The Lucknow Gam­bit

The UP elec­tion re­sults will set the tem­plate for 2017. A BJP win could has­ten the Congress de­cline, nix Third Front am­bi­tions. But if it loses...


THE PO­LIT­I­CAL OUT­COMES of 2017 will shape the pol­i­tics of the next decade. Two key elec­tions to state as­sem­blies will book­end all oth­ers— Ut­tar Pradesh in spring and Gu­jarat in win­ter. A bad out­come for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in UP would mean a sum­mer of po­lit­i­cal dis­con­tent which could stretch into the mon­soon months, damp­en­ing eco­nomic sen­ti­ment and sharp­en­ing po­lit­i­cal di­vides. On the other hand, a happy out­come for the BJP in the state could see the Congress party melt fur­ther in the heat of in­creased in­ter­nal frus­tra­tion born out of the party’s Ham­le­tian dilemma—to be or not to be un­der Rahul Gandhi’s lead­er­ship.

Con­sider the al­ter­na­tive sce­nar­ios. Sce­nario 1 would see the BJP emerg­ing as the sin­gle-largest party in Ut­tar Pradesh, per­haps even with an ab­so­lute ma­jor­ity. Some UP-watch­ers suggest that the BJP could have se­cured that out­come in the af­ter­math of the ‘sur­gi­cal strikes’ against Pak­istan but that de­mon­eti­sa­tion has eaten into that sup­port base. As the sin­gle-largest party, with or with­out ab­so­lute ma­jor­ity, the BJP could form a gov­ern­ment. While the Bahu­jan Sa­maj Party (BSP) and Sa­ma­jwadi Party (SP) will lick their wounds, the ‘So­nia Congress’, so to speak, would en­ter a phase of in­tense soul-search­ing and hand­wring­ing, fol­lowed by more ex­its of pro­vin­cial lead­ers from the party across the coun­try. It is un­likely that any­one would ac­tu­ally seek a change of lead­er­ship. This is the best-case sce­nario for the BJP.

Sce­nario 2 would see a hung as­sem­bly in UP with ei­ther the BSP or SP emerg­ing as the sin­gle-largest party, and Congress not hav­ing the num­bers to back a non-BJP gov­ern­ment, forc­ing the BSP/SP to form a gov­ern­ment with im­plicit sup­port of the BJP. The BJP’s aim in sup­port­ing such a gov­ern­ment would be to keep the non-Congress op­po­si­tion di­vided so that a de­cline in the party vote would not re­sult in the emer­gence of a ‘Third Front’. This is a sec­ond-best out­come for the BJP.

Sce­nario 3 would see the BJP per­form­ing badly, per­haps mis­er­ably, and a non-BJP gov­ern­ment tak­ing of­fice in Lucknow. If the BSP or the SP se­cure an ab­so­lute ma­jor­ity, a sta­ble gov­ern­ment would be formed. If not, the Congress could sta­bilise a mi­nor­ity gov­ern­ment. This is the worst out­come for the BJP, and the best one for the Congress.

To­wards se­cur­ing such an out­come in which it emerges ahead of ri­vals, the SP has de­vised an in­ter­est­ing strat­egy—the fa­ther has al­lowed the son to project him­self as a rebel. This was pre­cisely what Rahul Gandhi tried in 2013 when he tore up an or­di­nance is­sued by the Man­mo­han Singh gov­ern­ment—to be the in­sider-out­sider. The in­cum­bent rebel, di­vert­ing all the anger against the es­tab­lish­ment to­wards an older gen­er­a­tion and paint­ing him­self in heroic colours as a Mr Clean. Will Akhilesh Ya­dav suc­ceed where Rahul Gandhi failed? So far, fa­ther Mu­layam and un­cle Shiv­pal have played this game more clev­erly than mother So­nia and un­cle Man­mo­han were able to.

Sce­nario 1 would mean the end of Rahul Gandhi’s hopes, a damp­en­ing of Third Front spirit and, most im­por­tantly, the be­gin­ning of a long reign by Prime


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