UP is indeed heading for a thriller as for the first time India’s politically heavyweight state will witness an exciting battle between a battery of young leaders and Narendra Modi, who at the age 63 had emerged as a youth icon in 2014.
The key to power will be in the hands of the youth like the 2014 general election when half of India’s 814 million voters under 35 years of age had come out to make or mar the fortunes of political parties.
They had contributed to the historic win of the Bhartiya Janata Party and its leader Narendra Modi, an experienced chief minister who broadcast the Gujarat development model to harness their support. Again, they are itching to display their political might and they indeed have a choice - a youth icon, who is now 66 and a young leadership- both armed with their models of development.
Almost half of UP’s 140 million electorate is also under 35 years of age. Of them, 25 lakh are new voters (18 to 19 years) and another 38 million in the age group of 20 to 29 years. Underestimating their power or ability to vote independent of their seniors would be a blunder.
The first-ever electoral alliance between the Samajwadi Party and the Congress is not merely limited to the coming together of two political parties but also of young leadership – that of Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi, supported by Priyanka Gandhi and Dimple Yadav. They are not just figureheads but are going to lead aggressive campaigns in coming days, both jointly and individually.
The young leaders have virtually inherited their respective parties – Akhilesh fought a six-month long family battle to wrest control over the SP, Rahul Gandhi’s coronation is a matter of time.
If Akhilesh’s challenge is to convert his popularity into votes, the Congress wants to be in power. It has not won assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh for 27 years.
Individually, the poll partners may not be healthy as compared to resurgent BJP (SP has to battle the anti- incumbency) but put together they form a formidable combination. Arithmetically, taking 2012 poll results as a base, their vote share adds to 40 % as against 15 % of the BJP and 25.91 % of the BSP. BJP polled 42 % vote polled in 2014.
The alliance in UP can’t be compared with the Grand Alliance of Bihar where two strong leaders, Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav, had sunk their differences to stop Narendra Modi led BJP’s victory march that conquered major states like Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand after occupying the North Block.
The UP alliance, however, is more about the youth power in young India.
Factoring in their strengths and weaknesses, Modi magic continues to prevail but his public appearances will be limited. Others in his party may not have his charisma or mass appeal. Confusion also remains on their chief ministerial face. Would it be someone young as Devendra Fadnavis in Maharashtra or a veteran like Manohar Lal Khattar, rooted in the RSS?
In the absence of BJP’s CM face, the party will have to heavily bank on the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and election management skills of BJP president Amit Shah. At stake will be their personal prestige more than that of the party.
Interestingly, home grown Akhilesh Yadav has also created a niche for himself in the last few years. Rahul is steadily becoming a rallying point for anti-BJP forces at the national level despite a string of electoral losses and ridicules from opponents. There is no ambiguity on their face in the arena. All surveys that had put BJP in number one position have also rated Akhilesh as the most popular chief ministerial face in 2017.
Armed with his please all manifesto, Akhilesh is also ready to launch a high voltage campaign along with Rahul and Jayant Choudhury promising vikas, a promise that 73 BJP MPs had made but not delivered. And he is fully geared up to fight the battle, both on the street as well as on the social media.
In a triangular contest, it’s the firebrand leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party Mayawati who will have to pull up the socks to remain in the fight as her mathematical calculations may go awry. The Dalit-Muslim combination already stands fractured.
The 18 % Muslims desperate to dislodge the BJP government from the Centre in 2019 will be actually building its base in 2017. They were waiting for the family feud to get over and alliance to take off.
However the challenge before the alliance would be to keep the election development oriented and not divisive as youth is not always guided by past performances of the political parties and their caste allegiances. All castes had lapped up Modi’s development model in 2014.
With an eye on 2019, anti-BJP forces will rally around UP alliance to checkmate the BJP from winning the largest state in the country as it would be a harbinger of their 2019 success. The chief ministers of Bihar and West Bengal Nitish Kumar and Mamata Banerjee were at loggerheads with Mulayam Singh Yadav but have no qualms in supporting his son. Mamata Banerjee has on many occasions displayed her fondness for Akhilesh. So the spirit of let the bygones be bygones.
Like the grand alliance of Bihar had proved to be a game-changer, 2017 polls could be the beginning of another era – the youth era.
This reminds one of what an old Muslim gentleman had said in Bahraich in 2012 much before Narendra Modi’s juggernaut had hit the roads. ‘There is only one formula to stop the BJP: Akhilesh Yadav in UP, Rahul Gandhi in Delhi.’
Everybody had derisively dismissed his prophecy as preposterous as none could have then visualised any understanding between the SP and the Congress under the leadership of Mulayam Singh Yadav and Sonia Gandhi. The trust deficit between them was so acute that their talks for electoral alliance or government formation never fructified.
Rahul and Akhilesh are starting on a clean slate. The days will tell if the chemistry between the two will convert into trust.