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Development and polls

There was little reference to the inconveniences caused to people by the November 8 demonetisation drive during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address at a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) election rally in Lucknow on Monday. Besides the odd remark on the war against black money and corruption, the prime minister focused on targeting the party’s political opponents ahead of the crucial Assembly election later this year. His election pitch was clear: urging the people to vote for development and not on the basis of caste or creed. He spoke of the BJP’s absence from the corridors of power in Uttar Pradesh as a “vanvas” for “vikas” and appealed to the electorate that only the BJP was concerned about economic progress and development and hence deserving of a resounding majority. Targeting the incumbent Samajwadi Party, without necessarily taking names, Modi claimed that it was too involved in family feuds to do anything else. Against the Bahujan Samaj Party, which is seen as the other major contender for office, Modi claimed that it was concerned only with its “illegal transactions”. There is little doubt that the prime minister has set the tone, and issues about the development of UP are likely to feature prominently in the coming days. Outside the family feud that has engulfed the SP, even incumbent Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav has in the past year carried out an extensive presidential-style public relations campaign to build his brand based on critical development and social welfare projects undertaken by his government. In a bid to highlight his record in office, and not merely focusing on sectarian agendas, Akhilesh has made a slight departure from the politics of identity espoused by his father and party patriarch, Mulayam Singh Yadav. In fact, some political commentators have observed that Akhilesh’s bid to take over from his father is an attempt to reshape the party’s image from one bound by patronage politics, caste and religious identity to a political entity that addresses issues the economic aspirations of a primarily young electorate. This is not to suggest that patronage networks, caste or religious identities have little role to play in these elections. In states like Uttar Pradesh, these elements will always play on the mind of the electorate, despite the apex court’s recent attempt to bar politicians from seeking votes in the name of religion, caste or creed. Nonetheless, the ground seems to have shifted ever so slightly, and the UP chief minister appears to have recognised this fact. A young and aspirational populace seek jobs, better civic infrastructure and delivery of welfare services. Both Modi and Akhilesh are keen on driving home this point. What else explains the prime minister’s emphasis on ‘vikas’ or the UP chief minister’s insistence on the visible development his government appears to have brought to the state. Both leaders are popular with the electorate. Observers argue that Mayawati’s problem has been her inability to go beyond the politics of identity. Nonetheless, it would be terribly unwise to count her out of the electoral race, and a lot may depend on how the BSP performs.
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