The first phase of the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election is now exactly a month away. It’ll be the most significant election since Narendra Modi’s sweep to power in 2014 — and one that could serve as an indication of how strong the Prime Minister might be as he makes his 2019 bid. It will also be the election that could see one among Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav and BSP president Mayawati being either propelled into a higher political orbit or entering a phase of eclipse, even if temporary. And it will be the election that could either redeem Rahul Gandhi or deliver the final, damning verdict on his political effectiveness.
But the BJP has neither a chief ministerial face nor a list of candidates yet, the Samajwadi Party continues to go through bewildering convulsions that has split the cadre and produced two parallel lists of nominees, and both the Congress and BSP have been hamstrung by defections of major leaders.
Uttar Pradesh is in flux, and the political picture is even more complex than what it has a reputation for producing.
What is the BJP leadership thinking?
Modi and party president Amit Shah had expected the fight to boil down to BJP vs SP, but the acrimony within the state’s ruling party has thrown up the prospect of a BJP-BSP showdown. The BJP continues to bask in the glory of its 71 Lok Sabha seats — which translate into 337 Assembly seats. The BJP finds itself with perhaps 20 options in each of the 403 constituencies, a position it has never been in before the start of a campaign. Swami Prasad Maurya, once a pillar of the BSP and its leader in the Assembly, is now in the BJP. So is Dalbir Singh, who was the leader in the House for Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal. Six MLAs of the Congress, 3 of the SP, and 13 of the BSP are now in the BJP. The Congress was humiliated by its former state president Rita Bahuguna Joshi, who joined the BJP in October 2016.
The BJP’s caste strategy for 2017 does not differ significantly from 2014, other than factoring in the effects of the divisions in the SP. It is targeting non-Yadav OBCs, non-Jatav Dalits (the Jatavs are believed to be firmly behind the BSP), and Brahmins, Banias and Rajputs. Six major OBC communities who live along rivers — such as Kewats and Nishads — are likely to get their due this time.
Based on its socio-political and socio-economic assessments, the party has reached six major conclusions.
One, that the common man of UP, “the cleverest of all Indian voters”, believes “intensely” that the move to scrap high-denomination notes would benefit him. “Modi ne jo kiya usme mera faayda hai” — this is the heart of the voter’s assessment of demonetisation, according to top BJP leaders. “The average voter is not angry with Modi. He makes a distinction between Modi’s intention and the problems of implementation,” one of these top leaders said.
Two, Modi and Shah are acutely aware that UP is the “epicentre of underdeveloped India, where more than 75% people earn less than Rs 5,000 per month”. The party leadership has spent the last two years studying UP farmers, farming patterns and agricultural policies, and will include that understanding in crafting strategy. Modi and Shah are investing extraordinary effort in the state and remain acutely aware that those who hated their victory in 2014 would try their best to defeat them in 2017. The UP CM’s seat is a huge prize — he is, after the PM, the CEO of the largest chunk of India’s population, controls the most projects and government funding.
Three, the BJP is hoping Muslims would remain divided, since they trust Mulayam Singh Yadav more than Mayawati. Leaders of the community would ensure that SP is not decimated and “it’s a respectable defeat, if at all”, believes the BJP. And a split Muslim vote would mean Mayawati won’t get enough to overtake the BJP.
Four, the BJP is convinced that the infighting in the SP is not to grab power in the elections, but to seize control of the party — for now and after the election. The unseating of the ageing Mulayam as party president by Akhilesh was his “historic blunder”, the BJP believes — a “gustaakhi” the voter would never “tolerate”. While the BJP is watching out for Akhilesh’s possible alliance with other parties, including the Congress, it believes, for now, that its machinery would be more than a match for Akhilesh’s, minus his legendary father. In the pipeline is a vicious political attack on Akhilesh over his alleged hypocrisy in denouncing criminals and musclemen while accepting the support of similar people to remain in power and to kick out his father.
Five, according to the BJP, the voter’s mantra, ultimately, will be “Modi ke saath rehna hai.” But unlike in Bihar, it would put local leaders too on hoardings along with Modi and Shah.
Six, in the BJP’s assessment, Mayawati is not in the same league as her legendary mentor Kanshi Ram who began a “vaicharik andolan” — and she will not be able to persuade Muslims to back her.
Just what is going on in the SP?
It is still not clear, even though the BJP thinks Akhilesh Yadav has lost the plot. A school of thought believes it’s all noora kushti — a mock fight — between father and son, but just weeks ahead of the elections, its outcome looks far from fixed. Amar Singh and Shivpal Yadav think power has made Akhilesh arrogant — enough to turn him against the father and the uncle who nurtured him from the time he was a child, as well as his father’s best friend. In 2012, Mulayam’s dream was to have the beta on the gaddi in Lucknow and himself on the seat of power in Delhi. Modi was a faraway challenge then.
But in 2014, Modi handed SP a hammering on its own turf, and Mulayam began to doubt Akhilesh’s political capabilities. This was the time when other characters came to exploit the faultlines in the father-son relationship. However, if the two hug and make up even now, a healthy triangular fight could follow. If Muslims are convinced that Mulayam-Akhilesh are serious, they should have no reason to desert their party. But the ongoing tussle has already bruised the SP badly.
And where does Mayawati stand in all of this?
There is no doubt that there has been a spring in Behenji’s step over the last few weeks. Even the BJP does not deny that she remains the dark horse — and no politician underestimates the power of the silent, poor voter. Besides Dalits and minorities, anti-BJP, anti-Modi, anti-SP voters, as well as disgruntled elements from other parties, all can help Mayawati. There is no doubt that the BSP suffers from a lack of field workers, and there has been an erosion of its Dalit leadership.
But should the voters of UP decide that the “regional character” of the state’s politics must be retained, and that “the national hero” Modi be denied entry in the Ganga belt, Mayawati could be the beneficiary. On the other hand, a defeat for her could deal a fatal blow to the legacy of Kanshi Ram.
Okay, so what is the big picture then, as of today?
For the BJP, victory in Uttar Pradesh is essential to withstand the turbulence and economic slowdown triggered by demonetisation. The party will be experimenting with Modi’s new pro-poor brand image which, in case of victory, will likely be retained for long. For non-BJP parties, especially the Congress, it’ll be do or die. They would like to ensure, in whatever way possible, that UP doesn’t go saffron — which will create a hopelessly uneven BJP-versus-the-rest field in 2019. This election may not be decided on a negative vote, such as the 2012 anti-incumbency that helped the SP defeat Mayawati — the voter may be weighing who to vote in, rather than whether to vote the SP out. Their choice will be influenced by caste, as well as the charisma of Modi.
The BJP’s biggest weakness is that despite the many options apparently available to it, it does not have enough “suitable, resourceful and winning candidates” for all 403 seats. The SP and BSP, on the other hand, have a long list of experienced candidates who have fought many elections. Also, Shah’s confidence notwithstanding, many party leaders, both in UP and at the Centre, are fearful of the adverse impact of the unfolding economic slowdown. They think it is the X-factor of this election.