14/10/2016 11:12 AM IST | Updated 23/01/2017 11:04 PM IST

Why Punjab, Not UP, Will Be The Defining Election Of Spring 2017

Punjab election results will decide the state of opposition unity for 2019.

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Supporters of AAP during a public rally of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, on February 28, 2016 in Chandigarh, India.

The clichés roll out faster than you can say 'Uttar Pradesh'. It's the most populous state; sends 80 MPs to the Lok Sabha; it has given India most of its prime ministers; it is the cradle of defining political movements; and the path to Delhi goes through Lucknow.

With the fratricidal wars of the Samajwadi Party, UP 2017 looks increasingly like a contest between Mayawati and Modi. That's bad news for the BJP, as it won't divide the 19% Muslim vote enough, and will make Modi more vulnerable to attacks. But it may not be an easy elephant ride for Mayawati, as Muslims remain skeptical. The BJP may well be able to achieve 2014-like OBC consolidation along with its upper caste base.

Whether or not the BJP wins Uttar Pradesh, its impact on the Modi government's image, its chances in 2019, won't be affected much. The BJP's loss in Bihar a year ago did not become a big turning point for Modi. The Modi government is on a high with the surgical strikes on Pakistan, low inflation, and positive economic "sentiment".

If the BJP wins UP, it will only help continue the strengthening of Modi. But even if the BJP loses UP, it does not necessarily herald Modi's defeat in the 2019 general elections.

Local politics may defeat the BJP in UP, particularly because it does not have a CM face. Voters in UP and elsewhere have repeatedly shown they are capable of making vastly different choices in the state and national elections. UP now swings in the extremes of giving a full majority to Mayawati/Akhilesh in 2007/12, and helping Congress/BJP capture the Lok Sabha in 2009/14.

If the BJP wins UP, it will only help continue the strengthening of Modi. But even if the BJP loses UP, it does not necessarily herald Modi's defeat in the 2019 general elections. The BSP or SP winning UP hardly matters in national politics, as the two parties are happy to support whoever is in power in Delhi, overtly or covertly.

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People wave towards a helicopter carrying Narendra Modi in Uttar Pradesh April 21, 2014.

Modi's performance on 2019 will depend on very different factors, such as inflation, jobs and economic sentiment through 2018, and his party's ability to hold on to Gujarat in the winter of 2017.

Index Of Opposition Unity

A major factor defining the 2019 general election will be the index of opposition unity. Without that, the opposition won't be able to exploit any anti-incumbency Modi may face in 2019. The opposition in Bihar defeated the BJP last year only because it came together. Nationally, the opposition remains a very divided house between regional parties, a dying Congress and an impatient Aam Aadmi Party trying to scale up at the speed of light.

There is no Harkishan Singh Surjeet to bring together regional parties. Nitish Kumar and Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mamata Banerjee and Mayawati, all hope to become prime minister, and short of that, won't let any other regional leader ascend to the post. Crab behaviour prevents them from coming together and form a coherent bloc, with or without the Congress. A national Mahagatbandhan is a near impossibility, even as all parties, even the NDA allies, can see the BJP behemoth is out to devour them.

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Mayawati (2nd L), chief of Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), receives a model of an elephant, the BSP's electoral symbol, presented to her by her party's candidate Yogesh Divedi during an election campaign rally in the northern Indian city of Mathura April 18, 2014.

The Congress party is in terminal decline and despite the catchy campaigns designed in UP and Punjab by Prashant Kishor, the party is showing little signs of revival. Congress leaders and workers will privately tell you they are as disappointed with the leadership of Rahul Gandhi as anyone else. Gandhi continues to take the Congress party into oblivion, slowly but steadily.

The Aam Aadmi Party is very clear in its agenda. It wants to replace the Congress, state by state, no matter how long it takes. It aspires to occupy the centrist space in national politics. It may occupy only half of a city-state in Delhi, but has from its inception been a national party in it character.

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Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi addresses farmers at Jantar Mantar, after his month-long Kisan Yatra in Uttar Pradesh.

The AAP's rise should be welcome, as the rise of any new party strengthens a democracy beset with old dynasties and outdated ideologies. Particularly given that the Congress party refuses to help itself, you can't blame the AAP for trying to make the most of the opportunity.

Here's the catch. The Aam Aadmi Party won't, by 2019, be in a position to challenge Modi and the BJP in a serious way. The AAP is too ambitious to commit to pre-poll alliances, especially with the Congress. So the AAP's expansionism, between now and 2019, will only help further fragment the opposition.

Punjab Will Show The Way

For these reasons, the result in Punjab will have greater implications for national politics than whatever happens in UP. If the AAP wins Punjab, it will expand even more aggressively. By winning Punjab, the AAP will have broken the myth that it is an urban party, a one-state phenomenon, that it can't deal with caste or rural society.

In Gujarat, the BJP is facing anti-incumbency severe enough that a Congress victory is thinkable in December 2017. If the AAP loses Punjab, it will be demoralized, and won't be able to make a serious dent in Gujarat or other new states. A Congress victory in Punjab will stem the rising sense of doom and gloom around the party. By thus coming out of coma, it will be able to give its best shot in Gujarat.

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (C) takes part in Dussehra celebrations, next to Uttar Pradesh Governor Ram Naik (2nd R) in Lucknow on October 11, 2016.

It is entirely possible that Modi will be able to stem his party's decline in Gujarat, but the AAP replacing the Congress even as the main opposition party will be bad news for the index of opposition unity nationally. The AAP won't mind if it inadvertently helps the BJP win an election or two, as its main goal is to replace the Congress.

As things stand right now, the AAP seems to have a better chance in Goa than in Punjab. Whatever the outcome of the five assembly elections in March-April 2017, it is Punjab, not UP, which will be most fortuitous for the course of national politics.