The mother of all elections
Complicated equations rule polls in UP at the best of times, and now we have yet more dimensions emerging
"Jiska danda bada hai, wahi bada bhai hai (whoever has the longer stick is our big brother)."
This refrain among Muslims, suggesting that they would go with the party that is most likely to keep the BJP away, is an indicator of the unclear, messy political situation in Uttar Pradesh, which was further muddled by the developments late Friday resulting in the expulsion of Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav from the Samajwadi Party. If the end of 2016 witnessed an unprecedented economic move in the form of demonetisation, the beginning of 2017 is set to keep the nation engrossed with electoral politics as Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, goes to the polls in February along with four other states.
Going by the inputs I gathered from various sources, including election watchers currently engaged in a survey in UP, this was the scenario until Thursday.
- It appeared as though a threeway battle lay ahead between a Samajwadi Party that is battling anti-incumbency and internal troubles, a resurgent Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and a BJP which is suffering from loss of some of the momentum that it had gained in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.
- The BJP’s support is down from the over 40 per cent vote it secured in 2014. A significant section of Dalits (read Jatavs) and Yadavs who voted for it in 2014 are back with their traditional base, the BSP and SP respectively.
- Despite being in power for five years, the SP is not out of the reckoning. Regardless of the taint of “rowdyism” sticking to the party, Akhilesh Yadav has acquired the image of a chief minister who is focused on development.
- The BSP has not only recovered the Jatav vote that it lost in 2014 but also enjoys the support of other Dalit communities. The consolidation of this vote in favour of Mayawati is almost complete.
- The BJP’s core vote among the upper castes—Brahmins, Thakurs, etc.—remains intact. However, what it appears to have lost, apart from a section of the Yadav and Jatav voters, is the Most Backward Classes (MBCs), many of whom plumped for Narendra Modi in 2014.
- Which way this floating vote of MBCs and the consolidated vote of Muslims will move could well determine the outcome of the UP elections. If a majority of the Muslims were still in favour of the SP a few months ago, it has to be seen if Mayawati can tilt the balance to forge a Dalit- Muslim vote by projecting herself as the one capable of halting the BJP in its tracks. The unending Pari-war in the SP and the fact that Mayawati has offered tickets to more than 100 Muslims might have an impact.
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By Friday night, however, an altogether new equation has emerged in UP. Following his expulsion, it is now more than certain that Akhilesh will float his own party, resulting in two factions of the SP fighting the polls although it is still not clear who will be able to lay claim to the party’s poll symbol, which still matters in Indian elections. It is also more than likely that Akhilesh may now stitch up an alliance with the Congress and parties like the JD(U) and Ajit Singh’s RLD that have a small footprint. There, however, seems to be no doubt that a majority of the SP supporters are with the younger leader. In fact, if Akhilesh loses this election eventually, he would surely regret the climbdown after having declared himself the new “Sultan” of the Samajwadi Party in the first bout of the Pari-war that we saw a few months ago. “Woh tho rejected maal hai,” is how SP supporters are reacting to his uncle, Shivpal Yadav, who is being backed by Mulayam Singh. Akhilesh emerged out of the shadows of Netaji long ago and has clearly acquired an image of his own, quite distinct from what his party is known for.
Two possibilities are thrown up by the political quake in the SP. If Muslims fear that the SP is out of the equation following the split, they could veer towards the BSP, but that could still see their vote getting divided between the SP and the BSP, giving that much advantage to the BJP. Akhilesh, who will seek to start on a clean slate, ridding himself of those who represent the goon culture, will surely try to whip up the emotional element of a chief minister devoted to development having been wronged by his own men. Assuming that it does carry with the voters, he could still be weighed down by rival SP candidates taking away a few thousand votes in each constituency. If he fails to forge an alliance with smaller parties, it could lead to multiple contestants in the poll fray, which again could work to the advantage of the BJP.
The one party for which UP is more than crucial is the BJP, coinciding as the election does with the half-way tenure of the Modi government. After the BJP’s eminent defeat in Bihar, another term for the SP or a revival of the BSP will have more than a minimal impact on national politics.
A top ranking BJP leader told me over a month ago that the party would secure a two-thirds majority in UP if rival parties do not come together as they did in Bihar, but a couple of senior journalists reckoned a few days ago that the saffron party is not even in the race. Both views, to me, appeared like misplaced optimism or pessimism, depending on which side you are on.
The fact remains that the prime minister still enjoys a fairly high rating among the people, though a good number of them are now more vocal than before in saying that they are yet to see the promised Achche Din.
How Narendra Modi reverses the de-mon effect—in his New Year’s Eve address to the nation or in his much-anticipated public meeting on January 2—and what kind of sops the government is likely to come up with in the Union Budget and who will benefit the most from the SP family saga could well determine the outcome. Much before the Election Commission announces the poll schedule in the first week of January, it is possible that the state could go under President’s Rule. And that could add yet another dimension as well.
G S Vasu
Editor, The New Indian Express