Were it a separate country, UP would be the sixth most populated in the world
Business Standard, February 25, 2017
As the juggernaut of the seven-part election rolls on to a close on March 8, all eyes are on Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous state of more than 200 million. Were it a separate country, UP would be the sixth most populated in the world. The way the vote swings in the Hindi heartland will not only be a verdict on some of the titans of Indian politics —Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BSP supremo Mayawati and the relatively young duo of Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi — but also have a decisive bearing on who rules India in 2019. Despite its intricate tapestry of region, religion, caste and linguistic dialects UP handed out decisive verdicts in the last two elections — in favour of the Samajwadi Party dominated by the Yadav family clan in 2012 and a clean sweep for the Narendra Modi-led BJP wave in 2014.
This time looks different because no one is taking firm bets. In sharp contrast to Punjab where there is unanimous agreement that the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP are certified losers, the uncertainty of the UP verdict has cast a pall on the predictions of professional pollsters, squadrons of out-in-the-field reporters and every jack-in-the-box pundit from street side vendors to yogis, gangsters, cheerleaders and thousands of contestants for 403 seats. Many polls that gave BJP a clear lead in January, for instance the India Today-Axis poll of 171-184 seats against 97-104 for the SP-Congress alliance, in February show the alliance closing the gap with 168-178 seats against the BJP’s 180-191. Two-thirds of the way through it seems a neck-and-neck race, with Mayawati lagging a distant third.
Does this mean a youth dividend for UP ke ladke Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi that can override the complex, shifting permutation of caste and regional configurations? Over 40 per cent of the populace is under 30 years, a huge demographic segment hungry for education and employment. Moreover the 43-year-old Akhilesh Yadav has completed a full term as chief minister, fought and won a bruising battle with a bunch of corrupt volatile family elders, shown an earnest commitment to development, however imperfect, and adroitly negotiated a partnership with Rahul Gandhi, who is just three years older. Can this youthful gathbandhanmatch the JDU-RJD-Congress mahagathbandthan that vanquished the BJP in Bihar in 2015?
That the two are scions of troubled political dynasties is no longer an issue; the BJP’s long-professed antipathy to dynastic succession has been cast to the winds, several candidates in the fray being relatives of political leaders starting with Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s son Pankaj.
Hidebound UP watchers will argue that a progressive youthful outlook, untainted by corrupt practice, together with development projects, don’t add up to all that much; and that ultimately candidates who successfully pander to affiliations of creed and community in every constituency will prevail. These are the fixers, as former RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan once illuminatingly analysed in a public lecture, who grease the levers of the political system at the ground level.
Narendra Modi’s right hand man, BJP President Amit Shah, has been burning midnight oil for two years in preparation to put this system into practice for the UP debacle. Tellingly, the BJP has not fielded a single Muslim candidate in a state with a 20 per cent Muslim population. Its strategy rests on stitching together a pan-Hindu coalition of upper castes, non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav Dalits, amongst others. So why is the party betraying signs of anxiety as the voting machines lumber slowly from west to east across the spread of the Gangetic plain?
For several good reasons. It has been unable to find a face for the chief minister’s post (having burnt its fingers from the disastrous consequence of putting up Kiran Bedi in Delhi two years ago). Mr Modi alone is the BJP’s star campaigner and practised orator; there is no second in command in sight. Despite his seemingly inexhaustible reserves of energy, can he whip up sufficient national appeal — and Hindu nationalist sentiment — to bring home the prize?
In many pockets, the after-effects of demonetisation still linger. Core supporters from the powerful Jat sugarcane farmers of western UP and many urban traders have grievously suffered and could extract revenge. There has also been bitter infighting over the distribution of seats and Mr Shah’s perceived highhandedness.
Whichever way the pieces fall on March 11, the shift in UP is the biggest test for the BJP’s future. If it loses the state even by a few seats, Mr Modi’s chair in New Delhi will be shaken. And if it wins, his position will crystallise invincibly.