Every Indian state election is important. It alters the power structure of the state, and the distribution of resources among different social groups. It also reflects the aspirations and the angst of the electorate.
The Election Commission has just announced dates for a new set of polls.
Manipur is one of the last Congress bastions. It is also the site of armed conflicts and ethnic tensions. The election will be an important test of whether the Congress’ tactical redrawing of district boundaries - cause of the current blockade - will yield political dividends or whether BJP continues its expansion into the Northeast. A BJP win will be remarkable, given its strongly ‘nationalist’ image, for Manipur has long been home to a strong separatist stream.
In Uttarakhand, which witnessed both an environmental disaster and political instability, the task is for the Congress to explain its record.
In Goa, the onus is on the BJP, its challenge compounded by Manohar Parikkar’s shift to Delhi and rebellion by a section of the RSS.
Punjab is on the cusp of a political contest where the incumbent, Akali-BJP alliance, and leading Opposition, the Congress, are pitted not just against each other but a new entrant, AAP.
If the latter wins, its national footprint will grow, and its hopes of replacing the Congress as the primary challenger to the BJP in north and west India will get a boost.
Critics will no longer be able to dismiss Arvind Kejriwal as a Delhi phenomenon.
Alternatively, if the Congress wins, it will largely be due to the charisma of Captain Amarinder Singh and serve as a reminder there is no alternative to strong regional leaders.
But while all states are equal, some are more equal than others.
The political outcome in UP will affect the lives of 200 million people. Uttar Pradesh is also a microcosm of Indian diversity. It is home to every major political strand. It is the site of India’s major communal and caste fault-lines. It is also the state, which will inhibit India’s rise if it remains stuck with its current economic and human development indicators.
And it is the state which often dictates politics in Delhi, by shaping the complexion of the Rajya Sabha, by its strength in the Lok Sabha (though it is important to note there is no obvious co-relation between assembly and Lok Sabha outcomes), and by being a key factor in the election of the president (due this year).
Any triangular contest is difficult to read. But the political theatre in UP has rarely been as fluid. This is a result of the implosion in the Samajwadi Party and the emergence of Akhilesh Yadav; the likelihood of his alliance with Congress; the overwhelming energy being invested by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the state; the BSP’s attempts to craft a Dalit-Muslim coalition; demonetisation; and regional variations.
But the UP election, this time, has four distinctive features.
One, the question of leadership is central to voter concerns. Local candidates matter, but the election is being constructed as an Akhilesh versus Modi versus Mayawati election. While it shows Modi’s continued popularity, it also speaks of the BJP’s structural weakness - the absence of local leaders. If the BJP wins, it will once again be due to the PM’s popularity; if Mayawati wins, it will be because of the nostalgia for her ‘strong law and order’; and if Akhilesh wins, it will be an endorsement of his focus on infrastructure and welfare, and rebellion against the old patronage networks.
Two, both caste and going beyond caste is critical for each party. UP is in this paradoxical position where every party promises that its focus is on governance, yet every party’s calculation is fundamentally driven by identity.
But no one quite knows what’s the right mix. A single caste group cannot win you elections; no caste group even votes homogeneously; the young think differently and are connected to a world outside; the urban-rural boundary is getting blurred.
And so employing a new grammar is essential - Akhilesh promises smartphones, Mayawati says she will not build statues anymore, Modi says the state needs vikas. At the same time, caste is a key factor in candidate selection, in creating coalitions, in voter preferences. This election will tell us not only which factor is important, but also what is the right mix, and who has got it.
Three, for UP’s Muslims, this is the most high-stakes election since the post-Babri poll of 1993 because the state remains their only platform for political representation. Not a single Muslim won in the Lok Sabha in 2014 - and this has increased their alienation. Their focus will be in ensuring representatives make it to Lucknow, and that the BJP gets defeated. How the community votes, whether it fragments or consolidates to a substantial degree, will be a key determinant of the outcome.
And finally, this election will be a mini referendum on Modi’s demonetisation. The BJP’s own base is upset with the party, yet there are indications that the party may have been able to tap into the anger and discontent of the poor against the rising inequality.
Every economic sector, every citizen remains affected, in varying degrees. If the BJP wins, it will provide a huge boost to Modi’s policy measure and will make him stronger at the centre to continue with his policies; if it loses, it will be interpreted as a rejection of demonetisation, and the Opposition’s morale will shoot up.
Elections provide a platform for social cleavages, ideological battles, political rivalries to be played out peacefully.
The 2017 polls will once again show this strength of Indian democracy.