In May [2021], the Trinamool Congress (TMC) won a hard-fought victory in the West Bengal polls by defeating an aggressive Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) campaign to wrest the state away. The result has set the cat among the pigeons in the Opposition camp, leading to some churning.

The year-long protests by farmers against the three central agricultural laws are also finally over, with the Modi government withdrawing the controversial laws in a rare retreat. Since the [...release of] the first edition of this book, the chief ministers of four states – Gujarat, Punjab, Uttarakhand and Karnataka – have been shunted out.

Amidst all this, poll season is upon us again with Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa, Manipur, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh set to elect new governments in 2022. While Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh will go to polls later this year, the other five will likely see elections in February and March.

Six of these seven states currently have a BJP government, with the Congress as its principal challenger. In many of these states, like Goa, Punjab and Uttarakhand, other parties are emerging as alternatives to both the principal parties. 2022, then, represents Congress’ best chance to gain a foothold, re-establish its dominance and fend off other Opposition parties baying for a larger role.

The outcomes of each of these polls will be crucial in their own contexts, but the one that is surely going to indelibly alter the country’s landscape, irrespective of the result, is the outcome of the Uttar Pradesh polls.

Unarguably, Uttar Pradesh is the most important state in the country for any political party’s fortunes since it sends a total of eighty Lok Sabha and thirty- one Rajya Sabha MPs. But for pollsters like me, Uttar Pradesh, apart from being critical, is also a challenging state to crack.

First, the size.

Uttar Pradesh has the most number of legislative assembly constituencies at 403; for context, the state with the second-largest number of seats is West Bengal with 294 seats. To get this state right, we employ nearly ten times as many personnel on the ground to conduct interviews. Even the time taken to conduct our surveys is a lot more than it is in other major states.

So vast is the state that the six different regions within it have varied, often contrasting, problems the populace keeps in mind while voting.

For instance, the infrastructural development in western Uttar Pradesh is on par with the infrastructure in some of the most progressive regions in other states, whereas eastern Uttar Pradesh, also known as Purvanchal, is one of the most under-developed territories in the country.

I remember asking residents in western Uttar Pradesh – most of whom are engaged in cultivating sugar cane – what their problems were, listing out basic amenities I thought they would choose from, like water supply, power and roads. They chose none of these and instead conveyed that the only issue they faced was the long pendency of their dues from the sugar cane crushing factories in the area.

In stark contrast, locals in Purvanchal told us they were struggling for bare necessities like clean drinking water and quality healthcare services. Sugar cane played no role in people’s voting choices there. In these parts, there are no jobs, whereas western Uttar Pradesh boasts of some of the biggest manufacturing units of global companies.

As a result, the needs of both these regions are often diametrically opposite.

Similarly, the proportion of its major castes also varies across different regions, making it difficult to predict their voting patterns. In the western part of the state, Muslims and Jats are dominant. In contrast, the Yadav community is dominant in central Uttar Pradesh. In the eastern part of Uttar Pradesh, upper- caste groups and Dalit communities are dominant, while the proportion of Muslims, Jats and Yadavs is too little to matter, with the exception of Azamgarh.

Another unique aspect is the abundance of smaller, regional and caste-specific parties in the state. From the Rashtriya Lok Dal to the Apna Dal, from the Nishad Party to the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party, smaller parties are integral to Uttar Pradesh’s electoral politics. While these parties might not win many seats on their strength, they can end up cutting into the votes of other parties. That is why, come election season, each major political player in Uttar Pradesh tries to lure some of these parties their way.

With such a vast and diverse electorate, it isn’t entirely surprising that holding the reins of the state is also a tricky affair for its politicians.

Uttar Pradesh is one of the only states currently that has a four-corner contest in which all the four players – the BJP, the Congress, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) – have come to power with a majority at least once in the last four decades and have formed alliance governments at least twice.

But what, in my view, truly shows why Uttar Pradesh can be tricky to predict is a fact that is often overlooked in popular discourse around this state’s polity. It is that no ruling government in the last four decades has been able to get re-elected there despite getting handsome majorities in their first tenures.

The last three governments formed in the state – in 2007, 2012 and 2017 – were all formed with full majorities, only for the incumbent to be booted out the next time. The electorate there is alert and watchful and doesn’t mind relegating the most powerful of its chief ministers to political oblivion.

One often associates this nearly compulsive anti-incumbency with states like Punjab, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, but the Uttar Pradesh electorate can be as fickle, and trends could change at any time, making it an unpredictable election till the last vote is cast.

All this only makes our jobs as pollsters tougher.

Since our methodology at Axis My India involves surveying each seat, the Uttar Pradesh elections are a laborious effort, especially since the vast and diverse demography means that one cannot extrapolate any assumptions gathered in specific areas and regions. In other states, one gets a general voting pattern in the months leading up to the election, but in Uttar Pradesh, these trends change within a matter of weeks.

In most other states, apart from surveying each seat, we study the inclinations of five major caste groups towards the big political players to gather an accurate understanding of the voting trends. In Uttar Pradesh, we need to study at least fifteen castes and sub-castes to be able to develop a similar understanding.

The results of these polls are bound to have implications on the careers of some of the leading players.

For Yogi Adityanath, an outright victory would mean he would become the first chief minister in decades to be re-elected for a second term. Needless to say, such a victory would also cement his place in the pantheon of prominent Uttar Pradesh leaders.

For his main contender, Akhilesh Yadav, the poll is a test of his popularity and, to some measure, even his legacy. The results will tell us whether the electorate thinks of Yadav as a mass leader, like his father Mulayam Singh Yadav, and whether he can expand beyond his urban-centric image.

For Mayawati, this election might be a win-or-bust poll, since she has already been out of power for ten years now. Her party is floundering, her resources seem depleted and her leaders are deserting her. Our experience on the ground tells us that her vote bank is committed to her, but that alone is unlikely to make a significant difference to her fortunes.

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is leading the charge for the Congress, and the party’s faring will be seen as a judgement on her. For years now, there has been some clamour around her entry into politics, with breathless followers even comparing her to grandmother Indira Gandhi. Her focus on female voters is novel, and the outcome will tell us whether this approach proved to be wise or not. This is the first full-fledged poll campaign she is in charge of; it will be her first big test, and if she loses, her last because the failure might be difficult for her to shrug off.

Lastly, the polls will also be seen as a referendum on Modi’s popularity. A loss will galvanise the Opposition and inflict a deep blow on the prime minister’s repute as a leader, especially after the loss in Bengal; a win will only further cement his appeal.

As with these principal players, even the principal parties have a lot riding on these polls.

A crushing defeat for the Congress in these polls will cast a shadow on Gandhi Vadra’s future as a leader and only increase the din among the Opposition parties for a stronger anchor to lead the alternative charge against the BJP. For the BJP, a win will reassure them of the party’s re-election prospects come 2024. It could considerably deflate the Opposition’s belief and morale – that the 2024 results will be different from the one of 2019.

All in all, the outcome of the Uttar Pradesh polls is likely to set the tone for the country’s politics over the next two years.

How India Votes And What It Means

Excerpted with permission from How India Votes And What It Means, Pradeep Gupta, Juggernaut.