Mainstream, VOL LIV No 50 New Delhi December 3, 2016
2017 UP Assembly Elections: Challenges and Stakes
Monday 5 December 2016
by Sanjay Mishra
The election to the Assembly of Uttar Pradesh, slated for the first half of next year, promises to be a high-pitched, high-stake electoral battle. It is an important election for all the stakeholders in the fray— principally the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Samajvadi Party (SP), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), and of course the Congress. Its political importance stems from the fact that this bell-wether State, even in its truncated form post the formation of Uttarakhand from it, continues to be the most populous State spread over a vast stretch of territory. Mayawati and many others think that as many as four States can be easily carved out of the present State.
Winning a Majority: A Real Challenge
The direct implication of this is that the Assembly has 403 seats, which certainly appear whopping when juxtaposed against the 294 seats of the next biggest Assembly of West Bengal. Winning a majority in this huge Assembly with all the attendant regional variations of all the constituencies can be a real challenge for any political party. This challenge is further compounded by the overcrowding of the political arena. In the 2012 Assembly poll, 220 political parties had participated—of these 10 political parties, barring Independents, had won seats ranging from one (Apna Dal) to 224 (SP); this time more parties will be jamming the electoral space. (Aron 2015)
However, if winning a majority in such a big and diverse Assembly can be a challenge, victory more than compensates the hard work that goes into the meticulous electoral strategy and canvassing by engendering a sense of satisfaction and psychological boost in the winner after a gruelling election. While a win here may for sure give psychological impetus to a national party to consolidate its gains and indeed to spread itself further across the length and breadth of the country, a State or regional party may get wings to its national ambitions if it is able to entrench itself, and grow organisationally and financially in the State. This is best exemplified by the BSP which, with its antecedents and stronghold primarily in UP, has been trying, albeit not very successfully, to spread itself across the vast swathe of the Indian territory. Indeed, in the last general elections, it contested 503 seats—the highest by any party, including the BJP and the Congress. Of course, primarily because of the Modi wave, it drew a blank, failing to win a single seat even in its bastion.
Important for the BJP from an Ideological Point of View
Apart from other considerations, wresting power in UP is important for the BJP from an ideological point of view. After all, this is the State from where the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid controversy arose and which helped the BJP to rise to fame in the initial stage of its career. Of course that issue has been apparently put at the backburner this time with the Prime Minister making a strong pitch for the developmental agenda. Nevertheless, it must be a matter of deep rankle and ideological discomfort for the saffron party, whose raison d’être historically lies, and which passionately believes, in the espousal of Hindu interests and Hindi language, to have remained in political wilderness for close to two decades in a State which is supposedly the heart of the Hindi heartland and perhaps of the Hindutva ideology. It is not for nothing that Narendra Modi came all the way from Gujarat to contest the parliamentary election in Varanasi, a city dedicated to Lord Shiva.
True, the PM himself avoided chest-thumping jingoism over the surgical strikes at terror launch-pads inside the PoK (Pakistan-occupied Kashmir) by the Indian Army during his address to the people at the Ramlila celebrations in Lucknow and by and large dwelt on the menace of terrorism as an enemy of humanity. However, the import of his presence in the Lucknow Ramlila, in contravention of the tradition of celebrating it in Delhi, and exhorting the people with the slogan of ‘Jai Shree Ram’, could not be lost in view of the impending Assembly election. For all its talk of contesting the election on the plank of development, the BJP cannot afford to let go its Hindutva underpinnings. A loss in UP, coming on the heels of its severe beating in Bihar, a key State of the Hindi heartland, would be a double-blow for a party overtly championing the cause of Hindus and Hindi. Therefore, it would leave no stone unturned to win UP not only because of its Hindutva credentials but also because at stake is the prestige of the Prime Minister who now represents Varanasi in UP.
National Significance for the NDA and BJP
That is not all. A big win for a party in the UP Assembly brings a proportionately large number of seats to that party in the Rajya Sabha and a priori gives it that much leverage and influence in national politics. No wonder, political parties in the fray go the whole hog not only to win a majority but also bag as many seats as possible given its collateral benefit in the Rajya Sabha. It is in this context also that the forthcoming election in the crucial State has acquired a national significance for the NDA and BJP. Its significance was poignantly driven home to the NDA when the much-touted Goods and Services Tax (GST) constitutional amendment could not be passed for about two years because of the NDA’s insufficient numbers in the Upper House, making a mockery of its massive majority in the Lok Sabha. Thanks to the latest biennial elections to the Rajya Sabha, the government has been able to get the GST passed because of improvement in its own tally and because of the help extended by some regional parties. An accretion in numbers in the Rajya Sabha would be most welcome for any party; for the BJP it would be of additional value insofar as it would preclude the possibility of the government kowtowing to the regional parties for their support to pass crucial bills in the Rajya Sabha.
The importance of UP for the BJP is also because of the fact that the huge size of the State accords it a unique distinction of having the highest number of members in the Lok Sabha. The eighty seats that the State commands make it preponde-rantly a critical factor in the formation of any government at the Centre. The 71 seats that the BJP bagged in the 2014 general elections from UP played a significant part in enabling not only the NDA but even the BJP in securing majority on its own in the Lok Sabha. True, the forthcoming election is for the State Assembly and each party is assigning importance to it from its own perspective in the context of, and to a large extent confined to, the State. But its impact on the 2019 general elections cannot be denied.
Crucial Semi-final before the 2019 General Elections
For the BJP, more than any other party, the forthcoming UP election “is being billed as the crucial semi-final before the 2019 general elections, as it will be akin to a referendum on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his NDA Government which has 73 out of 80 MPs from the State. A win or loss will have huge ramifications for the polity”.1 While the proposition that the election is a semi-final for the 2019 general elections may appear exaggerated and debatable to many, one thing is indisputable: the stakes are really high for the saffron party. With stakes being high for the BJP in the election, it would like, at least, to ensure that no government in Lucknow is sworn in without its support if it is not able to form a government on its own.
It is possible that the voters, fed up with the ills of nepotism, casteism, corruption and lawlessness with which the two entrenched parties have often been associated in the last more than fifteen years, would rise above their caste considerations and give the BJP a key role in the government formation, if not a majority in the Assembly. This scenario cannot be ruled out given the God-sent surgical strikes inside the PoK, which the party is bent upon exploiting, and the rumblings of dissensions both within the SP and BSP, particularly within the former. However, a big negative for the party is the lack of a popular face fronting the campaign even as the strategy of communal polarisation runs the risk of triggering a more cohesive counter-polarisation among the minorities to the detriment of the BJP. Even if the BJP were to bag sufficient seats to determine government formation, that would be a big leap forward for the Right-wing party. It could well be interpreted as a positive development by the BJP for the 2019 general elections. It would imply that, if the BJP could stage a comeback in a contest with the two entrenched provincial parties, and in which local issues would be the leitmotif, it would surely be supported by the voters of the State in the 2019 general elections in competition with these two principal parties and the moribund Congress when national issues would influence their voting behaviour. The caveat of course being that, in the two-year interregnum, the party does not shoot itself in the foot by making a mess of governance, by being continuously disturbed by the egregious and communal utterances of some of its members. The chances of its comeback in 2019 could also be vitiated if the government were to be rocked by some massive scams reminiscent of the previous government.
What if the voters vote for either the SP or the BSP in the coming elections? Can it be interpreted as a referendum against the PM? While on the face of it, a negative verdict for the party will certainly make it appear in poor light and dent the image of the Modi-Shah duo, but to extrapolate that a negative verdict for it in the State would be reflected in the 2019 general elections in the same degree would be far-fetched given the vastly different set of issues in the State and general elections. But that does not detract from the importance the BJP is giving to the election because, according to its calculations, a positive verdict for it in the State election would be, in most likelihood, repeated in the general elections.
Importance of UP Election for the Congress
The UP election is also being viewed by the Congress Party with great expectations. There has been no respite for the grand old party since the severe setback it received at the hands of the rising BJP when it was reduced to an unprecedented 44 seats in the Lok Sabha in the 2014 general elections. Since then the party has been ousted from power in the States of Haryana, Maharashtra, Jammu and Kashmir, Kerala and shockingly, though not unexpectedly, Assam where it had been in power for the last 15 years. In the latest Assembly election in Tamil Nadu, its alliance with the DMK became a drag for the alliance and could not stop Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK from getting a second term just as the Congress-Left alliance in West Bengal could not prevent Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamul Congress (TMC) from romping home to victory for the second time.
Only the Union Territory of Puducherry was the saving grace where it was able to win a majority. While a “Congress-Mukt Bharat” (Congress-Free India), as envisaged by the BJP, is unlikely to fructify in the near future, Arun Jaitley’s question whether the Congress will remain the main challenger to the BJP-led NDA in the 2019 general elections must be giving sleepless nights to the Congress and its leadership. That there is a current of resentment against the present dynastic leadership within the Congress, who is considered inept by many, became apparent in the recent biennial elections for the Rajya Sabha from the State of UP. Six of its MLAs cross-voted in the Rajya Sabha. One of them represents the Tiloi Assembly segment in Rahul Gandhi’s parliamentary constituency of Amethi.2
It is against the aforementioned backdrop that the UP election has assumed so much of importance for the Congress. The election results hold the future of the Congress: whether a Congress-Mukt Bharat becomes an imminent possibility or the grand old party witnesses a revival of its fortunes will largely depend on its performance in the forthcoming election in UP. A severe beating for the party is likely to make the internal voices of resentment against the current leadership strident and could even lead to splits in the party. The genesis of the Mamata-led TMC and the Nationalist Congress Party, born out of the Congress, could be traced to similar circumstances in the late 1990s. The appointment of Prashant Kishore, who has had a record of back-to-back success in devising election strategies for Narendra Modi and the BJP in the 2014 general elections and Nitish Kumar in 2015 Assembly election of Bihar, shows the seriousness of the party for this election. Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has been convinced by Kishore and the party to campaign for the party in the whole of UP, and not remain confined to the Gandhi pocketboroughs of Amethi and Rai Bareili as she had hitherto been doing. Rahul Gandhi has been indefatigably doing road-shows and Mrs Sheila Dixit, who is in her late seventies, has been brought from Delhi to be the Chief Minister’s face ostensibly to influence the Brahmin voters.
Important for the SP and BSP
The coming election is very important for the other two stakeholders—the SP and the BSP. For the SP the coming election will decide whether people have accepted the passing of baton in the party to next generation of the Yadav clan, though Mulayam Yadav himself does not appear to be very favourably inclined towards his son. The party has been doing all it can to beat the anti-incumbency. On the one hand, the young Chief Minister, Akhilesh Yadav, has been projecting himself as a pro-development and anti-criminal leader, while the old guards have been trying to build a winning social arithmetic. However, the recent family feud, coming on top of a not-so-good law and order situation, involving the son, father and the uncle played out openly in the public, could become suicidal for the party.
The stakes for the BSP, on the other hand, are huge and Mayawati has been banking on the anti-incumbency of the Akhilesh Government and the fortuitous family feud and internal dissensions within the SP to propel her to power. Taking the cue going from the past trend in which power has alternated between the SP and BSP and from its performance in the November 2015 Panchayat elections, the BSP is optimistic of coming to power. If the party loses, it would mean that its social engineering formula has once again failed it after the 2014 general elections. With the exodus of not just important leaders like Swamy Prasad Maurya from the party but also palpable signs of rebellion within the cadres, a loss could pose an existential crisis for the party given that the party has been out of power for the last five years in the State and, in the 2014 general elections, could not win a single seat.
It is because of these huge stakes that Mayawati, without mincing words, appealed to the “Muslims not to vote for either the SP or Congress, saying that with every Assembly seat having 22-23 per cent Dalit votes the BSP alone can sail through with the help of Muslim votes, or else the 2014 result will be repeated, the BJP will win again. This is no social engineering but the crudest of identity politics—a sad reflection of life in India’s most populous State.”3 The public flogging of Dalits in Una and the abusive language used by the expelled BJP leader, Dayashankar, against Mayawati will surely dent the Dalit outreach programme of the BJP even as it will brighten the chances of the BSP in the coming elections. If the Muslims turn to Mayawati, which is quite possible because many of them blame the SP Government for not protecting them in the Muzaffarnagar riots, the BSP could easily come to power. The intense infighting within the SP must have sullied the image of the party among the Muslims.
1. “Mission UP: Parties have hit the campaign trail in the hunt for UP’s momentous crown”, editorial of The Times of India, June 17, 2016. While the BJP won 71 seats, the NDA won 73 seats from UP in the 2016 general elections.
2. “Mission UP...”, op. cit.
3. “Only Identity Politics: Mayawati woos Muslim voters ahead of Modi’s Dussehra visit to Lucknow”, editorial of The Times of India, October 11, 2016.
Aron, Sunita (2015): ”It will be a fight for every vote in battlefield UP?”, Hindustan Times, May 24.
The author is an Associate Professor of Political Science, MMH (PG) College, Ghaziabad. He can be contacted at e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org