A defeat for the BJP in UP and other states will be crushing for Mr Modi.
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi invested the most in the campaign for the five state Assembly elections compared to leaders from other parties, his stake in the verdict is the highest. Barring Punjab, where the ruling Akali-BJP combine is heading for defeat, nothing can be said for sure elsewhere. Despite loyalists of the BJP and its key adversaries, along with several neutral observers and others “calling” the verdict, there is no unambiguous “wave” in favour of any party and, barring Punjab, the outcome is expected to go down to the wire.
Beginning with Manipur, the state covered the least by the media, the result will determine if the BJP’s march in the Northeast continues or gets halted. After getting a majority in Assam, forming government in Arunachal Pradesh by disputable means and becoming a part of the Naga Peoples’ Front-led ruling coalition in Nagaland, the BJP fielded candidates from all seats, more that thrice the number it did in 2012. Despite being a small state with little impact on national politics, retaining Manipur will have more than symbolic value for the Congress. In contrast, if the BJP bags 20-25 seats and the NPF also wins several of the 15 Naga-dominated seats it is contesting, chances are high that the two will continue their political partnership and form a coalition government. While this may end the economic blockade, it is likely to trigger ethnic conflict between Nagas and Meitis. After holding out the promise of alternate politics in Manipur, the Irom Sharmila-led Peoples’ Resurgence and Justice Alliance failed to make headway and contested just three seats. This will weaken rights groups and the anti-AFSPA movement. Her backers were not enthused with the move to enter electoral politics, demonstrating a disconnect between civil society-backed agitation and electoral politics.
Alternate politics, however, found acceptance in Punjab and it appears that the AAP’s performance in the state in the 2014 parliamentary elections was no fluke show. The AAP’s emergence in the state will alter the bipolar nature of the state’s politics and demonstrate that people have shed their cynicism. If the party’s good showing in Punjab is accompanied by a comparable performance in Goa, Arvind Kejriwal will join other leaders aspiring to emerge as a challenger to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It will also enable the AAP to become an alternative in Gujarat, where polls are due later this year. The voter in Uttarakhand has, however, not been given an alternate option, and the choice remained restricted to the Congress and BJP. The only new development in this election was the decision of both to encourage crossovers from the rival camp on the eve of polls. As a result, the BJP ended up with as many as five of the six living former and incumbent chief ministers in the state. The BJP’s defeat will establish public disapproval of attempts to topple the Congress government in 2016 and also establish if Harish Rawat has emerged as another state leader whose popularity can withstand Mr Modi’s onslaught.
The verdict from Uttar Pradesh will, of course, be tracked most keenly, not just for the state’s size and deep impact on national politics. The BJP was solely responsible for elevating the intensity of the election campaign to levels almost matching the polarising pitch of 2014. Beginning with a Hindutva-centric manifesto and ending with Mr Modi feeding cows in Varanasi, the BJP attempted to polarise voters on communal lines. This stemmed from the assessment that identity-based politics, which always acts as a deterrent to Hindu consolidation and prevents polls from being issue-based, had staged a comeback. The campaign on social media by BJP workers and sympathisers emphasised the high number of Muslim candidates put up by Mayawati’s BSP and the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance and was a throwback to the old tactic of raising the insecurity of the majority community.
If voters back the BJP, Mr Modi’s political supremacy will reach an unprecedented level, within his political fraternity and nationally too. Victory in UP alone – if not in other states – will enable the BJP to claim that key steps of the government, including demonetisation and surgical strikes, have been endorsed by people. A victory will establish that the masses bought hook, line and sinker Mr Modi’s argument that demonetisation was a pro-poor initiative and ordinary people must undergo hardships for the betterment of society. Victory will enable him to embark on a series of policy initiatives aimed at buttressing his electoral platform for the next parliamentary election. If this success is repeated later in a couple of other states, including Karnataka in April-May 2018, Mr Modi is also likely to consider advancing the parliamentary elections to November-December 2018 when state elections are due in the BJP-ruled states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. Furthermore, if Mr Modi succeeds in convincing the chief ministers of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana to advance polls as part of his drive to push the idea of “one nation, one state”, that round will almost appear to be a general election. Mr Modi feels that simultaneous state and national elections would benefit the ruling party by eliminating local issues in state polls. This would serve a telling blow to regional forces and improve the BJP’s prospects where it is in direct contest with a state party.
A defeat for the BJP in UP and other states will, however, be crushing for Mr Modi. Though his political authority with the Sangh Parivar will not yet be challenged, it will add to the difficulties he senses in retaining Gujarat. Moreover, because rejection of the BJP will indicate that the government’s recent measures have not enthused people, the PM will have to reboot his policies. The verdict will also indicate the mid-term future of other leaders, particularly Akhilesh Yadav, Rahul Gandhi and Mayawati. Saturday, March 11, promises to be a riveting day, and few would stay away from television!