Make or Break
The outcome of the Uttar Pradesh elections will shape the contours of Indian politics.
That the outcome of the elections to the legislative assembly of Uttar Pradesh (UP) will have a crucial bearing on the near-term future trajectory of Indian politics is obvious to the point of being a truism. After all, one in every six citizens in the country lives in this state, which would be the world’s fifth most populous nation if it were one. But there are moments in history when the UP assembly elections assume a significance that is larger even by these huge standards. We are at one such moment at present given the context and the timing of these elections.
To start with, this is the first round of state assembly elections taking place after Prime Minister Narendra Modi sprung the surprise of demonetising 86% of the currency in circulation in a dramatic fashion on 8 November 2016. Since UP is the biggest of the five states where elections are taking place, the verdict here will be read, at least in part, as a referendum on demonetisation. If the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wins in UP or even becomes the single largest party, it will be seen as a popular mandate in favour of Modi. This would undoubtedly be perceived as further proof that he is not only the most charismatic leader the BJP has, but he also has the sharpest political instincts. Party chief Amit Shah, as Modi’s closest confidante, would also gain though perhaps not to the same extent. Such an endorsement would, it seems safe to state, make the Prime Minister adopt a more combative posture towards the opposition, which would feel even more helpless than it already does.
If, on the other hand, the BJP finishes second or third in the state, it would be a huge blow to the stature of both Modi and Shah. Having led in 328 of the state’s 403 assembly segments in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the outcome of the assembly elections would be seen as a dramatic comedown for the party. It is likely that many of Modi’s detractors within the party will be lifted out of their current sense of despondency and be emboldened to raise questions whether the future of the BJP is safe in the hands of a man given to reckless political gambles like demonetisation. It is possible, of course, that much of the sniping will be directed at Shah as a proxy for Modi. But the implications of a BJP defeat in UP would go well beyond the confines of the BJP. For one, whichever of the two major rivals in the state—the Samajwadi Party (SP)–Congress alliance or the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)—finishes first would receive not just an enormous fillip in UP politics but could use the victory as a launching pad for enhancing their respective national political ambitions. In the immediate aftermath of the Bihar elections in October 2015, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar was being talked about as a possible consensus candidate of a joint opposition in 2019 to defeat the BJP led by Modi. Defeating the BJP in UP at this juncture would position Akhilesh Yadav or Mayawati as contenders for that role.
Such a scenario would also lead to a questioning of the assumption that only a Bihar-style mahagathbandhan or grand alliance can provide a viable alternative to the BJP. The SP, if it wins or finishes first, would have done so with only a relatively limited alliance with the Congress, a party that cannot lay claims to being anything more than a supporting actor in the theatre of UP politics. And Akhilesh would have proved that he is an astute leader capable of navigating not only the treacherous waters of family politics, but also of carrying a large section of the electorate with him. With age on his side, he would be seen as a lambi race ka ghoda or a long-term player. Akhilesh is now clearly the leader who has been able to rise above the internecine warfare that at one stage threatened the very existence of the SP. It can be argued that the April–May 2014 Lok Sabha elections saw a phase of “personalisation” of politics in India’s multiparty democracy wherein individuals were perceived to be more important than the party they represented. In the almost-American style of presidential elections, the contest between Modi and Rahul Gandhi saw the former win hands down. But the knife cuts both ways. In February 2015, when the contest in Delhi was between Arvind Kejriwal and Kiran Bedi, the Aam Aadmi Party leader swept the polls as did Nitish Kumar in Bihar in October 2015. It is significant that the BJP has no chief ministerial candidate in UP against Akhilesh and Mayawati. If the BSP performs creditably, it would have done so on Mayawati’s own strength; this will hold true if Akhilesh bucks anti-incumbent sentiments having served as chief minister for five years. The results of the UP elections would also reveal whether the influence of “vote bank” politics or “identity” politics remains as strong as it has been, and whether Muslims, Dalits and those belonging to the Other Backward Classes exercise their franchise along expected lines.
How would a defeat for the BJP change Modi’s or Shah’s style of functioning in the two years that remain before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls? Modi has already shown us that he is capable of springing surprises and to that extent any attempt at forecasting his behaviour is fraught with danger. Will he adopt a more conciliatory posture towards his detractors within the party and in the opposition? Or will he continue to be as aggressive as he has been and adopt a more polarising style of politics? In any case, 11 March will change the course of Indian politics.
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