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Uttar Pradesh - Communal Polarisation vs Caste Calculus

After a long time, the focus of the electorate in Uttar Pradesh is on the two national parties much to the discomfiture of regional ones. Whether Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party stand to gain from the changing caste dynamics in the state or the Congress from the increased communal polarisation post-Muzzafarnagar riots, is difficult to say.

The 16th parliamentary elections in Uttar Pradesh (UP)  have brought to the fore the collapse of the traditional model of caste and communal politics in the state. While the communal polarisation in the state might help the Congress, the realignment of castes might boost the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) prospects. This reconfiguration of the caste-communal model  combined with developmental aspirations of electors is likely to produce stunning results. Notwithstanding the presence of traditionally strong regional players such as the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the nature of  contest in the state this time is largely bipartisan; the electorate focusing mainly on national parties.

New Communal Model

Though many see UP voters voting on communal lines, existing data does not support this proposition. The BJP, symbolising communal politics, rightly or wrongly, was politically marginlised after the demolition of Babri Masjid  on 6 December 1992. This is clearly evident in BJPs declining  tally over the years in assembly elections (1991: 221, 1993:178, 1996:174, 2002: 88, 2007:51, 2012:47).  Its vote share was halved from 31.5% in 1991 to 15.0% in 2012.

The Muzzaffarnagar riots, which took place in September 2013,  have given a communal twist to the current electoral process in the state. The SP government fell from grace, as Muslims felt that the Akhilesh Yadav government did not do enough to protect them. Moreover, holding of the grand Saifai Mahotsav in Mulayam’s village did not go down well with them, because many children of riot affected families were dying of cold and starvation while the celebrations were taking place. As the riots acquired a Jat vs. Muslim character, and as the most important Jat leader Ajit Singh of the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) was a minister in the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, Muslims felt angry with the Congress too. Thus  the Muslim anger was directed against the SP, RLD and the Congress, and, at least in western UP, they might have voted for the BSP.

With the emergence of Modi as a formidable leader of the BJP, Muslim polarisation started taking place with a view to stopping him and the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) from forming the government at the national level. They perceived that perhaps only the Congress led-UPA could stop them. So Muslims have discarded their traditional method of tactical voting at the constituency level that warrants voting for a party or candidate best capable of defeating the BJP, and have decided to vote for the Congress instead. This might give the Congress party some surprise seats. Otherwise to retain its 21 Lok Sabha seats in these elections, is a formidable task for the party. Even in its bastions of Amethi and Rae Bareli, the Congress stands discredited at the assembly level.1

But Muslim polarisation against Modi and the BJP is not unqualified. Muslims are also divided on caste and class lines; economic interests of the upper caste Ashrafs, middle caste Azlafs and lower caste Arzals differ. The Ashrafs are rich, educated and empowered, whereas Azlafs and Arzals are mostly poor, under-educated or illiterate and marginalised politically. The emergence of Pasmanda (backward/dalit) Muslim movement also points to the same fact; their slogan is “Sheikh, Saiyyad, Mughal, Pathan; kursi chodo bhai jaan” (Sheikh, Saiyyad, Mughal and Pathan brothers, vacate the chair). Neo-rich middle and lower caste/class Muslims are now looking for political empowerment.

The political empowerment of Muslims is reflected in their increased representation  in assembly and municipal bodies in UP. Their aggregate representation in assembly is 17.1%, which is close to the Muslim population (18.5%) in the state. In 13 out of 70 districts,  the share of Muslim MLAs is between 10-25%; in 21 districts, it is between 25-50%; and in five districts (Moradabad, Rampur, Amroha, Balrampur and Shrawasti), Muslim MLAs are 50 to 70% (Verma:2014). Similarly, in urban local bodies, there are 3,681 Muslims elected out of total 11,816 members, pushing their representation to 31.5% (Verma:2012) and boosting their political aspirations.

This aspiration of Muslims syncs well with the BJP’s initiative to become inclusive. A section of neo-rich Muslims and the BJP seem to be entering into a complimentary relationship, which might lead to a dilution of the hardcore Hindutva philosophy and help Muslims better appreciate the BJP’s nationalist orientation besides removing fear in their minds. Many Muslims clerics have admonished non-BJP parties for trying to instill fear among Muslims using BJP’s name and warned them that they may vote for Modi if he changes2. This is surely not a personal opinion of individual clerics; it reflects their community’s changing psyche.

This change has come due to Muslim experience in the BJP-ruled states such as Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh and even Bihar (where it is in coalition with Nitish’s Janta Dal (United) [JD(U)] where they may not have felt any discomfort; in fact owing to better governance in many such states, Muslims might have prospered and felt good. While majority of Muslims still have reservations about the BJP, a small section is rethinking and is not allergic to voting for Modi, who has acquired an image of a leader capable of delivering on the development front. This is also reflected in empirical studies by Lokniti (three Tracker Polls and Pre-poll studies)3 that suggest that as against 3% and 7% Muslims who voted for the BJP in 2007 and 2012 respectively, 11% Muslims are likely to vote for the  BJP today.

Changing Caste Calculus   

UP’s electoral politics has largely operated within a framework of caste. The state has 41.5% Other backward Classes (OBCs), 21% dalits, 18.5% Muslims and 19% upper castes4. Since 1989, BJP held power in UP for six years. Ever since, there has been a consistent decline in BJP’s vote share in UP, and the nadir was reached in 2012 assembly elections when it got only 15% votes. BJP’s best performance in the state was in 1998 Lok Sabha elections when it got 36.5% votes and 57/82 seats5. Since then, the party has steadily declined. BJP’s strategy in fielding Modi from Varanasi (eastern UP) has hinged on the fact that he belongs to the OBC, and that there is a heavy concentration of OBCs in eastern UP. Also, the party has been doing very badly in eastern UP; it got just 3/29 seats in 2004 and 4/29 seats in 2009. Perhaps the party aimed at clubbing caste with development to reap a good electoral harvest in UP.

This strategy seems to being paying dividends. Lokniti Tracker Polls are projecting the BJP’s vote share at 38% in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, which is 1.5% higher than the highest votes polled by the BJP in 1998 (36.5%) Lok Sabha elections. The data shows his acceptance as the future prime minister among all castes (Brahmins:60%, Jats:59%, Rajputs:52%, Kurmis/ Koeris:49%, Yadavs:35%, SCs:25%, Muslims:11%). While Modi detractors highlight his role in the 2002 riots, the electors seem to be giving him some credit for the long distance he has travelled since then taking Gujarat on a higher developmental trajectory. Lokniti data shows that the BJP was not seen responsible for Muzzaffarnagar riots; only 13% voters blamed the BJP as against 45% who blamed the SP for riots. The data shows peoples’ choice for non-BJP parties at 17%, almost half of the figure projected for the BJP. Modi also leads in peoples’ choice as prime minister; he is three times more popular (35 %) than his nearest rival Rahul Gandhi (12 %).

Is There a Modi Wave?

This election has become Modi-centric. A debate is going on whether there is a Modi wave? What is a wave and how do we discern one? In UP, we have seen three kinds of electoral waves; first  was the positive wave for Indira Gandhi in 1971 Lok Sabha elections when she won 73/78 seats in wake of  the Bangladesh victory; the second was the  negative wave against Indira Gandhi in 1977 when she was penalised for her Emergency excesses and could not win a single seat, whereas Janata party led by Jayaprakash Narayan got all 85 seats; and third there was a  sympathy wave for Rajiv Gandhi in  1984 after Indira  Gandhi’s assassination in which Congress got 83/85 seats.

Thus, two features are intrinsic to a wave; firstly, it is centered around a charismatic leader (in these cases Indira Gandhi), and secondly, it has the tendency of “winner taking all” or loser getting none. As far as the Modi wave is concerned, it neither is as intense as the Indira Gandhi wave in 1971, nor can it be characterised by a deep negative sentiment against the Congress, as was prevalent in 1977. Hence, there is little possibility of “winner Modi taking all”. At best, one can say that the BJP might repeat its best ever performance of the 1990s (1991:52, 1996:52, 1998:57).       

Modi has made a strong attempt to influence the OBC discourse, which has been, so far, monopolised by the SP. However, some more-backward and most-backward castes mainly kurmis, sonars, lodhs, balmikis etc, have supported the BJP. By referring to his most-backward caste (teli), the BJP aims to attract the most-backwards whose number is phenomenal in UP.

The Lokniti data shows 25% dalit support to Modi in these elections indicating that the BJP has made a dent in Mayawati’s core constituency. There could be several reasons for this. Firstly, dalits are unhappy with Mayawati distancing herself from them by moving to Delhi. Secondly, the ati-dalits have not benefitted and  nurse a grudge that Mayawati favoured mostly her own sub-caste‒the chamars. Thirdly, the most backward dalits also aspire for a change and are inspired by  brand Modi. To counter this, Mayawati has reportedly sent feelers to the BSP cadre that she does not want to be projected as the prime ministerial candidate, that her main objective is to exterminate Mulayam Singh Yadav and the SP, and that dalits should vote for the BJP in those constituencies where contest is primarily between the BJP and the SP.

Mayawati is shrewd and has a substantial vote share. The BSP’s vote-share has largely remained intact even when the SP perfomed better in the previous general elections (2004‒24.61%; 2009‒27.45%). She wants to keep her options open for tying up with either the UPA or the NDA. On the one hand she can transfer dalit votes to the BJP to defeat the SP in selected constituencies, on other she can bargain with the Congress by surreptitiously supporting their 21 sitting MPs in return for the Congress preventing division of Muslim votes in favour of BSP elsewhere.

The BJP has surely improved upon its urban, upper caste, middle-class and anti-Muslim image. The party strategy includes massive rural mobilisation by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) volunteers which includes teams of Muslim volunteers for Muslim mobilisation. Also, Amit Shah,  in-charge of the party in UP, has generally given due weightage to constituency level leadership in selecting candidates, with a few exceptions like Modi from Varanasi and Murli Manohar Joshi from Kanpur.

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is the biggest loser in UP. When AAP formed the government in Delhi, there was euphoria among people. Everybody was swayed by its commitment to eradication of corruption. But, mishandling on the governance front and Arvind Kejriwal’s resignation was met with strong public disapproval. Today, people are not willing to take AAP seriously, and it may end up playing spoiler in some constituencies.

The SP too is marginalised. The Akhilesh government has been thoroughly discredited as dysfunctional, corrupt, biased and lawless  and has incurred displeasure of both Hindus and Muslims. His unpopularity with a section of Muslims became apparent when  the Aligarh Muslim University teachers did not allow Mulayam Singh to address a seminar at the university and decided not to support him in the 2014 elections.

To sum up, UP is witnessing Modi-centric elections where traditional electoral behaviour based on communal and caste lines is undergoing a change. While the Congress is trying to take advantage of communal polarisation, the BJP seems  to be benefitting through its inclusive  agenda that includes Muslims too. After a long time, it seems electors are focusing on national parties much to the discomfiture of regional ones.


Verma, A K (2014): “Is Muslim Voting Behaviour Changing?” The Economic Times, 18 April, available at, accessed on 30 April 2014.  

Verma, A K (2012): “Muslim Resurgence in Urban Local Bodies of Uttar Pradesh”, Economic and Political Weekly, 6 October , pp. 30-31.


1.     In Amethi and Rae Bareli parliamentary constituencies, there are 10 assembly segments. Out of those the Congress has not  won a single seat in Rae Bareli, and has just two seats (Tiloi and Jagdishpur) in Amethi. Seven seats are retained by the SP and one by the Peace Party. That shows that the party has lost support at grassroots. People vote Sonia and Rahul only for personal affection. 

2.     Such clerics included Maulana Kalbe Sadiq, vice-chairman, Muslim personal law board, Maulana Mehmood Madani, Jamiat-i-Ulema-e-Hind chief, Maulana Ghulam Ahmed Vastanvi, former vice-chancellor of Darul Uloom Deoband.

3.     The Lokniti, CSDS Delhi have conducted Three Tracker Polls since June 2013 and one pre-poll National Election Studies in March 2014. The author coordinated the study in UP. The findings are available on Lokniti website

4.     Figures for Muslims and dalits are taken from  the census data, OBC figures are from NSSO, and upper caste figures are the leftovers, a rough estimate.

5.      The BJP contested only 82/85 seats in 1998 Lok Sabha elections leaving three seats for allies; two for Samata Party and one for Maneka Gandhi, who fought as an independent from Pilibhit. The allies won all three seats.

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