Coming Assembly elections in five states from February 4 is a high-stake poll, seen as a test for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s policies. Voting to elect new Assemblies in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh will be held over next two months. Can Modi reap political dividend from the move to scrap 500 and 1000-rupee notes to fight black money as well as the decision to strike militant hideouts across India’s border with Pakistan?
The elections are also crucial for smaller parties. The vote comes at a time when the Samajwadi Party, which rules UP, is wracked by an internal power struggle. They will determine whether the Aam Aadmi Party, which contests for the first time in Punjab and Goa, can widen its influence beyond Delhi.
Experts are also billing the elections as a political semi-final to the 2019 national polls with Modi investing enormous political capital, the bellwether state of UP. The BJP swept the general elections in most of the states including UP in 2014.
The UP Assembly elections of 2017 have become interesting for a variety of reasons. One, since 2007, people are giving a clear mandate to the party, demanding that its responsibility for governance or otherwise and shift responsibility on alliance partners. So parties are expecting clear wins in coming polls. Two, the electoral threshold for the legislative majority has been declining. Mayawati formed BSP government in 2007 on 30 per cent vote, and Akhilesh formed SP government in 2012 on 29 per cent vote (lowest since Independence).
In the run up to 2017 Assembly polls, in-house turmoil is the prime concern of all parties. The SP suffered a virtual split when Mulayam Singh expelled his son Akhilesh from the party for anti-party activity for six years along with his cousin Ramgopal Yadav. Given the subsequent developments, many wonder whether it is a genuine tussle or has been choreographed by the father to hush up his son’s image. But it has confused people and may end up harming the party. Since the SP’s vote share was very fragile in 2012, any loss of traditional support among Muslims or Yadavas could be disastrous for the party.
The BSP has been through the same turmoil leading to some of senior most and trusted leaders exiting the party. That does not augur well for the BSP. The BJP too has been battling to shun its traditional image of the upper caste, urban-centric party of middle-class traders. In this, the dominance of higher caste in the party puts the brakes on the leadership’s efforts at constituency transformation. The BJP’s reluctance to disclose its Chief Ministerial candidate in UP is dictated probably by its inability to solve the problem to the satisfaction of rival caste lobbies in the party.
The Congress has also been besieged with a party revamp though the imposition of Sheila Dikshit as CM candidate did not work—nor did the deployment of party strategist Prashant Kishor which led senior leaders like Rita Bahuguna to quit the party.
There has been a withering away of traditional support bases of parties. Mayawati is attempting a transformation of social engineering from a Dalit-Brahmin to Dalit-Muslim coalition. That was necessitated because she had angered upper castes when a BSP leader made derogatory remarks about the wife and daughter of a BJP leader; the BSP lost grip over Dalits during decades and Muslims and Dalits have much in common in social life.
The BJP is positioning itself for a whole constituency revamp and is focusing on becoming representative of OBC by appropriating greater space among more backward and most backward. The party made Keshav Prasad Maurya president of its state unit, inducted BSP leader Swami Prasad Maurya (both most backward) and allied with Apna Dal making its MP Anupria Patel (more backward) a minister in the Modi government.
The BJP’s effort to appropriate space in UP has achieved some success because SP under Mulayam Singh neglected homogenisation of the OBCs restricting itself to Yadavisation only. As OBCs are the largest social group in UP—41 per cent of the state population (NSSO data), any inroad could give the BJP a big handle in the coming electoral battle.
(The views are strictly personal.)