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Let the Mahabharat begin: It's Modi vs the rest as EC sounds bugle for assembly elections

The Election Commission has announced the schedule of the high-stakes Assembly polls in UP, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa and Manipur, which are being touted as a mini-general election. Since polls are being held exactly around the time Prime Minister Narendra Modi completes his half-term in office, they are also seen as a referendum on his policies and programmes, ahead of his big battle to seek mandate for another term in 2019.

The current elections are particcularly a test for Modi’s popularity among the middle class and business community as they come soon after the demonetization decision. His latest strategy to build new social support base for the BJP also faces a litmus test. His decision to demonetize the higher denomination currencies and his welfare schemes have caught the imagination of the poor. Though Modi had been underlining his government’s focus on ‘antyodaya’ (the last man in the queue) and focusing on Babasaheb Ambedkar — the Dalit icon — for over a year now, his November 8 announcement of banning high-end notes has somewhat broken the barrier between classes. It has found resonance amongst the poor and the downtrodden as they were the biggest victims of corruption.

This is not an election campaign, it is a historic battle between rich and poor. “Kaante ki takkar hai (it’s a neck-and-neck fight),” says Ram Naresh, a taxi driver from Noida, Uttar Pradesh. It makes him feel important when he sees his former employer queue up outside an ATM and later at a bank to get cash.

These elections are a battle of nerves for the BJP, because out of the five states, it rules Goa and is an alliance partner in Punjab. Though it has been out of power for over past 14 years in UP, it had swept Lok Sabha elections winning 71 of the 80 seats (its ally Apna Dal won two) in the 2014 general election. In Uttarakhand, it is directly pitted against the ruling Congress.

An opinion poll conducted a couple of months ago had shown an overwhelming majority (as high as 90 per cent in UP, 88 per cent in Punjab and 77 per cent in Uttarakhand) supporting these strikes. About 67 per cent of those polled in UP and 76 per cent in Uttarakhand said the strikes have made the BJP electorally strong. But the mood was somewhat opposite in Punjab, where the ruling Akali Dal-BJP combine is fighting a strong anti-incumbency factor. The Congress till a few years ago was a frontrunner in Punjab, banking upon upper caste Hindu voters (38 per cent) and Scheduled Castes (34 per cent of SC Hindus and 35 per cent of SC Sikhs) to return to power. But of late, its pitch has been queered with the entry of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). The drugs problem continues to be on top of the agenda in the border state. Many top leaders of the government had been allegedly found involved in the drug racket.

In UP — with a population of over 200 million — often considered to be an election bellwether in India, the BJP had got just 15 per cent of the votes in 2012. But keeping in view its performance in the last Lok Sabha polls, it is now set to win 31 per cent, an unprecedented 16 per cent swing in its favour as the opinion polls suggest. But that may not be a guarantee to form a government on its own, say analysts. But capturing Lucknow is an important and critical milestone for Modi to be able to gain control of Rajya Sabha, as well as turn the Presidential election scheduled to be held in July in his favour. A lack of a majority in the Upper House has hit Modi’s economic reforms agenda and delayed passage of a key tax legislation — the Goods and Services Tax (GST) Bill.

The state with 403 Assembly seats will test Modi’s popularity after he abruptly pulled 86 per cent of the currency out of the system. The Congress said it will also highlight the cash crunch aspect of note ban.

“The notes ban has caused the maximum pain to each of the 125 crore Indians,” said party spokesperson Manish Tewari.

With the family feud taking dangerous proportions within the ruling Samajwadi Party, the BJP and BSP are smelling a chance. The Congress, much depleted after a series of electoral losses, is looking to form an alliance with Akhilesh Yadav if he is able to gain control of the Samajwadi Party or form his own party. A potential gainer — apart from the BJP, which has not governed Uttar Pradesh for 14 years — is Mayawati, the 60-year-old Dalit icon who has served four times as Chief Minister. Muslims, who form 19 per cent of the state’s population, have traditionally been loyal to the Samajwadi Party. She is now working to win them over to her Bahujan Samaj Party and has allotted the maximum number of seats to Muslim candidates.

Mayawati is calling on minority groups such as the Dalits, who constitute 22 per cent of the population, and Muslims to reject the BJP, raking up issues like Dadri lynching of Ilkhlaq Hussain, beef ban and riots in Muzaffarnagar. Many lower caste voters had deserted her party in 2014, allowing the BJP to win a majority of seats. Aware that Mayawati is emerging as the main opponent to Modi in Uttar Pradesh, BJP chief Amit Shah has made more than 150 visits to the state in the last two years to expand the BJP’s appeal from its traditional base of prosperous and upper caste voters to the less privileged ones.

In the far-off North-Eastern state of Manipur, where elections will he held in two phases — on March 4 and 8 — a bitter tussle is expected between the ruling Congress and the BJP. The BJP, which won the elections in Assam last year, is hoping to unseat the Congress. Ahead of the elections, the state has witnessed large scale unrest over issues including the inner-line permit system, creation of seven new districts and the demand by various groups to be named as scheduled tribes.

The land locked state is currently under an economic blockade called by the United Naga Council — the top group of the Naga tribes in Manipur over the state government’s decision of creation of seven new districts, which has already crossed 70 days. Union Minister Kiren Rijiju has pointed out that it is the “constitutional duty of the state government” to restore normalcy. Dr Mohammad Imtiyaz Khan who teaches at Gauhati University says that even after three terms, Congress government in Manipur has failed miserably to execute plans which are in larger public interest.

A local journalist Aya Shimray believes that there is a huge disparity between the hills and the valley. “It has only helped in creating a sense of alienation in the hills. The tribals in the state are peeved at the manner in which they are being prevented from enjoying the privilges of employment offered to them by the country’s constitution. Various instances of discrimination against the tribals even in its bureaucratic set up have surfaced during Ibobi’s rule,” he adds. Ibobi Singh, who has been in office since 2002, faces a life-time challenge from Irom Sharmila, who fasted for 16 years to demand the repeal of Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). She has formally announced to take on Singh in Assembly polls. Sharmila ended her fast against AFSPA on August 9 last year, and formed the People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA) with an aim to become the Chief Minister and repeal the act. Sharmila said: “During his 15 years of leadership, he has not done anything to repeal AFSPA. Since I realise that no politician shall repeal it, I am planning to contest the election, become the Chief Minister and repeal it.”

In Goa, where the BJP is in power with its pre-poll alliance partner of 2012 Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP), it is facing a stiff resistance both from the Congress and the AAP. More than the PM, here the fortunes of Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar are at stake, who has been utilising every opportunity he gets to spend time in his home state. Goa is perhaps the first state where the RSS has split ranks with the BJP. It’s a different matter that the BJP leaders say that it is only a section of the RSS which has formed a party called Goa Surakhsa Manch (GSM).

The 2017 elections are definitely a big test for Modi. Their outcome will chart the course for the 2019 general elections. Although state elections are largely governed by caste and community equations and the political campaigns are centred around state-level issues, Modi has emerged as a propelling figure in BJP campaigns. It is an election between him and the rest of political forces. His supporters are also banking upon him rather the party machinery, projecting him as an honest, incorruptible leader, someone who, unlike the Congress, is capable of taking prompt decisions. Amidst a divided Opposition, it seems they have managed to sail their ship through muddy waters. But in India, elections are known for throwing surprises.