Nine out of 14 full-time prime ministers of India have represented Uttar Pradesh in Parliament. This is often cited to explain the relevance of the country’s largest state in politics.

In 2014, when Narendra Modi rode a thumping majority to the House, he contested from Varanasi, claiming that the river Ganga, which flows through the ancient city, had summoned him. Over the last eight years, the Ganga has not ceased to criss-cross through Uttar Pradesh, and with almost similar inevitability, the Bharatiya Janata Party has proved its dominance in the state’s politics.

The party and its allies won 73 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in Uttar Pradesh in the 2014 Parliament elections, and 64 of them in 2019. In 2017, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance won 325 of the 403 Assembly seats in the state polls, and did so without announcing a chief ministerial candidate.

Five years ago, Adityanath’s name was not doing the rounds as the probable chief minister face. Till it did. The overwhelming victory in 2017 meant that the BJP could make the saffron-clad seer from a Gorakhpur mutt the administrative head of Uttar Pradesh.

Exit polls have predicted that the BJP is likely to retain power this year, but with a smaller majority.

If that turns out to be the case once counting begins at 7 am on Thursday, the mandate would mean, among other things, an approval of Adityanath and his hardline Hindutva brand of politics. For the BJP, an endorsement from the state would be a booster dose ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

But, exit polls and ground reports have suggested that Akhilesh Yadav and his Samajwadi Party-led alliance gave the BJP a tough fight. The fact that all exit polls have predicted a decline in BJP’s seats is not just due to anti-incumbency.

The electoral impact of coronavirus pandemic and the farmers’ protest against the three agriculture laws, which have now been repealed, could make or break the fortune of the parties in contention. Add to that caste equations, last-minute defections and the sheer number of variables in a state as large as Uttar Pradesh, and it’s hard to say exactly what might happen.

People wait in queues at a polling station in Lucknow. (Credit: PTI)

Cattle to caste: Factors that Akhilesh Yadav and allies are relying on

The Samajwadi Party, in its manifesto, promised Rs 5 lakh as compensation to families of people killed in attacks by stray cattle. The Congress also announced compensation to farmers for crops damaged by them.

The stray cattle menace in Uttar Pradesh has worsened over the last five years due to the Adityanath government’s crackdown on the meat industry, which has practically outlawed cattle slaughter. Even in its manifesto, the BJP did not announce any measures to tackle the problem.

But, as the Opposition kept raising the matter during the poll campaign and farmers went to the extent of deliberately releasing cattle near a venue of the chief minister’s rally, Narendra Modi himself had to acknowledge the problem.

The cattle problem is not the only reason farmers are discontent with the BJP in Uttar Pradesh. The Jat community – one of the major landholding classes of the state – was at the forefront of the farmers’ protests against three agriculture laws introduced by the Centre in 2020. The laws had stoked fears among the farmers that it would make them vulnerable to corporate exploitation and dismantle the minimum support price regime.

Months before the elections, the laws were repealed by Parliament. The Opposition claimed that the decision was taken to assuage farmers’ anger against the BJP ahead of elections. The realpolitik of the developments meant that the Jayant Chaudhary-led Rashtriya Lok Dal, a party with support base among the Jat farmers, decided to ally with the Samajwadi Party.

Since the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the Jats have voted en masse for the BJP. This is often attributed to the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots, which drew a clear communal line in the voting pattern in western Uttar Pradesh dominated by Jats. The Hindu votes in this region gravitated towards the BJP at the cost of Chaudhary’s party.

The Rashtriya Lok Dal is hoping that the Jats return to its folds in these polls, and combined with the Muslim-Yadav support base of the Samajwadi Party, will help lead them towards victory.

Akhilesh Yadav (left) and Jayant Chaudhary at an election rally (Source: Jayant Singh/Twitter)

In 2012, when the Samajwadi Party won the state elections, they got 224 seats and secured 29.15% of the votes. In the 2017 polls, the tallies declined to 47 seats and nearly 22% of the vote share. The numbers underline a challenge – that both at its best and worst, the Samajwadi Party has struggled to cross a 30% vote share.

For context, the BJP got 39.67% of the votes in 2017 and nearly 50% of them in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

If the Samajwadi Party’s prospects in western Uttar Pradesh depend on the Jats, it relies heavily on votes of the non-Yadav Other Backward Classes in the eastern part of the state. A consolidation of these two would make it possible for Akhilesh Yadav’s party to cross the 30% vote share-mark.

In 2017, half of the non-Yadav OBC votes went to the BJP alone, according to a post-poll survey by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. But in the lead up to this year’s elections, two sitting OBC ministers and several BJP leaders from the community defected to the Samajwadi Party.

Akhilesh Yadav would like to believe that this transition reflected in the votes as well. But, the simple fact that there are 76 communities in Uttar Pradesh under the OBC category proves that caste equations are difficult to predict.

Much like Tejashwi Yadav in the lead up to the 2020 Bihar elections, Akhilesh Yadav also targeted the BJP governments in the Centre and state on their failure to provide employment. Data shows that in terms of employment for the youth, educated and women, Uttar Pradesh does not just lag behind the national average, but the situation in the state has deteriorated sharply in the last five years.

The economic distress among large sections of the state’s population who were employed as migrant workers, and lost their livelihood during the coronavirus-induced lockdown has also contributed in discontent among people.

BJP – five years since the sweep

The post-Covid economic distress might have added to anti-incumbency against Adityanath, but might not necessarily translate into votes for the Opposition alliance either. The peculiarity could be summed up by what Phulwati, a woman living in Chhanbey constituency of Mirzapur district, told

“Modi galla diya, ghar diya, gas diya – Modi has given me rations, gas and a house,” she said, confirming that she would vote for the BJP.

As steady incomes dwindled for many in the pandemic years, they had no option but to fall back on the central government’s flagship projects. The monthly allotment of free ration under PM Gareeb Kalyan Yojana, the minimum income support for farmers under the PM Kisan initiative, and the free cooking gas cylinders under the Ujjwala scheme could well soften the blow of disenchantment against the state government.

On his part, Adityanath’s poll campaigning was largely dominated by claims that his government had cracked down on crime. Soon after he became chief minister, Adityanath had cleared from police records several cases of anti-Muslim violence against himself. The template of building a narrative of a decline in crime in the state, even as data shows that is entirely not the case, was thus set quite early in his tenure.

The fact remains though, that across sections, voters believe that Adityanath’s “zero tolerance” methods have been able to wrest what the BJP leaders often refer to as “gundaraj – law of the goons”, of the Samajwadi Party regime.

At his rallies, Akhilesh Yadav took jibes at Adityanath by referring to him as “bulldozer baba” – one who believes in demolition. In response, at a rally in Akhilesh Yadav’s constituency, Adityanath said: “I have sent the bulldozers for repairs. Once they start working again after March 10, all those who are hot-headed now will be silenced.”

As can be seen with this statement, Adityanath and the BJP easily kept the communal embers burning during campaigning. Union Home Minister Amit Shah claimed that the Samajwadi Party government did not provide electricity during Hindu festivals, Adityanath repeatedly said that only those who said “abba jaan” received ration during the SP’s regime, and the party’s social media machinery also did its bit to amplify the messaging.

Adityanath (left) and Narendra Modi. (Source: Yogi Adityanath/Twitter)

Where do the BSP and Congress fit in?

No political analyst saw the Bahujan Samaj Party as a major contender in these polls, but Mayawati’s low key campaigning kept them guessing.

The three-time chief minister addressed just 18 rallies during the seven phases of voting, according to PTI. To lend perspective, Adityanath spoke at 203 rallies, Akhilesh Yadav at 131, and even Modi, who campaigned in other states too, attended 28 poll events in Uttar Pradesh.

Nonetheless, the BSP is expected to hold on to its core voter base of 11%-12% of Jatav Dalits.

Bahujan Samaj Party’s hold on its dedicated pockets could be gauged from the fact that in percentage terms, it secured more votes than the Samajwadi Party in the 2017 polls, even though it won just 19 seats compared to Akhilesh Yadav’s 47.

In case the Bahujan Samaj Party’s voters decide to vote beyond party lines, both the SP and BJP would hope to gain from Mayawati’s loss.

In terms of attending election rallies, Priyanka Gandhi topped even Adityanath as she held 209 of them in the state. The Congress mounted its campaign on the slogan “ladki hoon, lad sakti hoon” (a woman can fight her own battles).

The party gave 40% of its tickets to women candidates and released a separate manifesto for women. The Congress also released two more manifestos for promises aimed at farmers and the youth.

None of the exit polls have predicted even double-digit seats for Congress, but ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, the party would hope to cover some ground in Uttar Pradesh to be able to bolster its claim to being the main Opposition party in the country.

In the fray

As many as 4,441 candidates were in fray across 403 seats in Uttar Pradesh. The state recorded an average turnout of 61.5% in seven phases of voting.

When counting begins on Thursday morning, all eyes will be on the seats of Gorakhpur Urban, where Adityanath is contesting and Akhilesh Yadav’s constituency Karhal.

Other prominent candidates’ seats include: Sirathu (Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya, Swar and Rampur (strongman Azam Khan and his son), Kunda (another strongman Raja Bhaiya) and Zahoorabad (former Union minister OP Rajbhar).

The three ministers who quit the Adityanath Cabinet to join the Samajwadi Party are in the fray in Nakur (Dharam Singh Saini), Fazilnagar (Swami Prasad Maurya) and Ghosi (Dara Singh Chauhan).

Exit polls

Exit polls have unanimously predicted that the BJP will get a clear majority. The poll of polls – an average of all exit poll predictions showed that the saffron party was likely to get 242 seats, while Samajwadi Party was slated to win in 143 constituencies.
The India Today-Axis exit poll gave the most optimistic outcome for the BJP, predicting 288-326 seats for the party. Times Now-Vetopegged the party at 225 seats - the lowest by any of the exit polls.