The campaign is over, but good tidings may not come to all those waiting for the results to come in this Saturday. The elections to the legislative assemblies in five states will, of course, be a verdict on performance of their governments and the key challengers. However, the sheer geographical spread of the states that went to the polls makes these elections nationally significant: From Uttarakhand in the north to Manipur in the east and Goa in the west. Then there is Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, which with 80 MPs has a decisive say in who rules at the Centre. Punjab will be closely watched for the intense three-way contest, a first for the state and the Aam Aadmi Party’s spread beyond Delhi.
Whatever the outcome, the election results will be seen as a referendum on the Centre, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity and charisma, especially since it comes mid-way into his term and in the wake of his momentous decision to invalidate Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 currency notes. Modi defended demonetisation throughout the campaign as a virtuous decision and the BJP brass argued the polls could be considered a vote on it: A BJP victory is likely to be read by many as an endorsement of the policy or, at the least, an affirmation that the power of the idea trumped the mess in its implementation. Much as he did in Bihar in 2015, Modi led the BJP campaign from the front. In Uttar Pradesh alone, he addressed 24 major rallies. In the absence of a CM face, the BJP sought votes in UP in his name. UP also holds enormous significance for the Samajwadi Party and BSP. Akhilesh Yadav, of course, has much to prove after his bitter and public feud with his father and uncle over control of the SP. For Mayawati, this election is a watershed moment. Another five years out of office could prove severely debilitating for her party, especially after its poor showing in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The outcome of her attempt to build a social coalition including Dalits and Muslims will have implications for subaltern politics, both within and outside the realm of electoral politics.
However, it is the Congress that has the most to lose. Given its steady decline since 2014, defeats in Manipur and Uttarakhand, where it ran governments, and Punjab, where the Akali Dal-BJP alliance is facing a two-term incumbency will reinforce the perception that it doesn’t have a counter-narrative yet. It hopes to shore up its base in UP, where it abandoned its resolve to contest elections on its own and tied up with the SP. The mahagathbandhan in Bihar served the party well, though it brought the tally for the DMK-led coalition down in Tamil Nadu. The best it can hope for is to be a junior partner in Lucknow failing which it will need to confront, once again, serious questions about the ability of its leadership.