Originally Published 2016-09-20 11:40:19 Published on Sep 20, 2016
If Mayawati plays her cards correctly she will dictate terms in the upcoming UP elections.
UP polls: Mayawati may have the upper hand

Uttar Pradesh sees assembly elections in the early summer of 2017. As the fourhorse race gathers pace, where do the contestants stand? The Congress has been first off the blocks, with its vice president, Rahul Gandhi, currently on a yatra across the state. He has attempted similar mass-contact earlier, notably in 2012 and to some degree in 2007, the two immediately previous elections, but with little success.

Indeed, the Congress's assembly election campaigns in Uttar Pradesh increasingly resemble the talking-up of Indian hockey prospects at every succeeding Olympics. Each time there is prediction of a medal at last, of a new coach, new tactics, a new striker, a new combination, a new appeal. Each Olympics, the overall result is pretty similar.

As somebody pointed out the other day, the Congress foray in Uttar Pradesh will test two perfect records: Rahul has never won an election and strategist Prashant Kishor has never lost an election. At least one of those achievements will be overcome in the next few months. For the moment, Rahul's record would be the one to bet on.

The Congress has made fervent attempts to win back the Brahmin vote by presenting the respected but nevertheless ageing Sheila Dikshit as its face. It hopes that with the return of Brahmins, the party will gain some electoral credibility and then, constituency by constituency, attract Muslims and other traditional but long-lost supporters. As a theoretical strategy this is reasonable, in real-life politics it is proving much tougher.

What hasn't helped is Rahul Gandhi's obsession with Narendra Modi in what should have been a very local, very provincial campaign. Either he is still fighting the election of 2014 or dress-rehearsing for the election of 2019. In both cases, he is writing himself out of Uttar Pradesh 2016.

The bandwagon effect

The other princeling who has announced a pan-state yatra is the incumbent chief minister, Akhilesh Yadav, son of Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav. The SP held the advantage in 2012 but won an incremental vote and its first majority (224 seats out of 403) capitalising on the image of a young, fresh and untainted leader, Akhilesh, rather than his jaded father and a motley crew of "uncles" (Mulayam's brothers, cousins and associates).

In the past five years, the "uncles" have bottled up Akhilesh. In particular, law and order in the state, crime and poor policing in urban areas, cases of land grab by ruling party cronies and severe corruption in the well-endowed PWD ministry have damaged the government's reputation. Akhilesh remains likeable and well meaning to many who voted for him, but unequal to the cabal of "uncles."

Now, after four-and-a-half years of either acquiescence or timidity, or both, he has taken on his father's brother, Shivpal Singh Yadav, a SP strongman infamous as the state's PWD minister. There is a sense that this is not a genuine revolt against his party's establishment but the chief minister's calculated attempt, likely with his father's blessings, to carve out a new identity in time for the polls. As such, despite the drama, not everybody is convinced.

If the SP is on the backfoot, who gains? Conventional wisdom would suggest Mayawati and her BSP are front-runners in this election. Other than a solid Dalit base (it assured the BSP a 20% vote even in the 2014 Lok Sabha election), the lady hopes to win over segments of upper caste and urban voters, who remember the relatively rigorous policing of her earlier term as chief minister (2007-12). This time, positioning herself as an alternative to the BJP, she is also courting Muslims assiduously.

A Muslim-Dalit alliance would be unbeatable. Along with incremental voters among the urban middle classes and upper caste groups, it could give Mayawati a formidable majority on paper. Yet, the fact is a Muslim-Dalit consolidation could also lead to a counter-mobilisation at the local, constituency level, whether on religious or caste lines. Further, there is the point that Muslim voters have generally trusted the SP more than the BSP.

Nevertheless, if the bandwagon effect so seen in so many recent elections (and not limited to Uttar Pradesh) comes into play, then the leading party tends to attract a significant segment of the uncommitted vote towards the end — and wins big. Mayawati is hoping for this. A similar surge helped her win decisively in 2007 and gave Uttar Pradesh its first single-party majority since 1991.

What could stop her? Frankly, the answer to that is in how much the BJP rises. It has slipped from its Lok Sabha 2014 high (when it won 71 seats of 80) but risen from its assembly election 2012 low (47 seats of 403). Where will it eventually land? For instance, will it end up in the 70-80 seats zone or the 100-120 seats zone? The implications of both are very different. While both would suggest an improvement from the past, it is only the second that has the possibility of throwing up a fractured mandate and a hung house.

This commentary originally appeared in The Economic Times.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.