How to win the Battle for Uttar Pradesh?
Political parties should focus their efforts away from social engineering and present a coherent governance narrative, instead.
Two facts are apparent from the recently concluded Lokniti/CSDS and CVoter surveys in the build-up to the upcoming Uttar Pradesh (UP) elections. First, the trends in vote-share and seat-share indicate that we have a close contest on hand, with none of the contenders in clear lead or in clear sight of majority.
Second, previously successful social coalitions have either not coalesced this time around, or if they have, are not enough to guarantee victory. It appears that, while the Samajwadi Party (SP) continues to remain the party of choice for Yadavs and Muslims, the famed M-Y combination is unable to help it tide over anti-incumbency. Despite retaining its pet constituencies, the SP appears to have lost the support of many ‘neutral’ voters from other castes (Jatavs and other OBCs mainly), who had voted for the SP and against Mayawati in 2012. The ‘rainbow’ coalition of Upper Castes, Non-Yadav OBCs and Dalits, on which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rode to victory in 2014, has seemingly evaporated, probably due to recent tensions with the Dalit community and the fact that priorities of voters in an assembly election may differ from those in a general. Similarly, Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) is neither able to recreate the sarvjan samaj coalition (of Dalits, Brahmins and Non-Yadav OBCs), nor break the SP’s stronghold among Muslims.
Narrative dominance will unlock swing voters, quick and easy
In this scenario, each party may reach the finish line first by employing three methods. They may either ally with another political party, or work on a new social coalition, or, as each is within reaching distance of the other, appeal to neutral, fence-sitting, voters. As pointed out by Jaffrelot and Verniers here, it appears that, of the three contenders, only BSP may benefit from an alliance with the Indian National Congress (Congress).
While building fresh social coalitions may yield long-term benefits politically, such experiments have long gestation and harvest periods. For instance, the strong Lingayat consolidation in favour of the BJP in Karnataka today owes gratitude to Ramakrishna Hegde’s efforts from three decades ago. Also, in a country where modern urban planning occurs on the basis of century old topographical maps of the British era, politicians will find it difficult to obtain reliable data to practice their real-politik of social engineering efficiently, this close to an election. Furthermore, long-term effects of such ‘movements’ on the fabric of society are questionable.
Given these constraints, the SP, BJP and the BSP would be well advised to build an effective narrative on governance to gather support of individual, ‘swing’ voters, to tide them past the magic figure of 32% in vote share. Recent electoral history has shown that comparative narrative dominance has been a major factor in the ensuing success of the eventual victor. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s victory in 2014 was built on the bedrock of a cogent narrative comparison of his Gujarat model of development with the apparent Congress model of corruption. Conversely, pundits in the U.S. have argued that Hillary Clinton has been unable to consolidate her lead over her Republican rival, Donald Trump, in the on-going election cycle because of her campaign’s twin inability to shake-off the negative narrative on her trustworthiness, and to debunk Trump’s narrative of him being a ‘Dr. Fix it all’.
Additionally, contemporary elections wherein credible narratives, alternate to the eventual victor’s narrative were absent, have also witnessed a ‘wave’ of popular support in favour of the latter. Examples of this phenomena include include the 2014 general election, assembly elections of Delhi and Bihar in 2015 and Assam and West Bengal, earlier this year. While, it is fallible to infer a causal relationship between dominance of narratives and the resultant wave-like victories, it is undeniable that the former is a significant ingredient in the latter.
A pertinent advantage of the narrative tactic is also that dissemination of a broader development based narrative to disparate individuals via modern forms of communication technology and targeting mechanisms has been made easy by the likes of Facebook, WhatsApp and telemarketers.
SP — complement real-politik with the promise of continued development
The surveys also throw light on how each competitor may approach this narrative building exercise. In both surveys, Akhilesh Yadav’s performance as Chief Minister has received a first class rating of 61%. He has also emerged as the most preferred chief ministerial candidate among all contenders.
Furthermore, his government has received positive ratings on the pace of development and improvement in energy, education and health infrastructure. 39% of the respondents in the Lokniti survey felt that development/governance has improved in his tenure. Similarly, 48%, 46% and 41% of the respondents thought that educational facilities, hospital facilities and electricity supply had improved in UP under Akhilesh Yadav in the same survey. 51% of the respondents in the CVoter survey expressed satisfaction with the development measures of the incumbent government and rated it 5 on 10 on the issue of electricity supply.
These three facts combined, provide a ripe opportunity for Akhilesh Yadav and SP to convey the message of continued development of Uttar Pradesh to the people by presenting their vision for the state’s development over the next five years and reinforcing the same on the bully pulpit, in traditional and digital media and via surrogates.
BJP — harvest the electorate’s aspirations
Not discounting the effect of Amit Shah’s astute micro-tactics, the stupendous returns reaped by BJP in 2014, as shown by Verma here, was largely an affirmative vote for Narendra Modi’s charisma and message, which was felt by voters in the remotest parts of UP (thanks to the 3D rallies). Voters largely, especially the youth, charmed by Mr. Modi’s personality and track record, subscribed to his transformational vision for themselves and the nation. The conditions, as indicated by the present polls, are germane for the BJP to set an aspirational agenda for the voter and the state to charm the UP voter again. While, a majority of the respondents are wary of re-electing the incumbent SP Government, people seem to prefer it over either BJP or BSP. Yet, the Prime Minister’s performance has been rated highly by respondents of both polls.
These numbers indicate that the BJP has a good opportunity to capitalize on Mr. Modi’s shushaasan/good governance narrative and emerge as the party of choice in contrast to competitors hamstrung by the tags of ineffective, corrupt and nepotistic governance. As suggested by the CSDS poll, Yadav Junior’s government is not perceived to have created enough job opportunities. In the same survey, unemployment has emerged as one of the top 3 election issues finding resonance with 10% of the respondents. And, we all know that job opportunities, wealth creation and growth of industries are Mr. Modi’s pet issues. Thus, the BJP in UP could build an authentic aspirational narrative on the issue of job growth and improvement in the youth’s standard of living. It would do well by avoiding the repeat of mistakes from Bihar, 2015 and using Narendra Modi’s brand and message optimally.
BSP — convince the voter that it is the real alternative to SP
Respondents in both surveys have concurred that the SP government has been ineffective in maintaining law and order in the state. 58% of the respondents in the Lokniti survey felt that hooliganism, crimes, murders and kidnapping had increased under the watch of the incumbent. Similarly, it has been given a poor rating of 3.5 on 10 on the issue of law and order maintenance by respondents of the CVoter survey. Furthermore, in the Lokniti poll, BSP emerges as the least corrupt party that is most suitable for maintaining law and order and governing UP, a finding that is in accord with the legacy of Mayawati’s previous tenure.
These findings coupled with Mayawati’s popularity among the people as a choice for the chief minister (a healthy 24–28%), are good grounds for the BSP to remind voters of its past performance and warn them of the negative consequences of voting back the SP. The party should utilize every opportunity and platform to drive-home the point that it is the only bona fide recourse for voters interested in the well-being of the state and her residents.
Electorate deserves to hear the parties’ promises on governance
Beyond the benefits that accrue to political parties as discussed above, elections fought as contests of narratives, have two positive consequences on the polity that merit their practice by our politicians. First, they serve as markers of accountability in governance. In the Lokniti/CSDS poll, 52% of the respondents answered in the negative, when asked if Mr. Modi had brought achhe din. This indicates that as Mr. Modi had made a governance related promise in the run up to the 2014 General Elections, the electorate has an objective criterion to judge his performance. This may also influence their voting behavior, consequently. More importantly, a campaign that strives to face elections on the basis of a message, affords due respect to the voter, rather than treating her as an expression in an equation of victory.