, word will spread about who has voted how, and a lot of meaning will be seen in the voter turnout figures. The BJP will try to suggest that communal polarisation and non-Yadav OBCs have helped it do well. The BSP will try to suggest caste equations have helped its game. The SP will have you believe it has done its best ever in its weakest area.

In 2012, elections had started from the east, giving the SP the benefit of a public wave by the time this region voted. That elections are beginning from here this time, could come in the way of the SP-Congress creating a wave, or a public perception they are winning. As of now, this is a wave-less election. The first phase could change that.

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