FROM THE EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
In the plush living rooms of cities, in kirana shops, factories and in the fields, there has been little conversation in the past two months that goes beyond demonetisation. Indeed, it has dominated India’s mindspace. With the recent announcement of five state elections in the next eight weeks, talk is now focused on whether the voter will endorse Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s audacious gambit. No state matters more in this than the country’s most populous one, Uttar Pradesh. More than the elections in Punjab, Goa, Uttarakhand or Manipur, the UP result will be the acid test for both the BJP as a party and for the Modi government’s policies. In the 2012 assembly elections, the BJP finished third, bagging only 47 seats. But just two years later, they returned with a landslide in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, sweeping an astounding 71 of the state’s 80 parliamentary seats. Now, halfway through its term, Prime Minister Modi’s government will be fervently praying for a 2014 redux in UP. There are several reasons for this. A favourable verdict will bolster the PM’s image as a pro-poor messiah, vindicating his controversial demonetisation action with the prospect of reaping a rich political harvest in the future. Possibly, it will even embolden him to pursue more radical reforms. A defeat would be a serious setback, personally, and for his party, as he has identified himself closely with demonetisation. Either way, it will be a major turning point for his premiership.
Winning the UP election will be no easy task, though the stars seem to favour the BJP at the moment. The internecine war in the Yadav clan may dim the prospects of the ruling Samajwadi Party, and with even the party symbol, the bicycle, now a bone of contention between Akhilesh and his father, Mulayam Singh Yadav, the SP is severely handicapped in the elections. That said, they have a young, clean, pro-development candidate in chief minister Akhilesh Yadav. These qualities translate into a unique political asset, one that eludes the Bahujan Samaj Party’s Mayawati, the other big player in the triangular contest. The Congress, meanwhile, seems resigned to its fate of being a bit player in the polls as does Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal. The BJP’s vote percentage in the last state elections in 2012 was 15 per cent, and it has to boost this to at least 30 per cent to make a match of it. The party may lament its 15-year-long exile from power in Lucknow, but would be hard-pressed to invoke even one of its chief ministers who had a positive impact on the state.
In a state with strongly entrenched vote banks, the BJP has to come out with a strategy that cuts through the usual caste equations. It is banking on PM Modi’s charisma and his demonetisation message of getting rid of corruption by hurting the rich to the benefit of the poor. Anecdotal evidence suggests that popular sentiment concurs. The proof of this, of course, will be in the election results. To this end, the party is working the caste arithmetic too by projecting non-Yadav OBC leaders, and not so much their traditional upper caste vote bank. Our cover story, by Editor (Research) Ajit Kumar Jha, examines the BJP’s ‘class war’ strategy in the light of our recent polls, combined with ground reports from the state. It is early days yet, and UP is always a messy electoral battlefield. Anything may happen.
I have my own little theory. I believe that to win a state election today, a party has to project a credible leader in advance. The days of imposing a leader from the High Command are long gone. People want to know who will actually govern them. The BJP might argue that it won the Haryana and Maharashtra state elections in 2014 without a CM candidate, but those elections were fought in the aftermath of the Modi wave. The BJP lost Bihar when they fought without a CM face in 2015, and won Assam with a CM candidate in 2016. Whatever happens on March 11, at least I will know whether my theory works or not.