Whenever a journalist reports on the political mood of a place, chances are they have spoken to their cabdriver. So, when I had to take an Uber the other day, I, too, decided to gauge the Mood of the Nation. Does Rahul stand a chance against Modi, I asked my cabbie. No way, said the Übermensch. But, he added, if Priyanka were to campaign, Modi would be in trouble.
Clearly, the Congress party was listening in. Within 48 hours, it had announced Priyanka's political debut. She is like Indira Gandhi, opined the guard next door, as he caught me on the way to the local Mother Dairy. She is destined for greatness, said my mother's domestic help, who had named her daughter Priyanka some 20 years ago. And, mind you, both of them voted for Modi in 2014.
But does Uttar Pradesh care? Will Priyanka generate enough of a groundswell to upset electoral equations in the state? And who will the Priyanka Factor dent, if at all? Will she eat into the upper-caste, better educated, more affluent urban vote share and cause problems for the BJP? Or will she take away a sizeable chunk of the Muslim vote and hit the SP-BSP combine?
Priyanka has been given charge of 41 out of UP's 80 Lok Sabha seats. In 2014, the Congress didn't put up a candidate in only one of these seats, Fatehpur Sikri. Excluding that, during the Modi Wave, the party averaged nearly 10% vote share in these Eastern UP seats. Five years before that, the Congress contested 35 of the 41 seats and averaged more than 20% votes. Even in 2014, at the nadir of its popularity, the Congress got more than one lakh votes in 15 of these seats and more than 15% vote share in eight of them.
The first thing to note is that most of the 'Priyanka seats' have a relatively low Muslim population. Only 10 or less than a fourth have a Muslim population of more than 20%. In other words, Muslims are not a decisive factor here. They aren't big enough to provide a winning bloc of votes to any one party. Neither can they be set up as the 'other' to polarise Hindu votes. This is important, because a division of the Muslim vote between the Congress and the SP-BSP alliance is not going to have as big an impact as it would in seats where Muslims make up a large chunk of the electorate.
Let's now take a closer look at the eight seats where the Congress got more than 15% votes in 2014. Out of these, Amethi and Raebareli elected the Gandhis to parliament even in their 2014 debacle. In the remaining six, the Congress averaged about 21% vote share, just 7% behind the combined votes of the SP and BSP.
Five out of these eight seats are in districts that have the dubious distinction of being officially counted amongst India's 250 most backward districts. Other than Lucknow, the rest are mostly dependent on agriculture. These are the hotbeds of the angry kisaan who were promised higher MSPs (Minimum Support Prices) by the Modi government but didn't get it. The farmer's fury has helped the Congress make massive electoral gains in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Priyanka will be trying her best to capitalise on it in these regions as well. And it will be the BJP which will be hit the most.
There are other reasons for the BJP to be more worried about Priyanka's entry. 40% of the additional votes that the BJP got in the 'Priyanka seats' in 2014 were from those who had backed Congress in 2009. If one goes by the CSDS survey data, most of these gains came from the two extremes of the richest and poorest voters. The poorest are the worst hit by job-losses and poor agricultural earnings. The rich have also been affected by demonetization and GST. Many of them would be upper castes, who had voted for the Congress in 2009, but backed Modi in 2014.
The biggest shift was amongst Brahmins, who make up about 8% of UP's population. CSDS data suggests that about 31% of Brahmins voted for the Congress in 2009. That dropped to just 11% in 2014, a massive 20% swing against the party. The BJP, on the other hand, always got a majority of the Brahmin votes. CSDS estimates that 53% of Brahmins voted for the BJP in 2009, which went up to 72% in 2014. In effect, the Congress party's loss among Brahmins was the BJP's gain. So if a part of it shifts back to the Congress in 2019, it will be at the ruling party's expense.
Of course, the SP-BSP will be hit if the Congress gains Muslim votes. According to CSDS data, the Congress got 25% of Muslim votes in 2009, which dropped to just 11% in 2014. The SP was the biggest gainer, drawing Muslim votes from the Congress, BSP and other parties. It almost doubled its share of Muslim votes from 30% in 2009 to 58% in 2014. If there's a pro-Congress surge among Muslim voters, the vote division could help the BJP the most, while it won't be enough to tip the scales in the Congress party's favour.
However, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra will be protected from this possible electoral failure. As I have argued above, only one in four of the seats Priyanka is in-charge of have significant Muslim presence. Priyanka's appeal is more likely to be amongst Brahmins, young non-Yadav OBCs, relatively better-off urban youth, and the poor farmers in Eastern UP. The way the Congress has divided the state has set it up for Priyanka to get the credit for any possible gains.
(Aunindyo Chakravarty was Senior Managing Editor of NDTV's Hindi and Business news channels. He now anchors Simple Samachar on NDTV India.)
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