[This article does not discuss any exit poll numbers and is merely based on ground reportage]
On Saturday evening, the 11th of February, when the import of BJP’s underperformance in the Jatland of western UP which went to polls in the very first phase began to sink in, there was a sense of déjà vuabout Bihar 2015 where again the party had begun to possibly stare at defeat from the throes of victory. The degree of underperformance of BJP in phase 1 is debatable, but what made it ominous was this was the zone where a saffron sweep was expected and bad beginnings usually demoralize a political party in lengthy election seasons where micro-news travels very fast among the cadre. Possibly whispers were already being heard among the BJP-Sangh circles on what was going wrong. In sharp contrast, the media elite of Dilli were probably beginning to celebrate Holi prematurely. Yet, one man was not budging, for he must have been fully prepared for just such an eventuality.
This is indeed an Achilles heel of India’s Right Nationalist party. Historically, BJP has 5 things always going for it; A] Unparalleled cadre strength spread across geographies, B] Very loyal core vote base, C] Charismatic leadership, D] Alternate vision for India with a neat policy framework and most importantly, D] A strongly differentiated core ideology. Yet, the party has always managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory at crucial junctures of its evolution. Whether it was the 2004 defeat of Vajpayee or the 1993 setback of UP or the inability to maintain power position in its first southern gateway state of Karnataka in 2013, all these losses have a common thread, the lack of strategic depth to party’s electoral machinery. This is in part because of the philosophical construct of the Sangh ecosystem that is built on a strong character of honest hard work minus cunning stratagem (which is also why the RSS is great at organizational level in building strong socio-political networks but fails to win narrative battles that require machinations). Thus other parties with even a fraction of the strength of BJP have still managed to remain electorally powerful through political maneuvers and power play – a classic example is the decade long power that Sonia Gandhi led UPA enjoyed despite being weak organizationally at multiple levels.
One man seems to have understood this inherent weakness of the BJP and is bringing that much needed strategic depth to the organization. Thus on that Saturday evening, after phase 1 of Uttar Pradesh, BJP simply did not let go unlike Bihar. Instead it fought back at every level. For instance, there were widespread media reports in the Hindi medium about “BJP sweeping western UP” with even ‘leaked exit polls’ that went viral in the WhatsApp universe along with a strong message of the party’s intent. Cadre morale was not allowed to sag, especially in those areas that were to immediately follow by insulating those networks. Also what we could notice was that the campaign in Lucknow and Kanpur, the 2 big cities from where information generally flows down to smaller towns was redoubled with virtual carpet bombardment. For instance, a day before 2nd phase polling, in the Azam Khan stronghold of Rampur there were widespread WhatsApp messages of “90% Hindu consolidated turnouts” happening all over UP which mostly quoted sources from newspapers of Lucknow. Amit Bhai Shah had learnt his lessons after Bihar and he was not going to take it lying down.
The Shah strategic depth became visible in the second phase where there was greater Hindu consolidation against a backdrop of Muslim vote division. BJP was fighting back like a wounded lion. In the 3rd phase made up of central Awadh region and the Yadav heartland where the Samajwadis were supposed to sweep, BJP gave a telling blow to the Grand Alliance by performing a stellar electoral encore. The buzz was clearly with the BJP, especially in the big cities. After almost 15 years, BJP was in a position of strength in virtually every seat of Lucknow and Kanpur which together make up for a huge tally of 19 (almost 5% of UP’s vast assembly strength) which enabled the core urban middle class voters to remain enthusiastic on voting day, thereby helping BJP immensely. Here once again we must stress on smart ticket distribution of Amit Shah that has not found much media analysis which only talks about Modi being popular but BJP not having a CM candidate. District by district, seat by seat, the Modi electoral current has to be sustained for BJP to emerge victorious and this can happen only when the party is locally in strong contention. For example, take the case of Sarojini Nagar seat in Lucknow; BJP has never won this seat in this millennium, in fact last time in 2012 BJP was in the dismal 4th position here after the paltry RashtriyaSwabhiman Party, but now by putting up Swati Singh, the party had ensured tremendous buzz which has stood the party in good stead on Sunday. Similar was the case of Lucknow cant. Were Rita Bahuguna Joshi is expected to defeat the Yadav Bahu. Going beyond the cities, take the case of Muslim majority seat of Bangarmau in Unnao district; here BJP has given ticket to Kuldeep Singh Sengar, a very recent entrant to the party who has such clout in the entire district that he can win from any seat. Thus in end analysis, the popularity of a PM or CM can only create “hawa”, but in a complex state like UP, it is the localized strategies that also matter a lot in deciding the eventual winner and this is where the Shah stratagem is helping BJP immensely.
Now that half of Uttar Pradesh has already voted with electoral process coming to an end in 209 of 403 seats, it is time to take stock of the elections from a larger perspective. In order to understand UP elections 2017 in totality, we must first reveal our math model that we have been following at 5Forty3 Datalabs for the last 1 year – we internally call this the “bandwidth of UP”. Here each party or alliance have a base vote-share and a benchmark vote share in which they are expected oscillate all through the election season. In fact, this bandwidth holds for all the sub-regions and on an average across all districts and assembly segments (the mean bandwidth). Thus when we poll a sub-region or a district what we are looking at is essentially the relative performance of each party or alliance as to its bandwidth. To put it simply, if a party performs closer to its base vote, we term it as “relative underperformance” and if a party performs closer to its benchmark vote, we term it as “relative overperformance”. Roughly, the ‘optimal range’ for each party/alliance begins at the midway point and goes up to the benchmark vote, so for a party to win UP, it has to hit the optimal range in most regions. Thus how we have been forecasting Uttar Pradesh is basically at 3 levels of polling & analysis;
We believe that between these 3 levels, we measure almost the entire gamut of Uttar Pradesh elections and this is the best model to project the state. At the midpoint of this election season in UP, this is how each party seems to have fared;
BahujanSamaj Party: The original problem of BSP still remains its biggest obstacle. The fact is that even if it performs in its ‘optimal range’ (25 to 30%), the party won’t be able to convert much of its votes into seats because of poor conversion ratios. Mathematically, it is difficult but still possible that BSP can win UP on its own. What we were tending to believe was that Maya’s party would collapse to its base vote, thereby enabling BJP to reach its benchmark level, but that has not happened so far. In fact the opposite has been true so far. Yes, BSP has surprised by performing relatively better than pre-poll expectations which is why there has been so much of uncertainty especially after phase 1. Yet, the party may still find it difficult to cross the threshold of seat conversion ratios even in the first 2 phases where it has done well. In the 3rd phase on Sunday, Maya has lost a bit of her momentum, especially among her core Dalit voters,but the 1 x factor that is tilting in favour of Maya is the Brahmin vote which is performing better on the caste algorithm.Therefore her statistical path to victory in UP needs three things to fall in place – BSP has to perform in optimal range everywhere, SP-Congress alliance has to perform sub-optimally all through UP and BJP has to collapse to its base vote. As of now only two of these factors seem to be playing out somewhat in favor of Maya – BSP performing well & SP-Congress going suboptimal.
SP-Congress Grand Alliance: In our original math model, both SP and BSP had the same base to benchmark bandwidth, but that was shifted to a higher range after the formation of SP-Congress alliance (25 to 35%). For the Grand Alliance to emerge victorious, it needed 2 factors to play out – Optimal performance by SP-Congress in at least 4 out of 7 phases and suboptimal performance by BJP in at least 3 phases. This is where Akhilesh Yadav’s problems have already begun. In the 2nd and 3rd phase where the Samajwadis were expected to sweep, the Grand Alliance has performed sub-optimally at a much lower range. In fact, even its caste algorithm seems to have gone haywire due to relative shift of Muslim votes both in terms of turnout differential as well as enthusiasm for the alliance. What is also obviously hurting the alliance is the Congress party’s inability to pull its weight. For example, on Sunday, Congress party’s weakness in the 12 seats that it was allocated was visible in almost every polling booth. What this underperformance has meant is that the Samajwadi ecosystem at the block and panchayat level which was already feeling orphaned at many places due to the sidelining of Mulayam and Shivpal has been completely shaken after the Sunday election. Whatever his weaknesses, Shivpal Yadav’s organizational capabilities are second to none in the Samajwadi Party and his absence is hurting Akhilesh to such an extent that he may end up not being even the Leader of the Opposition!
Bharatiya Janata Party: Mathematically, it is quite possible that BJP can win UP even by scoring just the base vote of 30% provided all other pieces fall in place. Conversely, BJP can fail to get a majority even with 35% odd votes if the entire opposition vote is tactically aligned in every seat just to defeat BJP. But in real life elections, such perfect scenarios unfold rarely if ever. Yet, BJP’s best bet is to perform in the optimal range in as many phases as possible. After the sub-optimal first phase, BJP has begun to hit its optimal range with solid performances, especially last Sunday in the central parts. Not only is its caste algorithm holding well, but the party also seems to be gaining some. For instance, BJP got a decent traction in the “other Dalit” segment on Sunday, especially due to Pasi votes whom the party has been wooing assiduously. In fact, this could be one of the reasons why BSP lost a bit of momentum on Sunday. Now that the party has already hit its optimal range, going forward things should be relatively easier as it is expected to do well in each of the next 4 phases. The statistical path for BJP’s victory is relatively simpler as compared to others for it only needs one condition to win – perform optimally in at least 4 phases. The only X factor is now the Brahmin votes and this is why master strategist Amit Bhai Shah is spending next few days in Varanasi.
Converting any of these bandwidths to seats is fraught with danger due to unviable underlying mathematics. Yet, another important part of Indian elections that most of us tend to overlook is the “winner takes it all” current that operates at a trend level in the first-past-the-post system. What happens is that essentially those close contest seats begin to break in the ratio of 6:4 or even 8:2 to the main leading party. Thus hypothetically, if BJP has begun this Uttar Pradesh elections with 140 seats as core strength areas and if there are 135 close contest seats with expected under 10k margin of victory, one can expect a lot of these seats to be going the saffron way. Indeed, the Randomized Social Swing Impact –RSSI – (which had correctly forecast Bihar’s NDA debacle), is showing a strong tilt in favour of BJP as of now.