2017 UP Assembly election rests on a knife edge
Rasputin-like Amar Singh could be the X-factor in the unfolding Yadav saga.
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As the farcical war between father and son plays out in Lucknow, replete with an evil uncle lurking in the background, Uttar Pradesh awaits liberation from caste and religion. Next month’s seven-phase election is unlikely to provide it.
Whether or not the Samajwadi Party’s Mulayam Singh Yadav and his suddenly clean-as-a-whistle son Akhilesh fight the UP Assembly election together, its outcome will shape the narrative for the 2019 Lok Sabha poll.
According to the recent India Today-Axis opinion poll, the BJP is currently the front-runner. It is projected to win 206-216 seats in the 403-seat UP Assembly (excluding one seat reserved for an Anglo-Indian member nominated by the governor). That would bring the party back to power in India’s largest state for the first time since March 2002.
But things can change rapidly in a state charged with communal and caste tension.
Akhilesh has tried to erase his government’s anti-incumbency disadvantage by shifting the blame of UP’s lawlessness and corruption over the past five years to the “old guard”. That includes his father Mulayam, his uncle Shivpal and the Rasputin-like Amar Singh.
The India Today-Axis poll was conducted from December 12 to 24. It captures the demonetisation effect (76 per cent in UP, according to the poll, back it) but crucially does not capture Akhilesh’s post-Christmas revolt.
There are three factors at play here. First, by distancing himself from the SP’s five-year misrule, Akhilesh’s SP Version 2.0 may get the benefit of doubt from voters. That though will be negated following a split among the Yadav and Muslim vote, a part of which will stay with the Mulayam-led SP Version 1.0 - if father and son don’t patch up and the divided party’s election symbol of a cycle is frozen by the Election Commission (EC).
Second, if the Akhilesh and Mulayam factions do make up and the SP fights the poll jointly, but with Akhilesh choosing candidates who get tickets, there’s a possibility of internal sabotage by those promised tickets by Mulayam and Shivpal. They could stand as Independents, splitting the Yadav-Muslim vote once again.
Third, there is the Rahul Gandhi factor. If Akhilesh has his way and the SP and the Congress fight the election together, will the math change?Mulayam Singh Yadav with Amar Singh.
Examine the vote-share projected in the India Today-Axis poll. The BJP gets 33 per cent, the SP and BSP get 26 per cent each and the Congress gets six per cent.
In an SP-Congress alliance, not all of Congress's vote-share will transfer seamlessly to the SP given the state’s complex caste and religious faultlines. Voters in both parties opposed to the alliance could switch their allegiance to the BSP or BJP. The math of an SP-Congress alliance is therefore not linear.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, one of the shrewdest politicians India has produced in three decades, saw the dangers early. That is why he has been addressing rallies with growing intensity in Uttar Pradesh since last year.
BJP president Amit Shah has meanwhile been laying the booth-level groundwork for the UP elections for over two years.
In a four-cornered battle with the SP and the Congress contesting independently, the BJP is likely to emerge, according to the India Today poll, as the largest party with a narrow majority.
In a three-cornered fight, with the SP and the Congress coming together, the math changes - but not by as much as Rahul and Akhilesh would hope. Here’s why.
In an SP-Congress alliance, the SP will allot the Congress not much more than 75 seats. Of these, the Congress is unlikely to win, despite the charged alliance arithmetic, more than 20 seats. That’s more than it would win fighting alone, but not decisively more.
The SP meanwhile could increase its tally in the 325 seats it contests to around 110, giving the alliance 130 seats compared to the combined total of 100-odd seats the IndiaToday poll projects for them if they fight separately.
That’s probably not enough to deny the BJP a wafer-thin majority though a hung Assembly becomes a distinct possibility.
All of this explains Rahul’s keenness to ally with Akhilesh - and vice versa. Both dynasts know the only way to have a sliver of a chance to keep the BJP out of Lucknow is to fight the election together. The Congress doesn’t mind being a bit player in UP as long as the BJP is thwarted.
Where does all this leave Mayawati? She has distributed tickets liberally to Muslims to inveigle those disenchanted with the internecine Yadav family feud. But her resources have dwindled since demonetisation.
For Akhilesh, there is the additional matter of family. His mother Malti Devi died in 2003. His step-mother Sadhna Gupta, who is close to Amar Singh, had ambitions for her own son Prateek, Akhilesh’s step-brother.
But 28-year-old Prateek, who runs a real estate business and plans a chain of gyms, says politics doesn’t interest him. It does, however, interest his 26-year-old wife Aparna. She has been given a ticket to fight the 2017 UP Assembly election from the Lucknow Cantt constituency.
Akhilesh’s wife Dimple - Aparna’s step sister-in-law - is the MP from Kannauj, Akhilesh’s old parliamentary seat.
And in this family game of thistles, the peripatetic “uncle”, Amar Singh, slides in and out of the frame. He could still be the X-factor in the unfolding Yadav saga in Uttar Pradesh.