Last week the Election Commission (EC) called for elections to five states—Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa and Manipur—formally launching the countdown to what is tipped as the next big test for a resurgent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Narendra Modi. It is the moment when political parties, except for the squabbling Yadavs’ Samajwadi Party (SP), retreat to their respective command centres and go into hyper electoral mode.
In stark contrast to 2014 when the party to beat was the Congress (after being in power for two consecutive terms), the battle now is to stop the Modi juggernaut. Amazing actually. In just two-and-a-half years a Modi-led BJP has not only become the new pole of Indian politics but is also emerging as the glue for an otherwise fragmented opposition to unite.
It is, to put it simply, a case of Modi versus the rest, in which the biggest prize is undoubtedly Uttar Pradesh—hitherto the preserve of the two regional biggies, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).
Part of the narrative shaping the upcoming electoral battle is no doubt the politically polarizing issue of demonetisation. Modi has framed the policy initiative as an assault on black money, which is presumed to be held by the wealthy and corrupt. In the process he has once again restored corruption to centre stage—something which returned a rich electoral harvest for Modi in the 16th general election.
The reason it resonates so much with the general public is that the fight against corruption ties in perfectly with the ability to realize aspirations. A system hollowed out by systemic corruption over decades celebrates exception and gives short shrift to merit. Fighting back corruption levels the playing field, and lends legitimate hope to aspirations.
Anecdotally it is obvious that there is growing inequality in the country. The haves are getting richer by the day. Unchecked corruption reinforces the inequality of opportunity; consequently the have-nots are correspondingly worse off—only worsening the economic inequality.
By championing the fight against black money through the audacious move to demonetise Rs1,000 and Rs500 denomination notes, which between them account for almost 90% of the value of circulating currency, Modi has got national attention. What is baffling is the fact that the corrupt have successfully gamed the system to launder their wealth (they may yet be nabbed) has not taken the sheen off the PM’s campaign; exactly why Modi is not wavering in his defence of demonetisation.
Clearly then this is a very high stakes electoral battle. And there are broadly three scenarios which could play out. One, Modi sweeps the contest and ends up on the winning side in most of the states, including Uttar Pradesh. From the BJP’s point of view this would be the ideal; not only will it strengthen its electoral grip nationally it will embolden Prime Minister Modi to try out even more out-of-the-box solutions to tackle corruption and press ahead with long overdue reforms.
Second, is an in-between situation—where the BJP wins some and loses in a few states. As long as UP is in their bag, neither Modi nor BJP will check their stride.
Thirdly, the worst case scenario is that the BJP suffers a whitewash. It would definitely put the party and the prime minister on the defensive; radical policy reforms are likely to suffer (though the good news is that initiatives like the goods and services tax have acquired an unbeatable momentum of their own). But then with 280 MPs backing it in the Lok Sabha and its majority never in doubt, the party is likely to brazen it out (as it did to put behind it the electoral humiliation in Delhi first and Bihar later).
In the final analysis it is clear that for one, this is shaping up as a referendum on Modi. Second, in this high stakes battle there is a lot more riding on this than just an electoral win/loss; the emerging narrative suggests the outcome will also influence the next steps against corruption. All eyes then on the second Saturday of March, the day on which the votes for this contest will be counted.
Anil Padmanabhan is executive editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.
His Twitter handle is @capitalcalculus
Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org