The big 5
Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Bihar and Tamil Nadu – the big five – with 250 seats in their territory, will sound the bugle for this year's victor. Parties in these states are, duly, working round the clock to influence voters and strengthen their polling arithmetic. These states also posit unique challenges to national parties. While caste holds key for Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, West Bengal, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu have to be won by different political strokes. Agrarian distress will be Maharashtra's polling point while communal harmony is set to dominate Bengal. And, for Tamil Nadu, recovering from the demise of a glamorous political era, the sentiment of anti-incumbency will be hard to overcome. So, with a mix of nationalism and unemployment – the big five will be critical in deciding the nation's sway...
1. Uttar Pradesh
With 80 seats, one mega alliance and two national parties desperately seeking to salvage their prestige — Uttar Pradesh has grabbed eyeballs for all the right reasons. In 2014, NDA won 73 seats from the state's share. This turnaround, from 2009's 10 seats, pretty much sealed the deal for BJP. But, UP hasn't been very kind to its incumbents. This year particularly, circumstances appear to be shaky for the ruling party that is relying on its hyper nationalism narrative to fetch the same or more enhanced results than 2014.
The SP-BSP-RLD alliance, for one, will upset all set arithmetic. Traditional enemies in the state, the UP gatbandhan looks formidable and could very well roll over the ambitions of both BJP and Congress. On the other hand, now that the Congress isn't associating itself with the gatbandhan, it could cut into the upper-caste votes which tend to lean away from the region's socialist parties. Yet, politics isn't arithmetic — a simple addition or subtraction will conceal true frictions playing on the ground. In 2007, Mayawati rode to power in the state with a considerable chunk of upper-caste votes. These votes have tended to sway — in 2007, they opted for Mayawati; in 2009, they heavily tilted towards Congress who secured 12 seats more than in 2004; and in 2014, they submitted their bulk choice in favour of BJP. This time, the upper-caste votes could split between Congress and BJP, making the path easier for the SP-BSP-RLD alliance. Mulayam Singh's appreciation for Modi could also be ominous for the gatbandhan as Muslim votes can very well sway entirely in favour of Congress, as was witnessed in 2009 after Mulayam tied up with Kalyan Singh and hurt Muslim sentiments; ultimately, the community voted entirely for Congress.
Caste is an important factor that is presently in the gatbandhan's favour. The emotions on ground are nebulous and, unlike 2014, there is no clear appreciation for a single party. While many are disappointed with the Modi-Yogi government, others repose more faith in him than his counterparts. Priyanka Gandhi's entry could also extinguish BJP's spirits; her charisma and absence of experience could make her a more desirable choice for aspirational voters who seek leaders beyond simple caste affiliation — this factor actually supersedes the caste arithmetic. In 2014, caste rules were defied in favour of a new, aspirational India. Priyanka is the only beacon of aspiration today with Akhilesh, Mayawati, Modi, Yogi all having failed their tests of palpably uplifting spirits.
By arithmetic alone, if the caste factor works, then the gatbandhan could sweep through 48-50 seats. But any upsetting in caste calculations would leave the door open for BJP. Priyanka could've been Congress's trump card — but her absence (until now) from contesting seats directly could dampen voters' spirits.
Poll focus: The SP-BSP-RLD combine could hamper chances of national parties
A traditional stronghold of Shiv Sena and Nationalist Congress Party, Maharashtra, in a sense, is a microcosm of the factors dominating this election season. Presenting a robust mix of rural and urban, industry and agriculture, Maharashtra's mood would provide a most appropriate glimpse into our democracy's temperament today — will chants of national security and patriotism emerge victorious or will voters address their immediate concerns in lack of employment and absence of robust agrarian mechanisms.
While NCP has aligned with Congress, Shiv Sena will be pairing with BJP, scripting another chapter in their self-starred thriller novel. Before 2014, fissures had appeared in the BJP-Sena camp. While BJP went alone and secured victory, it managed to rally Sena support in forming the government. Through the previous Assembly election and right up to the announcement of an alliance for 2019, Shiv Sena had pulled many a jibe at BJP. But now, they are together and back to fight the NCP-Congress combine, which has had a few hiccups of its own. Sharad Pawar, a constant critique of the current government, deciding against contesting the elections might not spell well for the opposition that could have gained from Pawar's towering presence. Worse, many believe that Pawar chose against contesting because he anticipated an insurmountable defeat. Despite rumours enforcing the dominance of Sena-BJP against Congress-NCP, the ground situation is quite different; particularly in rural and western Maharashtra where sugarcane farmers have been on the bitter receiving end of failed government policies.
Raju Shetty, leader of Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana from western Maharashtra, had in 2014 allied with BJP, ensuring the party's sweep through the region. But, this time, Shetty is allying with UPA, indicative of the larger mood across Maharashtra's sugarcane belt that is unlikely to vote for NDA at Centre. But a dampener of UPA spirits could be the revising of caste equations in Solapur. The Bahujan Vanchit Aghadi here could cut into Dalit votes and reduce the UPA's flame — an aspect NDA is heavily reliant upon. But caste is always fragile, as was witnessed in 2014 when several minority votes tilted towards NDA while Congress managed to wrest some urban constituencies from ruling BJP.
NDA has said that it will return with a bigger victory but Congress too is boasting of an assured comeback. Maharashtra has witnessed extreme farmers' agitations through the last five years and the Sena's highhanded anti-migrant policy too has provoked many. The Modi factor is less important here and, for now, employment and agrarian distress appear to be the prime factors influencing outcome. But, the state remains decisive, Sena-BJP's exceptional ground-level work could seal a result in their favour. Ultimately, western Maharashtra or the sugarcane belt will hold the key to either's victory.
Poll focus: West Maharashtra's sugarcane belt will hold the key to either's victory
3. West Bengal
Unlike the other big states, West Bengal will not witness a contest of raging national parties; in fact, the Bengal verdict is mostly known — Didi will emerge victorious — the contest then is between how many seats Didi secures and how many BJP can wrest. West Bengal is among the more politically charged states and the last year has witnessed heavy exchange of rhetoric between TMC chief Mamata Banerjee and BJP's poster boy and prime minister, Narendra Modi.
In 2014, Bengal had not subscribed to the Modi wave. In a clear verdict, TMC had secured 34 of the state's 42 constituencies, with Congress, CPI-M and BJP securing the rest. This time though, both CPI-M and Congress have been reduced to irrelevance. Their absence has created a vacuum for BJP which is likely to secure a chunk of these floating votes. Nevertheless, 10-12% of these votes will also move towards TMC.
Mamata scores many points over Modi in serving policies that truly reach the poor. Unlike other parties, whose schemes are caught in a warp of paperwork, Mamata succeeds in providing direct cash and material through her many schemes, including Kanyashree, Rupashree, Sabuj Sathi, among others. Further, her charisma, attitude and way with masses continue to attract heavy crowds to her rallies, which easily record a turnout of over 1-2 lakh people. And, unlike the rest of the nation, Bengal is not prone to the vulnerability of muscle-flexing masculine nationalism. Being a state which has thrived in communal harmony, polarisation here, will only lead to conflict rather than selective empowerment. On the flipside, TMC leaders other than Mamata and a few others, have failed to motivate voters. TMC has been blamed of routine violence, a factor that could work against their leader too. Further, BJP has housed a number of TMC deflectors, Mukul Roy being the most prominent. Roy, a right-hand man of Mamata, switched to BJP last year and duly brought a few other leaders with him. Though Roy has held positions of importance, his relevance has largely been borne of his proximity to Mamata. Now, contesting away from her legacy, it will be interesting to observe the true mettle of Mukul Roy – perhaps BJP's greatest gain in Bengal.
Mamata can be assured of the 30% minority vote which is unlikely to sway in any other direction. This 30% added with a minimum of 15-20% votes from general voters, which she is most likely to secure, will give Mamata close to 50% of the vote share — marking an easy win for her. This election is unlikely to challenge her position, but a drop in seat share could augur well for BJP, whose desperation to make headways into Bengal is all too evident.
Poll focus: The battle here is for the margin of victory; can BJP curtail Didi's dominance?
Bihar, the hotbed of caste politics, will witness a direct clash between NDA (BJP+JDU+LJP) and a gatbandhan of opposition parties (RJD+Cong+RLSP+HAM+VIP). Communists were unable to find their place in either camp and will be contesting a few seats to save their existence in the state. Since the last Lok Sabha election of 2014, Bihar's landscape has been significantly altered. For one, JDU chief Nitish Kumar was then an ardent critique of PM Modi, leading a mahagatbandhan to secure Bihar's state assembly. This time though, he's on the other side of the fence. Since quitting the gatbandhan in 2017, Kumar has forayed into the NDA camp and campaigned actively for Modi as PM.
With BJP and Congress both working on the defensive, Bihar is actually a contest between Nitish Kumar and Tejashwi Yadav. While Kumar has been the face of Bihar's backward politics, Tejashwi is rallying for the non-Yadav OBC votes, as is evident in his vote sharing tactic. RJD will be fighting only 19 of the state's 40 seats, the least ever, in a clear bid to help smaller local outfits consolidate non-Yadav OBC votes. Congress has limited its presence to only six seats. If Tejashwi does emerge successful, the sailing could get rocky for Nitish in the state assembly polls due next year. For Tejaswhi, contesting with his father behind bars, this is an opportune moment to emerge as RJD's star campaigner; while for Kumar, it will be a field test. The mass impact of his switch to BJP will be tested for the first time this season; interestingly, he will also be able to learn the local response of his alcohol ban, initiated in the state in 2016.
Congress and BJP have both left Bihar to the mercy of local faces and caste choices. Both have planned their campaigns and candidates mindful of the caste equation. While NDA's is a mix of upper-castes (BJP), non-Yadav OBCs (JDU) and Paswans (Lok Janshakti Party); the opposition is relying heavily on smaller parties like Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RSLP), Hindustani Awami Morcha (HMA), etc., to secure the Most Backward Caste (MBC) votes. To Nitish's benefit, he has delivered the traditional road, water, house promise, allowing BJP to avoid issues of national concern such as unemployment and agrarian distress, which also happen to be the opposition's poll point of attack.
Poll studies in Bihar, so far, show that national security continues to be a dominant thread of upper-caste discourse; India's Balakot strikes have touched their intended chord here. But, rural Bihar is less affected. They believe that, like every other time, caste will decide the winner.
Poll focus: Hotbed of caste politics, in Bihar, caste will again decide the winner
5. Tamil Nadu
Tamil Nadu in the post-Jayalalithaa and post-Karunanidhi era has been a political mess. Though DMK has survived the absence of Karunanidhi, AIADMK has failed across almost every parameter of excellence established by Jayalalithaa, among the greatest stateswoman of our time. Recovering from internal conflict, though AIADMK has now been able to establish a united front, governance in Tamil Nadu continues to be shaky. There is widespread public anger with the ruling party, and a plank of Sasikala supporters, led by her nephew TTV Dhinakaran, will cut a section of assured AIADMK votes. But, the consolidation with BJP and important caste parties of rural areas provides a mask for AIADMK to overcome its regional failures. And that, in fact, has been its poll resolve. CM Palaniswami and deputy O Pannerselvam have campaigned exhaustively with the proof and promise of greater national and economic security. That pitch though is unlikely to work in the southern state where federal governance gains prominence over meta promises. Demonetisation and GST continue to dominate as deterrents for voting in favour of the ruling party with the NEET crisis still looming large. The recent Pollachi sexual violation racket that disclosed the unethical association of AIADMK associates has also dampened spirits across Tamil Nadu. MK Stalin and his opposition have a massive chance at resurgence, as a recent Loyola study showed, over 50% of those surveyed were in favour of the DMK-Congress combine.
This will be Tamil Nadu's first test since the demise of its political vanguards. The sailing in the state hasn't been smooth, with endless protests on account of Jallikattu, Cauvery dispute, NEET row, and now Pollachi. People's faith in AIADMK is dwindling. Further, this election will run parallel to by-elections in 18 municipalities. Local issues, thus, continue to be in the fray.
Caste will play a relevant role in the south too. AIADMK, with its many partnerships, appears to be on the right path if the previous election seats are considered. However, this is a post-Jaya world and Tamil Nadu today thinks rather differently. Dhinakaran-led AMMK will also try to paralyse the AIADMK+NDA combine, particularly in the southern district where the ruling party will be testing its Thevar vote base. Capitalising on caste, DMK too has expanded its base to include local faces that can better secure caste appeals. For Tamil Nadu, the crises are many as are the players. It appears to be a direct contest between national and local interests with caste fulfilling its distinguished role of discrimination.
Poll focus: This election will decide Tamil Nadu's future in the absence of legacies