The conventional wisdom, the last decade of trends and the headlines emerging out of Uttar Pradesh suggest the state is once again ready to give the boot to the incumbent Samajwadi Party. But two early opinion polls from the state suggest that the ruling party still has a major foothold on UP, although it will have to compete not just with traditional rival, the Bahujan Samaj Party, but a surging Bharatiya Janata Party as well.

The ABP-CSDS and HuffingtonPost-CVoter polls, both of which were based on surveys conducted over July and August, show UP Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav's Samajwadi Party in a tight battle with Mayawati's BSP and a so-far faceless BJP. In both polls, the Congress is a distant fourth.

A few caveats should immediately follow.

  • First, the elections are still more than five months away and in addition to the already difficult task of projecting election results in India's complex first-past-the-post system, pollsters also have to contend with a four-cornered contest. Even exit polls, based on speaking to voters outside booths after they have voted, were unable to put the results together in Tamil Nadu's multi-cornered contest earlier this year, so opinion polls – which simply sample opinions – are unlikely to be precise.
  • Second, Uttar Pradesh is also a vast state with a 166 million-plus population nearly as big as Brazil's, making any attempt at sampling a shot in the dark.
  • Third, political parties have yet to fully plan out their campaign approaches. Although rallies have begun in earnest and candidates are starting to be selected, the Bihar election showed us how later developments can have a significant impact on the final result, especially when it's not simply a state swinging back and forth between two parties.
  • And finally, as difficult as it is to predict vote shares, projecting the seat share is even harder. In 2014's Lok Sabha elections, the BSP managed to get 19% of votes in Uttar Pradesh, but ended up winning no seats at all. That's why this analysis doesn't include the seat-share projections, although those can be seen here and here

The polls also feature much more data on responses to survey questions, such as how many are happy with Akhilesh Yadav – a surprising 61% in the ABP-CSDS poll – and what percentage of Muslims are likely to vote for the SP (50%, according to the HuffPo-CVoter poll).

With all that in mind, the big take-away remains the surprising resilience of the SP, despite the state's see-saw nature over the last decade. An average of the polls suggests that the SP and the BJP are neck and neck with the BSP only marginally behind.

The other big story line is the saffron surge. The Bharatiya Janata Party, even without a chief ministerial face, has jumped massively from its 15% vote share in the 2012 polls, while it was always unlikely to hold on to its 42% vote share that won the BJP 71 of 80 Lok Sabha seats in 2014.

A slightly longer-term look over the last decade shows how remarkable a turnaround for the BJP this is, even if the final numbers end up moving a few percentage points up or down.

The next round of surveys are likely to be conducted towards the end of October and early November, soon after Diwali, when campaigning for next year's elections will swing into even higher gear. For now, though, the picture suggests an incredibly tight battle between the SP, BJP and BSP, with the Congress lagging far behind.