The battle for Uttar Pradesh is proving to be the toughest electoral fight for BJP president Amit Shah. The stakes are even higher than the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, where he allowed no one else to enter the state and reaped a rich harvest of 73 seats for his "Saheb" (as he still addresses Prime Minister Narendra Modi).
Paradoxically, while the prime minister's personal popularity is unaffected despite the Modi-made disaster of demonetisation, Shah is no longer the potent vote gatherer he was in 2014. Evidence of this was provided by the Delhi and Bihar Assembly election results.
Now with Akhilesh Yadav, the affable CM face of the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance who has also been dubbed as "Teflon Tipu" since none of the anti-incumbency factor seems to stick to him, and the formidable four-time CM and BSP chief Mayawati as the other opponent, BJP's failure to present a credible CM candidate seems like a huge mistake on Shah's part.
|The affable CM face of the SP-Congress alliance, Akhilesh Yadav, has also been dubbed as "Teflon Tipu" as he seems to have shrugged off anti-incumbency.
Shah and Modi have zealously guarded their turf in UP allowing no say to other leaders in selecting candidates and campaigning.
In a first for the BJP, after two meetings of the central election committee, it was decided that all candidates would be decided by Shah. Which is why today the knives have been sharpened as he has overlooked loyal party claimants and handed out tickets to turncoats.
Local leaders who have been kept out of all decision-making are also chafing and indulging in sabotage. So you have disgruntled Yogi Adityanath's Hindu Vuva Vahini, fielding 64 candidates against the BJP in his eastern UP stronghold, and Yogi farcically denouncing them and expelling his own office- bearers.
The opposition has one common agenda this time around — defeating Modi and stopping him in his tracks for the big battle of 2019. For this old animosities has been set aside and a huge amount of silent adjustment and cooperation is going on in candidate selection and even campaigning.
Mayawati, Akhilesh and Rahul echo each other as they mock Modi and his promise of "acche din".
The introduction of dynasty (politics) in a fiercely cadre-based party like the BJP with tickets handed out to Pankaj Singh, son of Union home minister Rajnath Singh, Kalyan Singh's grandson (son Rajveer is already an MP) as well as Hukum Singh's daughter, Mriganka Singh, has upset the cadres and even the RSS.
"Ab bete beti BJP ka mudda hai. Kis mui sei janata kei pas jaye (Now sons and daughters have become the main issue for the BJP. What issues do we take to the people)?"
Simmering Jat anger in western UP is also a huge problem for Shah. The Jats feel hugely letdown as the promised reservation — the holy grail for UP voters — never saw the light of day. The effects of "notebandi'' on the sowing and harvest in the predominantly agrarian economy has seen it slipping back into a barter system.
Leaders point out that anger had also been building up since the ill-starred land acquisition ordinance, which was finally withdrawn by the Modi government.
A BJP leader from western UP says, "Had the land bill become a reality, we would not have been able to show our face. They would have beaten us with shoes."
Local leaders rue the lack of consultation but also say that an assertive voter is now confronting them with the broken promises and tall claims made by Shah and Modi.
Despite his fabled oratorical skills, Modi is having the kind of trouble he had in Bihar while giving speeches. He simply fails to connect with the voters. When he talks of the demonetisation ushering in digital and cashless India it seems like a joke to voters where electricity is as erratic and elusive as the "vikas" (development) promised by all leaders.
Meanwhile, all parties have put together an alliance of the 19 per cent Muslim and Dalit base against the BJP, taking into consideration the anger against the beef laws which have effectively wrecked the tannery business. The BJP has not given a ticket to a single Muslim, while Mayawati has handed out a record 99 tickets to Muslim candidates. The SP-Congress alliance is also counting on this combination added to the Other Backword Caste (OBC) Yadavs.
With Shah going back to the tried-and-tested dog-whistle politics, Uttar Pradesh could well turn out to be his and "Saheb's" Waterloo, and some voters are surely drawing vicarious pleasure from the possibility.