The upcoming assembly polls in five states – Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa and Manipur – could be a political game changer for India.
The key race is Uttar Pradesh (UP), India’s most populous state and often seen as a bellwether for general elections. The seven-phase polling for the 403-member UP assembly, which gets underway this month, will continue until March, with vote counting taking place on March 6. The result is expected to be known the same day, thanks to the electronic voting machines that are to be used in all five states.
The UP poll is a battle between four major parties – the ruling Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), its main rival Samajwadi Party (SP), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) (the main opposition at the center) and the Congress party. Most analysts, though, see it effectively as a two-way race between the SP and the BSP, with the former having the advantage.
The Samajwadi Party has embarked upon a new strategy for wooing Muslims in UP, with party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav and his son Akhilesh avoiding direct attacks on Congress during their election rallies. Instead, they are getting the job done via the party’s Muslim “face,” Azam Khan. The SP has decided to pitch for a more than nine percent reservation for Muslims within the Other Backward Castes designation in the state, in a desperate bid to woo the minority community.
The SP is making a conscious attempt to revamp its image and lose the “criminality” label it picked up during the Mulayam Singh-Amar Singh years. The SP lost power in UP five years ago after the party became identified as the cash-and-carry party that welcomes money and muscle to secure power.
The SP’s main political rival, the BSP, has also tweaked its poll strategy this election season. Interestingly, BSP supremo and Chief Minister Mayawati will address two rallies per day for the next month. Mayawati, who is hoping to become chief minister of the state for a record fifth time, will kick off her election campaign from her assembly constituency Bijnor, in western UP, on January 27.
Mayawati has apparently deliberately decided to start her campaign late in order to create a concentrated, maximum impact on voters. In addition, she is also expected to focus on keeping the BSP’s 19 percent Dalit (the so-called “backward” castes) vote intact. The party reportedly fears that it’s gradually losing the support of upper castes and Muslim voters.
Most attention at the national level will be on the Congress and the BJP. The UP results will be a good indicator of how they are doing.