In India, there are elections all the time. Every year, there is at least one big round of state elections that captures the national imagination. Every such round has the potential to reshape national politics. Before the big test of national elections, every small election in India is seen as a mid-term test.
The biggest of them all, the state election of Uttar Pradesh, is often considered a “semi-final” before the national elections in 2019. Funnily enough, another big round of state elections in 2018 will be called the semi-finals.
Uttar Pradesh is India’s largest state by population, with just over 200 million people, as big as Brazil. It is said the road to Delhi goes through Lucknow, the state capital. Uttar Pradesh has the largest number of seats in the House of the People: 80 of 543. If you don’t win UP, or don’t have allies from there, you don’t get to make a national government.
Uttar Pradesh is where it all begins. Kingdoms and empires conquered India by conquering UP. The movements against colonialism and for India’s Partition had their beginnings here. Most of India’s prime ministers have been elected through UP. India’s current prime minister, Narendra Modi, hails from Gujarat, but had to be elected from the holy city of Varanasi in UP.
Yet the centrality of UP state elections in national politics is a bit over-rated. The pundits do no appreciate enough that voters behave differently in state and central elections. Voters in state elections are concerned with the state of their gutters, whereas in central elections, the voter thinks of Delhi and India.
It is a testament to the deep roots of democracy in India that voters – even poor, unlettered voters in remote villages – understand the difference between state and central elections.
Uttar Pradesh has four main political parties. Two of these, the ruling BJP and the opposition Congress, are present across India. The other two, Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party, are present mostly in UP itself. The BSP comes from a movement of Dalits, the former ‘untouchables’, a term now outlawed. The SP comes from a socialist movement that practically became a party of one particular middle caste, the Yadavs.
The incumbent chief minister, Akhilesh Yadav of the SP, echoes Narendra Modi and other politicians who are trying to establish a “new politics” in India. In this new way, the leader is everything, to the point of emulating Presidential-style politics from the United States. Akhilesh Yadav even has an American political consultant in Steve Jarding.
This “new politics” reduces the role and importance of lawmakers where it is the individual leader that executes key welfare and infrastructure projects through trusted bureaucrats and then tom-toms them as achievements. Vehicles fitted with LED screens go from village to village telling the people what the leader has achieved. Just the technology of it awes the rural poor.
That is how chief minister Akhilesh Yadav has built his image. “The chief minister is a brand in himself,” his key aide keeps repeating. Thanks to such brand building he has been able to counter all kinds of challenges, including a takeover attempt from his own father, the patriarch who established the party.
The seat-by-seat calculations of caste and community make this election look weak for Akhilesh Yadav, which is why he has allied with the Congress party. If he wins, as is quite likely, it will be thanks to his brand-building alone.
Critically, brand Akhilesh has not been built in opposition to Brand Modi, who ran a similar campaign, though much bigger, in 2014 to become India’s first prime minster in 30 years to win a simple majority in the parliament.
So huge is the political capital enjoyed even today by Narendra Modi that his mistakes go unremarked by the media and the public. The opposition isn’t able to hurt Modi’s public persona, partly because Modi is a great orator, a great spin doctor, and someone whose propaganda network extends to every smartphone in the country.
Narendra Modi’s decision to demonetise 86% of the currency in circulation on 8 November has backfired in a big way. It failed to extinguish black money in the economy, as people found ways to exchange old notes and still evade the taxman’s glare. It failed to identify any fake currency. If anything, it brought the informal economy to a halt.
Will the UP elections be a referendum on Modi or demonetisation? Travelling across the state this election, I found voters praise both Akhilesh and Modi. The former is good for the state, the latter for the centre. There are many, especially in the trading and farming communities, who are unhappy about demonetisation. Yet there are still those who think it was a great move.
Mr Modi has hoped to change the character of his party with demonetization. He has hoped to win over a lot of the poor at the cost of the trading community votes, who form his party’s core vote-bank.
To some extent he is succeeding in that attempt, but the jury is still out. This UP state election is not about Modi or demonetsiation. It is about the state, about electricity supply and policing. It is about whether Akhilesh Yadav has delivered. It will be a mistake to read its result as a referendum on demonetisation or Modi, regardless of how his party fares.