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Narendra Modi and Amit Shah at a rally in UP
Narendra Modi and Amit Shah at a rally in UP

The first phase of the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election is now exactly a month away. It’ll be the most significant election since Narendra Modi’s sweep to power in 2014 — and one that could serve as an indication of how strong the Prime Minister might be as he makes his 2019 bid. It will also be the election that could see one among Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav and BSP president Mayawati being either propelled into a higher political orbit or entering a phase of eclipse, even if temporary. And it will be the election that could either redeem Rahul Gandhi or deliver the final, damning verdict on his political effectiveness.

The Congress and the Samajwadi Party are inching closer to an alliance for the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections as both sides work on a common minimum programme and bridge the gap on the contentious seat-sharing dispute.

The top leaders of the two likely alliance partners –Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi and UP chief minister Akhilesh Yadav – haven’t formally met but sources said a broad understanding through ‘intermediaries’ and ‘telephonic discussions’ has been achieved for a CMP and seat sharing.

“The alliance is likely to be announced any time after the election commission passes an order on the Samajwadi Party’s election symbol. We understand a 10 to 12 point CMP is being worked out and the Congress may get a share of 90 to 100 seats. As of now, the Rashtriya Lok Dal is not being considered, though other smaller parties may be roped in,” said sources.

According to sources, work on CMP has started as there are no indications of an amicable solution between the two warring SP factions, one led by Akhilesh and the other by his uncle Shivpal. Both sides are fighting over the party’s name and symbol, the bicycle.

“The Congress has been in a dilemma over an alliance with a faction of the Samajwadi Party, despite being in touch with the Akhilesh group. The EC’s order on symbol would make the situation clear. If the CM faction fails to get the ‘cycle’ symbol, it may decide to contest as a group named after Akhilesh Yadav. Hence the CMP is being worked out,” said sources.

Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra have conducted study possible candidates, past performance and the prevailing situation. “Rahul and Priyanka have taken necessary feedback and held preliminary discussions with the party men at various levels. They will be in a position to take a quick decision when seat sharing for an alliance is worked out,” said a senior Congress leader, on condition of anonymity.

Other senior leaders also refused to go on record on the issue of alliance but exuded confidence that the seat sharing would be respectable if an alliance was worked out. “It may be 90 to 100 seats,” they said. The party leaders’ confidence is based on an internal report on the prospects of contesting an election with or without an alliance with the Samajwadi Party.

According to sources, the report suggests that though a likely alliance would make a considerable improvement in the Congress’ performance, the situation would not be as bad as being projected without an alliance.

Rahul Gandhi is trying to make a great comeback in UP elections
Rahul Gandhi is trying to make a great comeback in UP elections

Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi on Wednesday signalled his party’s intent to make opposition to demonetization its key poll plank for upcoming elections in five states, including the politically crucial Uttar Pradesh.

With this, not only has Rahul Gandhi established his leadership of the party’s strategy—the conspicuous absence of Congress president Sonia Gandhi on Wednesday reinforced the sentiment of a low key transition of power—it also takes the battle to Prime Minister Narendra Modi who has already made demonetization central to his party’s electoral message.

Rahul Gandhi had also presided over the party’s foundation day function for the first time in December last year as well as chaired a meeting of the party’s highest decision-making body.

At the Jan Vedna Sammelan, the Gandhi scion took a jibe at BJP’s 2014 electoral slogan of ‘achhe din’ or good days.

“He (Modi) jumps from things like ‘Clean India’ to surgical strikes, to let’s demonetize. It is jumping from one thing to another. People of India keep wondering when are the achhe din going to come? Let me tell the people of India, achhe din are only going to come when Congress comes to power in 2019,” he said in his opening address laced with aggression.

“Demonetization is only an excuse. Narendra Modiji knows that he cannot hide behind yoga, ‘Skill India’ and ‘Make in India’…The result is that he has broken the financial spine of the country,” he added.

Political analysts feel that Congress will rake up demonetization as a common theme in all poll-bound states and agreed that Rahul Gandhi had effectively taken over the party reins.

While the Congress and SP are gearing for elections, the BJP has neither a chief ministerial face nor a list of candidates yet.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah had expected the fight to boil down to BJP vs SP, but the acrimony within the state’s ruling party has thrown up the prospect of a BJP-BSP showdown. The BJP continues to bask in the glory of its 71 Lok Sabha seats — which translate into 337 Assembly seats. The BJP finds itself with perhaps 20 options in each of the 403 constituencies, a position it has never been in before the start of a campaign. Swami Prasad Maurya, once a pillar of the BSP and its leader in the Assembly, is now in the BJP. So is Dalbir Singh, who was the leader in the House for Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal. Six MLAs of the Congress, 3 of the SP, and 13 of the BSP are now in the BJP. The Congress was humiliated by its former state president Rita Bahuguna Joshi, who joined the BJP in October 2016.

The BJP’s caste strategy for 2017 does not differ significantly from 2014, other than factoring in the effects of the divisions in the SP. It is targeting non-Yadav OBCs, non-Jatav Dalits (the Jatavs are believed to be firmly behind the BSP), and Brahmins, Banias and Rajputs. Six major OBC communities who live along rivers — such as Kewats and Nishads — are likely to get their due this time.

Based on its socio-political and socio-economic assessments, the party has reached six major conclusions.

Modi and Shah are acutely aware that UP is the “epicentre of underdeveloped India, where more than 75% people earn less than Rs 5,000 per month”. The party leadership has spent the last two years studying UP farmers, farming patterns and agricultural policies, and will include that understanding in crafting strategy. Modi and Shah are investing extraordinary effort in the state and remain acutely aware that those who hated their victory in 2014 would try their best to defeat them in 2017. The UP CM’s seat is a huge prize — he is, after the PM, the CEO of the largest chunk of India’s population, controls the most projects and government funding.

The BJP is hoping Muslims would remain divided, since they trust Mulayam Singh Yadav more than Mayawati. Leaders of the community would ensure that SP is not decimated and “it’s a respectable defeat, if at all”, believes the BJP. And a split Muslim vote would mean Mayawati won’t get enough to overtake the BJP.

In 2014, Modi handed SP a hammering on its own turf, and Mulayam began to doubt Akhilesh’s political capabilities. This was the time when other characters came to exploit the faultlines in the fatherson relationship. However, if the two hug and make up even now, a healthy triangular fight could follow. If Muslims are convinced that Mulayam-Akhilesh are serious, they should have no reason to desert their party. But the ongoing tussle has already bruised the SP badly.

But that doesn’t mean that the BJP has an advantage. The game is still wide open.