Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls still hangs in a delicate balance, no clear winner in state
The outcome of the ongoing Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls still hangs in a delicate balance. There is no clear winner in sight even at the mid-way mark of this gruelling month-long seven-phase electoral battle across India’s by far most populous state. Indeed, none of the three main contenders – BJP, Samajwadi Party–Congress alliance and the BSP – can boast yet of a tail wind let alone a wave to propel them towards decisive victory.
For the BJP, despite its surface triumphalism party insiders are jittery about it securing a clear majority or even emerging as the number one party in a possible hung assembly scenario. In fact, there is a touch of hysteria about BJP president Amit Shah’s ludicrous claim that his party was on the crest of a popular wave bigger than that witnessed in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls considering that it won virtually every single seat leaving just a handful for members of the Gandhi dynasty and the Yadav clan. Shah is far too politically savvy not to realise that there is a dramatic difference between the present fractured poll landscape and the time when the Modi juggernaut trampled everything in its way. His boast betrays insecurity not confidence.
In the changed scenario, the BJP is still searching for the right slogan to galvanise voters. Modi’s great gamble with just a few months left for the elections to use demonetisation as an electoral ploy to rally the poor against the rich appears to have misfired. A tentative return to the traditional Sanghi strategy of polarising voters on religious lines has so far met with limited success.
To compound BJP’s woes it is no longer assured of support from its traditional vote banks among the influential Baniya and Brahmin communities across the state and is facing in western Uttar Pradesh the hostility of Jats who voted en bloc for the party in 2014 in the communally charged aftermath of the Muzaffarnagar riots the year before. The harsh blow to the cash economy is one of the reasons for this disenchantment particularly evident among Baniya traders and Jat farmers. But there is also a larger disquiet among constituencies that were considered close to the BJP about whether the party was changing its colours and still represented their interests.
However, despite losing momentum from its spectacular 2014 high, the BJP remains in contention in virtually every seat across Uttar Pradesh largely because Samajwadi Party which both pollsters and pundits had billed as its main challenger is also struggling to pick up speed. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav’s ingenious sleight of hand using a potentially damaging feud in the Yadav clan to boost his personal image and a last minute electoral pact with the Congress to consolidate the Muslim vote had earlier led to speculation about the alliance gaining the upper hand. Yet the negative aspects of the Yadav family feud, as well, and the hasty coalition with the Congress appear to be outweighing their positive side as the elections have proceeded.
Yet it would be imprudent to underestimate the BJP. Cleverly exploiting the image of Modi, the humble chaiwala, as its icon the party has managed to acquire the loyalty of a new vote bank — an entire slew of backward castes that together form a sizeable chunk of the electorate. Shrugging off the rigours of demonetisation and happy to embrace the politics of religious polarisation, it is these myriad sub-castes who are flocking to the BJP which in return has given them more than a third of party tickets. On the other hand, this drastic restructuring of the BJP’s social base is causing considerable unease among local leaders of the party mostly from upper castes not least because it has also meant denying quite a few of them election tickets to accommodate backward caste aspirants many of them acquired recently from other parties.
Making matters worse is the ruling party’s uneasy and unfamiliar alliance with the Congress. It may have been welcomed by the Muslim minority but this positive perception has not been backed up by coordinated effort to integrate and mobilise the support bases of two parties who have never worked together before. Instead the Samajwadi Party and the Congress are competing in as many as 22 seats including several in the Gandhi stronghold of Raebareili and Amethi and reports suggest that even in many other seats the two are working at cross purposes. This handicap is aggravated by the lack of a working relationship between Akhilesh and Rahul Gandhi beyond public embraces and candidates have been largely left to fend for themselves in their own constituencies.
Although vanquished in the battle to control the party and wrest the electoral symbol uncle Shivpal still retains enough nuisance value to harm Akhilesh particularly since party patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav continues to lean towards his brother rather than his son. More importantly, the absence this time from the Samajwadi party war room of these two senior leaders who had for so long navigated it through elections at the ground level is a huge handicap. Brand Akhilesh crafted by spin doctors imported from Harvard and huge resources spent in its media outreach may have worked if this was a presidential style poll but is finding it difficult to get off the ground in a scrappy constituency level battle.
Yet it would be premature as many pollsters and pundits have done to rule out of the race the Dalit supremo who has often snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in the past. The BSP elephant is showing signs of moving forward. A master tactician who knows each constituency like the back of her hand, Mayawati is twisting and turning to stitch up alliances that could make the vital difference from seat to seat. Indeed if the polls ultimately turn out to be an aggregation of 403 mini-seat wise battles she may well be the best equipped to fight such a guerrilla war.
Meanwhile, the third contender in the polls, Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party, is struggling to gather steam in a poll that one year ago seemed a cake walk. Unfortunately, for behenji the successive public dramas from late last year of the Yadav clan feud and Modi’s demonetisation gambit has pushed back her claim to bring back law and order wrecked jointly by poor administration of the Samajwadi Party and communal tensions fomented by the BJP. Her largely arithmetical alliance with the Muslim minority is not giving her the kind of electoral dividend she had hoped because it is not accompanied by the expected public outcry for stable administration.