The hype around the Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and Rashtriya Lok Dal alliance in Uttar Pradesh has been exposed as hollow by the Lok Sabha election results on Thursday.

This mahagathbandhan or grand alliance was expected to give the Bharatiya Janata Party a tough fight for the 80 seats in India’s most politically important state.

The alliance was hoping to play a larger role in national politics if the BJP did not cross the majority figure on counting day.

But by 11.30 pm on Thursday, when votes were counted, the saffron party was leading in 63 seats and the alliance in just 16.

What happened?

At first glance, the message from Uttar Pradesh is that the image of Narendra Modi as a strong leader has blurred caste lines. This has led members of social groups such as Yadavs and Jatavs – who form the core support base of the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party – to vote for the BJP.

There does not seem to be any other explanation for how the mahagathbandhan stitched up by Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav and Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati in January failed to win more seats.

Just five years ago, in 2014, the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party had a combined vote share of 41.8%, which was marginally lower than 43.3% – the combined vote share of the BJP (42.3%) and its ally, the Apna Dal (1%).

A lot has changed since then. However, unlike the other states in the Hindi heartland, which have seen a BJP sweep this time, the alliance has prevented the BJP from bettering its 2014 tally of 71 seats.

Even then, this performance is not what was expected of the alliance.

Graphic by Sanjana Venkatesan

Did transfer of votes happen?

The Bahujan Samaj Party seems to have done better than the Samajwadi Party, according to Election Commission trends till 11.30 pm. It is leading in 10 seats of the 38 seats it contested.

This is an improvement from 2014, when Mayawati’s party did not win a single seat. It lost 16% Jatav and 35% non-Jatav Dalit votes in Uttar Pradesh that year, according to CSDS-Lok Niti data.

In contrast, the Samajwadi Party is leading in only five of the 37 seats it fielded candidates from. It had also won five in 2014, so it has not improved its tally. The Rashtriya Lok Dal, which contested three seats, is leading in one.

The Samajwadi Party seems to be struggling even in its own bastions. While it is most likely to lose the Yadav family bastions of Kannauj, Badaun and Firozabad, which it won in 2014, it has barely managed to scrape through in Mainpuri, from where party patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav is contesting.

This raises questions about whether the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party managed to get their votes transferred to each other, which was the aim of their alliance.

The trends indicate that the Samajwadi Party managed to transfer its votes to the Bahujan Samaj Party, but the vote transfer did not happen the other way around. There will, however, be more clarity on this when constituency-wise data is released.

For instance, the Bahujan Samaj Party’s lead in seven seats in eastern Uttar Pradesh and in three seats in western Uttar Pradesh clearly suggests that the Samajwadi Party successfully transferred its votes to its ally. This is because most of the seats that Mayawati’s party is leading in have a large population of Muslims and Yadavs, who are considered to be Samajwadi Party supporters.

But the reverse does not seem to have happened.

A large number of Dalits seem to have voted for the BJP in several seats that the Samajwadi Party had fielded candidates from. Moreover, it is likely that even a section of Yadavs, possibly young voters, also did not vote for the Samajwadi Party in these seats.

It is possible that the animosity between Dalits and Yadavs led Dalits to vote for the saffron party.

Past elections have shown that Dalits tend to vote for the BJP in the absence of a Bahujan Samaj Party candidate.

What is clear is that the bonhomie between Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati did not trickle down to their cadres on the ground.

Samajwadi Party President Akhilesh Yadav With Bahujan Samaj Party President Mayawati In Deoband, Uttar Pradesh, On April 7, 2019. (Photo credit: Sanjay Kanojia/AFP).

Modi’s image

So, why would Dalits and Yadavs vote for BJP, abandoning the parties they traditionally supported?

Modi’s image as a strong leader and the lack of any alternative among Opposition ranks seems to have helped the BJP not just in Uttar Pradesh but across India.

During this correspondent’s travels across Uttar Pradesh ahead of the elections, while Modi’s supporters would argue that he is the country’s most popular leader, even those opposed to the BJP would often mention how the lack of an alternative to Modi was driving voters towards the saffron party.

In some constituencies, voters did not even know the name of the BJP candidate but said that did not matter since they were all voting for Modi anyway.

The national security narrative built by the BJP after the Balakot strikes in Pakistan, in February, also seemed to have struck a chord with voters who felt Modi alone was capable of taking tough decisions.

Even Pakistan’s decision to return Wing Commander Abhinandan – who was captured by them in February after his plane was shot down over Pakistan-occupied Kashmir – was seen as a victory of Modi’s diplomacy.

Voters would often tell this correspondent that India’s position in the world had dramatically improved ever since Modi came to power in 2014.

Above all, the BJP’s social welfare schemes seem to have blurred caste lines across the state. The success of schemes like affordable housing for all, free toilets, Ujjwala Yojana and PM Kisan Yojana were acknowledged by people from all sections of society, particularly the poor. The delivery of these schemes is crucial to the BJP’s performance in the state.

Once the vote shares and data on how certain social groups voted are released, it will be easier to determine what led to a below par performance by the mahagathbandan.

The role of the Congress also needs to be scrutinised. More data will indicate whether the Congress helped or hurt the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance.

According to the latest trends, the Congress is set for a major setback in Uttar Pradesh. In 2014, the party won just two seats – the Gandhi family boroughs of Rae Bareli and Amethi. This year, the tally has been reduced to one, with Rahul Gandhi losing from Amethi. His mother Sonia Gandhi has retained her seat in Rae Bareli.