By Shefali Dhar —
Election results for the massive Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) are set to be released on Saturday. UP is the center of gravity for northern Indian politics; in addition to being India’s largest state by population, its large Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha delegations are large enough to single-handedly impact the balance of power in Delhi. The UP state elections are thus seen as a bellwether for the 2019 general elections; a win for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would suggest that he retains the support that swept him to power in 2014. Despite intense interest, history suggests that predicting the outcome is almost impossible: control of the state has changed hands in each of the last three elections.
Looking beyond the top-level results, volatility only increases; a party that won a landslide in a certain district one year might lose that same district by an equally large margin five years later. Our analysis of constituency data from the past four election cycles, however, suggests that this year things might be different: for the first time in at least 20 years the state has not experienced significant redistricting in the five years between elections. This means that the state’s parties will be fighting the elections on the same electoral map that proved so hospitable to the Samajwadi Party (SP) in 2012.
Whether or not this stasis makes the elections more predictable will be determined by voters, Yet the little-noticed fact of constant redistricting offers one possible explanation for the state’s electoral volatility. In this piece the Wadhwani Chair mines the data from the last three Legislative Assembly Elections (2012, 2007 and 2002) to present UP elections, by the numbers.
12.4 percent, 32.25 percent, 0 percent
The percentage of constituencies that changed name and likely district boundaries in each of the last three election cycles (’02 to ’07, ’07 to ’12, and ’12 to ’17).
UP was divided into 403 constituencies in each election, but the names of only 269 remained the same (a rough proxy for the constituency boundaries remaining untouched). Between 2002 and 2007 12.4 percent of constituency names changed, while 32.25 percent changed between 2007 and 2012. This high level of churn may partly explain the volatility of the elections; a member of the legislative assembly who won by wide margins in 2007 might have found herself battling on entirely new terrain in 2012.
In sharp contrast to previous years, the list of constituencies was unchanged between 2012 and this year’s elections. A far higher percentage of voters will have the opportunity to vote for the same person they voted for last time, while many more politicians will be competing on the same terrain as they did five years ago.
The number of constituencies in UP (of the 269 reviewed) that elected the same party in each of the three elections studied. We called these “stronghold constituencies.”
The SP has a slight edge in the number of stronghold constituencies, with 24, followed by 15 for the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which governed the state from 2007-12, eight for the BJP, and only three for the Indian National Congress (INC). The low number of stronghold constituencies does suggest that even when constituencies stay the same parties are not guaranteed a predictable result. With 81 percent of even the state’s static constituencies up for grabs, each party can justify the belief that this is their year.
The BSP’s stronghold constituencies tend to lie on the outskirts of the state, particularly the southern and western parts of UP. SP’s stronghold constituencies dominate the inner parts of the state, particularly the northern and eastern parts of UP.
The number of constituencies which voted for different parties each of the three election years, i.e. the most unpredictable constituencies (24 percent of the total studied). 152 constituencies (56.5 percent) voted for the same party two out of three years.
The INC’s average margin of victory across all three years — the highest of any major party in the state. While Congress has a fading presence in UP, it does appear to campaign effectively in certain areas; it was the only party to reach a double-digit average margin of victory in 2002 and 2007, dropping to 7.5 percent in 2012. The BSP, in contrast, had an average margin of victory of just under 6 percent over the three years studied, despite winning the chief minister position twice in that time. These numbers are a reminder that catering to a vote bank that produces only a narrow edge on the competition can still be a winning strategy.