ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
-A A +A

Failure of the Mahagathbandhan

Mirza Asmer Beg ( teaches political science at Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh. Shashikant Pandey ( teaches political science at Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University, Lucknow. Sudhir Khare ( has retired from the DAV College, Azamgarh.

In the Lok Sabha elections of 2019 in Uttar Pradesh, the contest was keenly watched as the alliance of the Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, and Rashtriya Lok Dal took on the challenge against the domination of the Bharatiya Janata Party. What contributed to the continued good performance of the BJP and the inability of the alliance to assert its presence is the focus of analysis here.

In the last decade, politics in Uttar Pradesh (UP) has seen radical shifts. The Lok Sabha elections 2009 saw the Congress’s comeback in UP. It gained votes in all subregions of UP and also registered a sizeable increase in vote share among all social groups. The 2012 assembly elections gave a big victory to the Samajwadi Party (SP) when it was able to get votes beyond its traditional voters: Muslims and Other Backward Classes (OBCs). The 2014 Lok Sabha elections saw the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) winning 73 seats with its ally Apna Dal. It was facilitated by the consolidation of voters cutting across caste and class, in favour of the party. Riding on the popularity of Narendra Modi, the BJP was able to trounce the regional parties and emerge victorious in the 2017 assembly elections as well. But, against the backdrop of anti-incumbency, an indifferent economic record, and with the coming together of the regional parties, it was generally believed that the BJP would not be able to replicate its success in 2019.

However, the BJP’s performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections shows its continued domination over the politics of UP. Even though a socially and politically formidable and arithmetically balanced alliance of the SP, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), and Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) was pitted against the BJP, the latter was able to win 62 seats, and its ally Apna Dal won two seats out of the 80 seats in the state. Although the number of seats secured by the BJP and its alliance partner in UP has gone down by nine seats in 2019, its vote share increased by over 7 percentage points as compared to 2014. While the SP vote share dropped by 4 percentage points and the BSP was more or less where it was in 2014, they both made only marginal gains in terms of seats.

The major focus of debate during the 2019 election campaign in UP was the role of the Mahagathbandhan (grand alliance). This alliance was based on the premise that both parties, SP and BSP, will ensure the transfer of their votes to each other in the corresponding seats. They had tasted the success of this experiment in the Gorakhpur and Phulpur by-elections. Later, the RLD also joined this alliance. In doing so, these political parties as well as most political analysts completely ignored that the OBC and Scheduled Caste (SC) communities are not monolithic blocks but are heterogeneous combinations of castes and sub-castes with divergent interests. Non-Yadav OBC castes and sub-castes like Koeris, Kurmis, Mauryas, Shakyas, Kushwahas, Lodhs, Vishwakarmas, Chaurasias, Prajapatis, and non-Jatav Dalit castes were wary of the domination of OBC and SC categories by Yadavs and Jatavs respectively. The BJP was successful in understanding their anxieties and accommodating them.

The Main Players

In 2003, the success in state assembly elections of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh had infused a sense of complacency in the BJP which led to its shock defeat in 2004; whereas, in 2018 the loss in assembly elections in these states made the party more vigilant. It took steps to address the challenges and provided for 10% reservation for economically weaker sections and announced farmer income support. Conscious of its vulnerabilities, it went for alliances and focused on micromanagement. It evoked Hindutva and muscular nationalism to woo the masses, which eventually yielded rich dividends for them.

Despite the BJP government’s economic failures, Modi was able to set the agenda of the election. He succeeded in conveying the message that he had improved India’s stature at the international level. The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS)–Lokniti post-poll survey would help unpack this verdict further. This survey clearly indicates that Modi, at the time of elections, was the most popular leader securing the support of close to half the respondents, having a clear 32% lead over Rahul Gandhi.

Modi was able to convince the voters that the “distorted secularism” of the Congress, SP, and BSP, actually meant appeasement of minorities. This consolidated the majority community. He further argued that for these parties, social justice meant giving power to one or two castes, that is, Yadavs for SP and Jatavs for BSP, at the cost of others. A deep sense of comparative deprivation, ably assisted by social media and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh cadres, was promoted among the other OBCs and non-Jatav Dalits.

Modi was able to weave a narrative which was very appealing to the electorate in UP and the opposition parties were not able to effectively respond to his relentless campaigning. He was able to style the electoral battle in the form of a presidential election and there was no one who could even remotely challenge him as a strong and decisive leader to lead the country. He positioned himself as the only one who could fit in this role. He was able to strike a chord with the voters which neutralised the mahagathbandhan’s caste calculus. The opposition had no answer to this, and as the day of voting came closer, the electorate got increasingly convinced. It speaks volumes of Modi’s political and electoral management, his ability to create a new narrative for the increasingly aspirational electorate, and convince the masses about the success of his government’s policies and programmes. These factors contributed to the BJP’s success.

The Mahagathbandhan could not provide a viable alternative narrative to the electorate. They did make an effort to capitalise on the question of unemployment, agrarian distress, demonetisation, goods and services tax (GST) and the like. They could neither convince the voters nor were they in a position to offer a credible alternative. Their campaign was merely negative, with calls to oust Modi and they were banking only on the caste arithmetic. It appears that the schemes of the Modi government like the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, Kisan Samman Nidhi Yojana, and Ayushman Bharat Yojana also added to the BJP’s appeal. Moreover, a combination of Hindu upper caste, non-Yadav OBC, and non-Jatav Dalits worked to counter the anti-incumbency effect created by employment and agrarian crisis.

The Congress which constantly tried to be more majoritarian than the BJP, with its fear of annoying the majority community, could not make much headway with the voters. Moreover, many Congress candidates were disgruntled erstwhile leaders of the SP and BSP, who were denied tickets by their parties. They could not win on their own, but they cut into the Mahagathbandhan’s votes. Another important factor that went against the Congress was its poor organisational base at the village, town and district levels and the absence of a visible leadership from the OBC and Dalit communities in the state. The extremely virulent and personalised poll campaign launched by the Congress president against Modi and his repeated questions to the government for producing proof of the effectiveness of Indian Air Force operations in Balakot also did not appear to go down well with the voters.

Voting Preference

Although the BJP got votes from all caste groups, especially its traditional support base of upper castes, but the unprecedented vote increase was from the Kurmi–Koeri category (eight out of every 10 respondents), the lower OBCs (three-fourths of the respondents), non-Jatav Dalit votes (half the respondents) and the Jat votes (nine out of every 10 respondents) (Table 1). The survey found that about one-fourth of the BJP’s voters would not have voted for the BJP had Modi not been the prime ministerial candidate of the party. Put simply, this means that in the absence of Modi, the BJP may have got around 12% fewer votes than it actually did (Beg et al 2019). Although the mahagathbandhan was able to bring back some of the Yadav votes from the BJP, these did not appear enough to tilt the electoral scales in their favour.

The National Election Studies (NES) post-poll survey also indicates that Modi was the prime ministerial preference of close to half of the respondents. Though a year before the poll it had dropped to around one-third of the respondents (according to the Mood of the Nation Survey of India Today in May 2018), there was a swing in his favour as the polls approached.

The support for the BJP increased as one went up the educational ladder. It got maximum support from the highly educated. The trends were almost the opposite for the mahagathbandhan (Table 2). This implies that the narrative of the BJP was more convincing for the educated, among whom more than half the respondents favoured it. Interestingly, the votes for the BJP from the non-literate category also increased sharply by nearly 5 percentage points, as compared to 2014.

The BJP did well across class groups, but the difference in its vote share and that of the mahagathbandhan was much higher among the affluent voters, who overwhelmingly voted for the BJP. The BJP’s votes increased as one moves up the economic ladder as well (Table 3). More importantly, the BJP’s votes registered a sharp increase in both the poor and rich. In the former, it increased by close to 13 percentage points and in the latter by 19 percentage points. It shows how extensive and diverse the support base of the BJP was. As compared to 2014, the BJP registered an increase in its votes across all regions in UP; however, the maximum increase was in the Awadh region, where its votes increased by 14 percentage points.

Additionally, the BJP is usually understood as being a party with an urban base, whereas, one would assume that the mahagathbandhan whose constituents claim to represent the poor and downtrodden, would have more support in rural areas. But, this election broke that myth. For the first time, the BJP’s support was stronger in rural areas as compared to its support in the urban pockets (Table 4).

Furthermore, it is popularly understood that the BJP would have got maximum votes from the youth. While the party did do well among the younger generation, the strongest support was from those above 56 years of age.

Tilted Scales

It is generally believed that the BSP is a party that ensures the maximum transferability of its votes, especially of the Jatavs, in favour of the party/candidate it wants. In this election, this myth also got broken, as the Jatavs did not fully transfer their votes to the mahagathbandhan candidates belonging to the SP. In the BSP contested seats, three-fourths of the Jatavs voted for the mahagathbandhan, but in SP contested seats only a little over half of the Jatavs voted for it. This may be one of the reasons along with other factors, for the significantly large number of defeats of the SP candidates. The post-poll survey conducted by the CSDS clearly indicates that only six of every 10 Yadavs voted for the alliance’s BSP candidates. For the SP candidates, their number stood close to two-thirds. It was, thus, the loss in the numbers of their core voters that made the difference.

The BJP’s success, especially in the Yadav, Kurmi, and Jat belts of UP helps one gauge the breadth of its stellar performance. In the 12 parliamentary constituencies of the Yadav belt in the Doab area, the mahagathbandhan could win only one seat and that too Mulayam Singh Yadav’s seat. In 2014, the SP had won three seats in this belt. In the Kurmi belt of 26 constituencies of eastern and central UP, the BJP, like in 2014, won all seats, except that of Sonia Gandhi in Raebareli. In the Jat belt of western UP comprising of seven seats, the BJP replicated its performance of 2014 and won all seats.

However, it would be an overstatement to say that the mahagathbandhan failed only because the alliance partners failed to transfer their votes to each other. The real reason for the alliance’s poor performance was the massive shift and consolidation of the voters of all other castes—except the Yadav, Jatav and the Muslims—towards the BJP. The electoral arithmetic favoured the alliance, but the consolidation of their non-core voters in favour of the BJP, unsettled their plan.

Another calculation of the mahagathbandhan which misfired was their decision to keep the Congress out of their alliance. It was based on the assumption that the Congress would cut into the BJP votes and thereby help the mahagathbandhan candidates. However, in reality, in at least eight constituencies, the margin of loss of the mahagathbandhan candidates was less than the number of votes polled by the Congress candidate. If we go by the mahagathbandhan’s logic of vote transferability, but for the Congress candidates, these seats would have gone to them.

Muslim Vote

In this election, the BJP once again demonstrated that the Muslim vote was dispensable. They neither gave any tickets to Muslims nor did they seek their votes. Interestingly, the mahagathbandhan, which was banking on Muslim votes—they were the biggest constituent of their electoral arithmetic—were wary of even uttering the word “Muslim,” during the campaign, for fear of annoying the majority community and being charged with minority appeasement by the BJP.

However, for the Muslims, this election was not as bad as 2014. This time six Muslims were elected to the Lok Sabha from UP and the success ratio of Muslim candidates was better than any other social category. There were only 18 Muslim candidates fielded by the major political parties this time (none by the BJP, 10 by the mahagathbandhan and eight by the Congress). Out of them, six got elected, making it a success rate of 33%. This disproves the argument that the BJP has been advancing since 2014. They did not give tickets to any Muslim candidate saying that they only considered the winning potential of their candidates, and according to them no Muslim could fare well on this criterion.

In Conclusion

In the 2019 elections in UP, the BJP was eventually successful in consolidating the majority community against the caste-based parties in UP. This throws up a new challenge for the regional outfits, which need to rework their understanding of caste vis-à-vis Indian politics. They need to rethink beyond their vote banks. As regards the Congress, it needs to decide how to rid itself of the stigma of being dynastic and how to build a counter-narrative to the heady mix of majoritarianism and hyper-nationalism offered by the BJP. Finally, the growing acceptance of the ideology of Hindu nationalism has thrown up new challenges for the Indian polity. In this second innings of Modi, one would need to observe how secularism, one of the basic values of our republic, gets defined and practised.

The results of the 2019 elections in UP also underline the entrenchment of single-party dominance. The opposition completely failed to read the public mind and could not think beyond primordial identities, such as caste. It happened because of the total disconnect between party leadership and the common public. This election clearly reflects that traditional ways of estimating or explaining the outcomes on the basis of social demographics have, at least temporarily, lost its relevance. It has also rendered political strategies of constructing alternative social coalitions somewhat ineffective, as shown by the limited success of the mahagathbandhan in UP. Additionally, the leadership factor and construction of nationalist narratives along with unprecedented religious polarisation further brightened the chances of the BJP (Palshikar et al 2019). The real message behind the election results in UP is that the Hindutva brand of nationalism has triumphed over casteism. 


Beg, Mirza Asmer, Shashikant Pandey and Sudhir Khare (2019): “Post-poll Survey: Why Uttar Pradesh’s Mahagathbandhan Failed?,” Hindu, 26 May.

Palshikar, Suhas, Sanjay Kumar and Sandeep Shastri (2019): Post-poll Survey: Modi All the Way in 2019,” Hindu, 30 May.

Updated On : 2nd Aug, 2019


(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top