BJP is all set to claim its most prized trophy in Indian politics after a gap of fifteen years. After winning 73 out of 80 seats in the state in the Lok Sabha elections in 2014, BJP and allies seemed to have lost the edge in UP politics. But the tide has been turning in favor of the BJP in recent months.
Demonetisation has come as a shot in the arm of the saffron outfit. The division of votes in the camp of its opponents will ensure that the RSS’ political arm will sail through the troubled UP waters rather easily. The anti-saffron camp is badly divided between not just Samajwadi Party and Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) but also between other marginal players including the Congress and Ajit Singh led Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) that continues to enjoy some support in Western UP.
Then there are some other smaller players in the state that despite not being able to win many seats will certainly spoil the chances of other parties in the state.
What brightened the BJP chances?
Not much has changed on the ground following the Lok Sabha elections in the state. Despite losing the polls badly in the neighboring state of Bihar, BJP remains strong due to multiple reasons directly going in its favor. The only reason that ensured the defeat of the BJP in Bihar was the Mahagathbandhan that Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar formed despite having deep-rooted animosity for each other. The Congress could have caused some division of votes in the state, but the party was also roped in as a partner in the Mahagathbandhan, thus ensuring that anti-BJP voters united behind an unbeatable alliance.
Despite all-out efforts and Modi-centric campaign in the state, all BJP efforts came a cropper. Out of 243 seats, BJP and allies could win only 58 seats with BJP being restricted to merely 53 seats after fighting elections from 157 constituencies. On the contrary the RJD and the JDU won 80 and 71 seats respectively with Congress bagging 27 seats, thus decimating the BJP in the process.
No hope of a Mahagathbandhan in UP
Nonetheless, with UP having no hope of a Bihar-like Mahagathbandhan, the chances of the saffron party remain bright despite the demonetisation or notebandi disaster. The divided opposition is not expected to benefit from people’s suffering due to the notebandi. The absence of a counter narrative opposing the BJP's narrative of defeating terrorists and black-money holders with the ‘painful’ decision of notebandi will ensure that its vote-bank remains intact with no apparent harm.
Usually, the vote share of the BJP, BSP and SP remains very close. This varies between twenty three to thirty percent. With BJP having launched a massive electoral campaign to attract its upper caste and OBC vote bank besides its outreach efforts among Dalits, it has strengthened its appeal among the fence sitters. On the contrary, Samajwadi Party is on the brink of split between two camps, one favoring the father, while the other supporting Mulayam Yadav’s son and chief minister Akhilesh Yadav.
The 43-year old Akhilesh Yadav might have a clean image, but a divided Samajwadi party will see many of its Yadav supporters shifting their loyalty to the BJP. This happened in the general elections 2014 when many Yadavs voted for the BJP instead of supporting the Mulayam-led SP. If this shifting of votes takes place, it will mean complete annihilation of the Samajwadi Party in the state.
Mayawati, the biggest challenge for the BJP
While the BJP remains the favorite in the state, the main challenge before the saffron party will come from Mayawati led BSP and not the SP or SP-Congress alliance. Mayawati has always been an underdog in the state politics. Her campaign has never been high-pitched like the BJP or the SP.
She has never believed in employing the services of poll strategists like Prashant Kishore or others that BJP, Congress or even Nitish Kumar have done freely in the recent past.
Mayawati has been the main strategist of her party, its main campaigner and the only face that matters for her party and its voters. The way she won a landslide in UP in the year 2007 getting absolute majority in the state legislature was shocking for most poll pundits across the country who had completely written her off. The BSP didn’t give a damn to social media and has haltingly embraced it just now.
The split in Samajwadi Party is forcing poll strategists in the BJP to go back and try to decipher its implications on Muslim voters. While disenchanted Muslims were expected to vote for the BSP in large numbers in Western and Central UP, the SP was expected to gain Muslim support in Eastern part of the state. Now with the prospect of SP factions fighting each other, BJP fears the shift of Muslim votes en-bloc to the BSP. If this happens – and Mayawati is working hard on this narrative – the BJP faces a real fight in the state.
Congress a marginal player
Despite all out efforts by the Congress party and a year-long campaign led by Raj Babbar, Shiela Dikshit and poll strategist Prashant Kishore, the prospects of the Congress party have not brightened enough. Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi has failed to impress the masses and Congress campaign apparently lost the momentum with the talk of its alliance with a fractured and divided SP.
There is not much hope that any alliance between the Congress and Akhilesh Yadav led SP faction making any improvement in the supposed alliance’s prospects in the forthcoming elections set to be held in February and March. Muslims will not vote for a divided SP and Yadavs will shift their loyalty to the BJP as they did in Lok Sabha elections in 2014. Others like Asaduddin Owaisi and Peace Party that have been campaigning in the state for months will apparently have no impact on the outcome of elections in the state with 200 million people.
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Syed Ubaidur Rahman is a New Delhi based writer and commentator. He has written several books on Muslims and Islam in India including Understanding Muslim Leadership in India.