There are two big stories out of Uttar Pradesh today. The first, which was more or less expected, is the BJP's big win in the state. The second, which is probably a bigger story, is the rise of Akhilesh Yadav and his Samajwadi Party (SP) 2.0.
Let us talk about the winner first. Received wisdom tells us that state election results should only be compared with previous state elections. This is not valid for Uttar Pradesh. The reason is that UP is a laboratory of PM Modi's political economy to which we were introduced on November 8, 2016. Demonetisation, widely seen as an economic disaster, reinvented the PM as a gareebon ke masiha (messiah of the poor). It played a key role in wining over UP's poor in 2017. The Modi government built on that through a system of government handouts and freebies.
In 2019, Jayant Choudhury's RLD, Akhilesh Yadav's SP and Mayawati's BSP came together, in a Mahagathbandhan, to challenge the BJP. On paper, the alliance appeared unbeatable. What no one had anticipated was how the coming together of the two big parties would make other non-dominant OBC and Dalit castes switch to the BJP.
At that time, the SP was seen as largely a Yadav party, while the BSP was perceived to be a Jatav party. Yadavs are the biggest OBC caste-group in UP and they form about 10-12 percent of the state's population. Jatavs are the biggest Dalit caste-group in the state, making up about 11 percent of the population. These two caste-groups are subaltern in relation to upper castes, but they are dominant when compared to other OBC and Dalit caste-communities.
The fear of two dominant groups joining hands, and then reorienting government resources for their own benefit, pushed many non-Yadav and non-Jatav castes towards the BJP. Above that sat PM Modi's Hindutva appeal, which could expand the domain of common political identity beyond caste.
While elements of this were already present in 2017, the social and economic engineering was perfected only by 2019, especially after the announcement of PM-Kisan, where small and poor peasants got some cash in their hands. This is why 2019 needs to be the benchmark for the then-vs-now results in UP, as also to understand the significant political shifts.
In that sense, this is not great news for the BJP. Even though it has won a two-thirds majority, its alliance has dropped over 6 percent in votes. While this can happen when Lok Sabha votes get translated to state elections, the worry for the BJP is that Akhilesh Yadav has taken away a big part of the votes for Mayawati and the Congress. The SP has effectively consolidated a big chunk of the anti-BJP vote, turning UP into a two-horse race for the first time in several decades.
Between 2002 and 2014, UP's voters were largely split between the three big parties - SP, BSP and BJP. 2014 changed the game when Narendra Modi took the BJP past the 40 percent mark. PM Modi won the state for his party in 2017 (remember the Chief Ministerial candidate wasn't even decided then) almost maintaining the party's vote-share. The SP and BSP, which used to together get more than half the votes, dropped to the low 40s first and then, in 2019, their alliance polled less than 40 percent, with votes being equally split between them.
It was important for Akhilesh to change this, to take his party's vote-share towards the 40 percent mark. To do that, he needed to consolidate the entire Muslim vote behind the SP and also recover non-Yadav OBC votes from the BJP; perhaps, even get some non-Jatav Dalit votes as well. A simple look at the electoral math would have told you that this was going to be impossible this time in the absence of any big anti-incumbency wave and a media that was largely hostile to the SP and its allies.
What Akhilesh has managed to do is not a mean feat. And that is why this could well be a semi-final for the SP before it can really challenge the BJP's hegemony in the state. In 2017, the BJP had an 18 percent lead over the SP in terms of vote-share, which increased to nearly 32 percent in 2019. Now Akhilesh has brought this down to less than 10 percent. If one looks at the alliance-level votes, the gap between the BJP-led alliance and the SP-RLD-led alliance is just 8 percent. This time, the alliance would have needed a swing of more than 16 percent to beat the BJP (based on 2019 votes). Next time, it will need just a shade more than 4 percent. That is well within the realm of possibility.
One reason why the SP couldn't quite make it is that loyal voters of the BSP and Congress stuck to their parties. Some Muslim votes might also have gone to these parties in area where their candidates appeared strong. The SP's success will send a signal to those who are at the margins of the Congress and BSP's loyal constituency that Akhilesh and his partners have a better chance of beating the BJP. This could lead to a further collapse of the Congress and BSP's vote, and a stronger consolidation behind the SP.
That is something the BJP will watch closely over the coming years. The party's victory in four of the five states that had elections shows that the combination of polarisation and economic-populism is still yielding rich dividends. The ruling party is now likely to redouble its efforts to deliver benefits to non-Yadav OBCs to win them back. There will be a more organised effort to break the network of Yadav and Muslim strongmen without whom the SP's alliance would not be able to function on the ground.
Akhilesh is nipping at the heels of the Modi-BJP. The BJP will not make things easy for him. UP will have to be ready for daily political battles over the next two years.
(Aunindyo Chakravarty was Senior Managing Editor of NDTV's Hindi and Business news channels.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.