There is a strange commonality of stand taken by various political parties occupying the Left-secular space regarding a ban on opinion polls during elections this time. One of the reasons given by these parties is that poll surveys affect the voters, especially because all polls have a consensus about BJP being in command position.

Another factor that we constantly hear among psephological circles is what is termed as “winner takes it all” or “the frontrunner advantage”, wherein we are told time and again that voters tend to consolidate with the frontrunner party closer to elections. For instance, in UP 2012 assembly elections, SP was a frontrunner in the run up to the election, but was projected to be well short of a majority by many opinion polls. By the time we moved from opinion polls to exit polls, we were able to see that SP was enjoying the fruits of the “frontrunner advantage” and had ended up winning a comfortable majority. Similar trends have always been seen in almost all the elections (for ex: Tamil Nadu 2010, Bihar 2011 Karnataka 2013 or even the last general elections of 2009 when Congress consolidated beyond its own expectations and won 200+ seats after 18 years).

Is there any truth in this correlation about voters wanting to vote for winners? Have Indian voters, especially the fence-sitters, always voted along these lines, with considerable shift towards the front-running parties in actual elections?

At the outset this looks like a dubious electoral theory, of fence-sitters wanting to vote for a winning party, as if in a collective trance of some sorts. It may also smack of being a suspected retrospective analytical theory wherein we try to ascribe motives to voter’s choice to explain the strength of victory which was not visible on ground in the run-up to a poll. How can we hope to realistically explain this vote-shift during/closer to elections?

The primary X factor is actually the enthusiasm of the cadre, a phenomenon that most pundits miss. The reason why frontrunners consolidate further in actual elections is that party workers, local leaders and cadre of the said party are enthused by favourable ground situation and work towards attracting the fence-sitters, whereas the opposite is true of the party workers of the other parties which are perceived to have unfavourable ground conditions in the run-up to the election. This X factor is further enhanced in elections with multiple phases. This is what makes 2014 such a dangerous election for Congress and to some extent many of the regional parties of heartland.

The Election Commission of India, in its wisdom has decided to have a 5 phased election in the most crucial Indian state of Uttar Pradesh and what has come as a stroke of good luck for the BJP is that western UP would be the first to go to polls. Among all the geographies that go to polls in the first 10 days (7th April to 17th April), western UP would be the most crucial segment that may well decide the eventual fate of 2014.

What many analysts from Dilli don’t understand is the speed of the political message that travels among cadre, which has far more power than opinion polls or editorials. If BJP manages to sweep west-UP, as was being projected in the aftermath of Muzaffarnagar owing to polarization, then the cadre and party workers of other parties would be hugely demoralized going into the next phases of election. Can BJP really sweep western-UP? Have the other parties, especially Congress-RLD alliance, been able to stem the BJP flow in the last few weeks? Answers to these questions will add crucial bits of information to our understanding of 2014.

The Jat-Muslim polarization

One of the primary factors that is clearly visible in West-UP is tremendous anger of the Jat youth, who are fed-up with the Ajit Singh style of politics and are baffled by the blatantly communal outreach of other parties like Congress, BSP and SP. Talk to a set of 10 young Jats anywhere in this region and you will most likely find at least 7 of them enthusiastically speak about Modi, such is the overwhelming support that BJP’s prime-ministerial candidate elucidates among the Jat youth. Will this actually convert into BJP winning overwhelming number of seats depends on three factors;

  1. BJP’s ticket distribution has been generally received with enthusiasm among the Jats, unlike what is being reported in the media, although there are minor disappointments here and there. Will these minor disappointments prevent a BJP sweep remains to be seen
  2. Although youth support is mostly unanimous, the older generation of Jats are still seen to be traditional RLD voters and the ability of the youth to convince their elders into making that shift could be crucial for the BJP
  3. Contrary to editorial perceptions, last minute Jat reservation by the UPA government is a non-starter, as its primary target, the Jat youth aren’t enamoured by this tokenism. Yet, it will be interesting to see how much Ajit Singh and RLD are able to sell the Jat reservation issue to the voting public over the next week or two.

If there are 24 to 27 lakh Jat voters in west-UP, there are almost 45-50 lakh Muslim voters. The problem with Muslim vote is that it is essentially a negative vote against Modi which no party has been able to convert into a positive vote for themselves in 2014. Thus, as of today, Muslim vote is getting divided almost in a three-way split. Samajwadi Party which till only last month had the liability of Muzaffarnagar hanging around its neck, seems to have overcome that because of its strong tier 2 and tier 3 Muslim leadership who have somehow managed to convince large sections of the riot-affected Muslim society that SP had no role to play in the mishandling of riots. Even the local Urdu press has been largely positive about the state SP government.

Congress, which has been largely written off for 2014, surprisingly has a few takers mainly among Muslim voters here, whereas BSP, even more surprisingly, is now placed in the third place within the Muslim voters’ mindspace. In the aftermath of Muzaffarnagar, it was widely speculated that BSP would be the big beneficiary of Muslim vote due to Congress being out of race and SP suffering from the riot taint. Unfortunately for Maya two factors seem to have gone against her; A] the perception of Muslim intelligentsia and leadership that Maya may align with BJP after elections, of which she has a history and which is always highlighted by Mulayam who projects himself as the only man who can stop Modi and B] A section of Muslim leadership still believes that Congress is the only national alternative for BJP.

This split in Muslim vote is best explained with an example. Rampur, which has almost 50% Muslim population will see a four-cornered fight this time, with Congress, SP and BSP all pitting Muslim candidates and BJP wisely deciding against fielding Muqtar Abbas Naqvi and instead nominating MLC Naipal Singh. This was a seat which Jayaprada had won twice, despite Congress nominating the local Muslim royalty in the form of Noor Bano and Azam Khan opposing her in 2009. This time too, Azam Khan is trying hard to polarize Muslim voters in favour of SP, while Congress has given ticket to Noor Bano’s son and BSP is desperate to create a Dalit-Muslim coalition. Lodh voters with roughly 1 lakh plus strength are the single biggest subset of the Hindu vote and are solidly voting for the BJP since Kalyan Singh is enthusiastically canvassing for BJP. Kurmis who account for roughly 60k votes forming the second biggest subset of the Hindu vote are also very favourably disposed towards BJP, especially after Apna Dal joined the NDA. Even among other OBCs (roughly 3 lakh plus voters in all) and Thakur Bania voters (about 75k in total), there is discernible polarization in favour of the BJP. Thus, despite being a Muslim majority MP constituency, Rampur will likely see a BJP upper hand in 2014.

This story keeps repeating everywhere in western UP, which has made the Muslims very unsure of which way to vote. For instance, in Kairana, where BJP has nominated its tallest Gujjar leader of the region, Hukum Singh (the sitting MLA), SP has nominated Nahid Hussain whose uncle Kunwar Hussain is the BSP candidate, again leading to a split in the Muslim votes. Similarly, in Saharanpur, if Congress candidate is the nephew of former MP Rashid Masood, the infamous Imran Masood of the “chop Modi infamy”, SP candidate is Shadaan Masood, the son of Rashid Masood. Thus in a communally charged atmosphere, BJP MLA Raghav Lakhan Pal is expected to easily sail through from here.

Development politics at centre stage

Rampur is a great example of how a combination of development politics and the electoral non-viability of Muslim vote is at the heart of the new BJP that has emerged under Modi. Rampur was a seat that BJP could only win once in the last 5 elections with a wafer thin margin of 0.6% in 1998 and that too only by fielding a Muslim candidate (Naqvi), even when there was a wave in favour of the party all over UP. Today’s BJP is ahead in Rampur despite fielding a Hindu because today’s BJP is talking only about 24/7 bijlee or about the massive failure of state government in creating viable business models for the sugarcane farmers or about lack of jobs for the Jat youth outside the agricultural domain.

Indeed, Modi, in his speeches has always made it very clear that his agenda for 2014 doesn’t include Ayodhya or Mathura… even the Muzaffarnagar riots don’t find any mention in his speeches, despite pressure from cadre and supporters. This no nonsense approach to governance and development have endeared BJP to a large section of the floating vote which would have otherwise gone to SP/BSP.

This is essentially the defining factor of 2014, while the Hindu vote is in favour of the BJP, it is a positive vote for development, but the Muslim vote is nothing but a negative vote against Modi which is still stuck in a time-warp of old secular-communal paradigms. This is also the collective failure of the so called left leaning secular parties who have failed to create any positive narrative for the Muslim vote.

The turnout factor and current trends

It is widely expected that there could be a massive turnout by Muslim voters this time in western UP. Our own analysis suggests that Muslim voter turnout in this region could be in the range of 75 to 80%. RSS cadre are bracing themselves for an enormous exercise of mass mobilization to counter this Muslim turnout. If RSS succeeds in increasing the Hindu voter turnout to above 65%, then BJP will have a huge advantage over all other parties. In this battle of BJP v/s Muslims, other political parties seem to be suffering a major disadvantage.

As of today, out of the 21 seats from west-UP that are supposed to go to polls in the first two phases on 10th and 17th April, BJP is definitely ahead in 12 seats and may easily end up winning 15 parliamentary constituencies if this trend holds on till polling day. In order to understand the prevailing mood here, one must travel to Mathura and Baghpat, where the father-son duo of Ajit Singh and Jayant Chaudhary are both trailing as per ground reports available till the 30th of March! Yes, two “outsiders”, former Mumbai top-cop, Satyapal Singh and the evergreen Bollywood Dream Girl, Hema Malini, are leading in Baghpat and Mathura respectively!

Such a great showing by the BJP would enthuse the party cadre tremendously going into the future phases of polls in UP, Bihar and the heartland, whereas other parties will find it difficult to keep the morale of its soldiers intact. We will, of course, know the detailed trends only on the 10th and 17th of April. We here at 5Forty3 would be doing a detailed scrutiny of the day’s polling trends on all the days of election with live data analysis at an interval of every two hours.

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Praveen Patil

Praveen Patil

Analyst of Indian electoral politics and associated economics with a right-of-centre perspective.