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Message from UP bye-elections: It is time to think of 'governance vote banks'

Adityanath lost because he was not fully positioned either on community politics or governance politics.

Updated: Jun 29, 2018, 22:44 PM IST

The problem with election analysis in India is that it can be double-edged. At the one end are modern psephologists who analyse too much but deduce too little. They can drown you in numbers, which obviously vary from constituency to constituency, state to state and time to time. On the other hand are simple caste or community-based analysts and journalists who use conventional vote bank thinking on party lines to guess, predict or explain outcomes.

I would love to combine the two in a more dynamic sense because India is indeed changing, but not in ways that can be explained simplistically. Nor can it be left to dodder in a sea of statistics thrown at you by professional psephologists. Some focus may be in order - even if it is of limited value.

As results of the Uttar Pradesh bye-elections to vacated Lok Sabha seats sink in, it is clear that the BJP has been trounced in its bastions. What is not clear is what might have caused it - and elections are such that we cannot use "either/or" logic to explain victories and defeats. (I am keeping away from the more complex Bihar, though there are clues).

What I propose is to come up with one conclusion based on the numbers and facts at our disposal: that there is a new kind of vote bank in India and I would love to call it the "governance vote bank." To overestimate its potential would be as erroneous as ignoring it. I also suggest something based on years of watching or covering elections: this I would call the "winner's bonus"

Let's look at the numbers before guessing the causes. In both the Lok Sabha constituencies where it has lost, the simple arithmetic of Akhilesh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party and Mayawati-led Bahujan Samajwadi party combining to beat Yogi Adityanath-driven BJP is far from valid. In Adityanath's native Gorakhpur, SP and BSP have increased their combined vote share to 49% in 2018 from 39% in 2014. The BJP's share has come down to a still significant 47% from 52%. In Phulpur, the SP-BSP combine has got 47% this year, up from 37% in 2014 while BJP's share has plunged to 39% from 52%.

We need to understand both the swing towards the winner as well as the swing away from the loser. This has to be explained by factors in addition to the assumption that there are committed voters (usually based on caste/community) who vote the same party/grouping anyway.

Apart from general reasons like "overconfidence" that Yogi Adityanath admits, I think there are three factors at work, which led to a combination of numbers that made SP-BSP team triumph. 

First is a general anti-incumbency factor, which is all about restless citizens voting out whoever is in.

The second is what I call the "winner's bonus". I have seen that Indian voters do not always vote who they think ought to win in their own interest or that of others. Often, they vote for who they think is likely to win, as "wasting" a vote is not an option. So they play something like a game, in which they guess the winner (unless they have a lot at stake, like landless Dalit workers, Muslims or entrenched upper castes - who vote on predictable lines). This is what I call the "winner's bonus." To get here, a party or combine needs to send out the image of a likely win. I think the SP and BSP did it this time successfully. The winner's bonus is something astute politicians are aware of. They spend money, energy and campaign resources to create the image of winning because it brings a bonus.

The third reason is what I call the "governance factor" - and that I think is increasingly a reality in Indian politics. As urbanisation grows and traditional village relations and interests are replaced by a higher level of expectations, voters are increasingly less likely to vote on caste or community lines and more likely to vote on their current assessment and expectations based on their needs - be it safety, security, welfare or opportunities. Collectively, such voters may be called the "governance vote bank."

The interesting thing about UP is that all parties promise it, but their style and emphasis are different from each other. BSP talks of "sarvajan" rule and not just "bahujan" (a collective reference to Dalits, backward castes and minorities). The SP is socialist by definition and promises welfare of all - which is not too far from the "Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas" (the support of all and the development of all) that the BJP talks of.

But in actual ground-work, Mayawati is focused more on Dalit interests and pride (consider that she was erecting her own statues in Noida and blessing a Formula One car race at a modern track). Yogi Adityanath is more interested in law and order issues and fighting corruption and gives the image of a no-nonsense administrator than a provider of welfare opportunities. It is in the latter that Akhilesh Yadav has laid emphasis, and is not bound by old kinships. Akhilesh has fought a visible cold war with his patriarchal uncle Shivpal Yadav, married a Punjabi woman and speaks often of jobs and aspirations of the youth. The uncle and nephew have since made up in an uneasy family truce that signifies a party in social transit.

Adityanath seems to be more against "araajakta" (misrule) than for vikas (development). The tragedy that killed dozens of children in a Gorakhpur hospital can be cited as a classic case in which the leader in a fight against "araajkata" failed in his quest for "vikas." The two are intertwined at some level, but ordinary voters are likely to be influenced more by expectations. The quest for law & order and safety takes a backseat once it gets somewhat better, and other needs and aspirations take over. I would like to think of law and order, economic development and healthcare as a combination of factors collectively making up the "governance vote bank." Wooing this requires not rabble-rousing rallies of the kinds Adityanath addresses but ground-level administration - the kind that failed in Gorakhpur.

It is important to emphasise here that UP, unlike Bihar, is home to Kanpur and Noida, which are fairly industrialised. Localised migration of both people and ideas make it more modern and politically more volatile than Bihar, where caste equations are more pronounced. 

A newspaper headline says, "Non-Yadav OBCs who voted BJP do a rethink." 

UP has no separate party or leader of significance for non-Yadav backward castes like Nitish Kumar (a Kurmi). In UP, the Yadav-Kurmi rivalry has no political equivalent unlike in Bihar, where the Janata Dal (United) under Nitish Kumar and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) under Lalu, and of late Tejaswi Yadav, are clearly at loggerheads. The non-Yadavs including Jats (in Western UP), Kurmis and other castes such as Lodhis have been leaning towards the BJP and they seem to be increasingly veering towards a governance vote bank rather than a kinship vote bank. Historically, it had leaders like Kalyan Singh to capture the kinship sentiment, but that has eroded after the rise of Yogi Adityanath, who seems to have fallen between the two stools of caste politics and governance politics. It is notable that both the winning SP candidates Praveen Nishad (Gorakhpur) and Nagendra Pratap Patel (Phulpur) are from non-Yadav backward castes.

Both urbanisation and the absence of a clear kinship vehicle as in Bihar seems to have made the difference in UP because the BJP did not go that extra mile in either governance or caste equations.

Overall it makes sense to look at urbanisation, modernity and the increasing demand for basic needs as central to development politics. This means that communal polarisation (Yogi's favourite ploy) and the law & order he emphasises may be somewhat outdated. It must be added that Akhilesh Yadav did not succeed in retaining power in the last Assembly elections - suggesting that his bag of goodies did not work enough either. Whichever party aspires to power in UP may now want to do "community plus" politics because swing votes are likely to be determined by the "governance vote bank" that in turn may well give one the winner's bonus!

(Madhavan Narayanan is a senior journalist who has covered politics, diplomacy, business, technology and other subjects in a long career that has spanned organisations including Reuters, Business Standard and Hindustan Times. He is currently an independent columnist, editor and commentator. He is listed among the top 200 Indian influencers on Twitter. He tweets as @madversity)

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)