The countdown to the battle for Uttar Pradesh has begun, and in the days and weeks ahead we're going to be seeing alliances being formed, chief ministerial candidates being announced and a slew of provocative, hateful and divisive speeches being made.
If the 2014 general elections are anything to go by, the atmosphere in the poll-bound state is going to be toxic with differences of religion and caste being milked by political parties eyeing different votebanks.
The Muzaffarnagar riots and the entire rhetoric around "love jihad" played a crucial role in the last general elections with riot accused like Sangeet Som, Suresh Rana and Sanjeev Baliyan being hailed as "national heroes" by the BJP, especially in western UP.
Despite the venom-spewing, the saffron party managed to script a spectacular win in the state, getting a whopping 71 of 80 seats. Did the BJP win "despite"'the venom-spewing or "because" of its hate mongering?
The answer to this question will determine the outcome of the Assembly polls next month.
What is unfortunate is that in spite of constituting a formidable 18-20 per cent of the electorate, Muslims in the state were unable to emerge as game-changers. Their votes got scattered and diluted between the Samajwadi Party, BSP, AAP and the Congress.
A perfect example of this was the fight for the Rampur seat in the 2014 polls. The SP, BSP and AAP all fielded popular, local Muslim leaders as candidates, but the BJP propped up a retired Hindu doctor who had no prior political experience.
The result: Dr Nepal Singh managed to win the seat, defeating his closest rival Naseer Ahmed Khan of the SP by a margin of a mere 23,435 votes (2.45 per cent vote share). The Rampur case also showed that the BJP was confident about its Brahmin-Thakur votebank and knew it didn't need to make any effort to lure minority votes.
As political parties gear up for the polls, the SP, BSP and the Congress look like they've learnt nothing from their past mistakes. The SP is split down the middle and projecting a strong image will be an uphill task for the Yadav clan.
|The battle for Uttar Pradesh is going to be an acid test for the Narendra Modi government and its policies. (Photo: India Today)|
Mayawati, on the other hand, is trying to make the most of the tussle between Mulayam and Akhilesh. The BSP is fielding 97 Muslim candidates in the upcoming polls - which is 12 more than the 2012 polls and the highest ever fielded by the party.
The Congress, from what I've heard, is eager to forge an alliance with Akhilesh if he walks away from his father. It has also been approached by the BSP, which is looking at forming a front against the BJP. All three realise that the Muslim votebank is crucial but what they haven't understood is that consolidating this group has never been an easy task.
The BJP is the only party which seems to have a clear gameplan. It doesn't care about the Muslim vote and perhaps realises that further alienating Muslims will help it secure its core Hindutva base. It doesn't need to appease the minority group if it has the backing of the majority.
Which is why you have the central government questioning Aligarh Muslim University's minority status and raking up the Uniform Civil Code debate - keeping the issues fresh in public memory. These are emotive issues that are likely to draw an angry response from Muslims and bring a smile on the faces of those who have strong leanings towards the saffron right.
The only thing that can hurt the BJP now is demonetisation. The battle for Uttar Pradesh is going to be an acid test for the Narendra Modi government and its policies.