Mulayam Singh Yadav, the Samajwadi Party (SP) supremo, told his party workers this week that "whoever wins U.P., wins Delhi." While that may not be the gospel truth, Mulayam's declaration underscores the outsize role that politics in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, plays in shaping the political landscape at the national level. U.P. Assembly elections are keenly followed across India and when it comes to drama, spectacle and nail biting outcomes, they do not disappoint.
The political drama around the upcoming 2017 Assembly election -- which will most likely be held in February, though the dates haven't yet been officially announced -- hasn't disappointed so far.
With elections round the corner, U.P. is waiting for chief minister Akhilesh Yadav to choose between his father Mulayam Singh Yadav and his destiny. In other words, with Mulayam hellbent on undermining his son at every turn, will Akhilesh leave SP and come into his own. In addition to the internecine family feud among the ruling Yadav clan, the election season has already seen allegations of black magic, villagers making off with cots, and politicians portrayed as divine deities. And, in the meanwhile, U.P. is still holding its breath for Priyanka Gandhi Vadra to join the fray.
The heightened drama, of course, springs from the terribly high stakes involved. It would be a blow for SP to be ousted after just one term in power. Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), meanwhile, is desperate to claw its way back from political wilderness. And, Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) needs the U.P. win to feel confident about its chances in the 2019 national election. The Congress party wants a good showing in U.P. just to regain some political standing in the country.
It is anyone's game at the moment. In case you have missed out on the action so far, these 16 headline grabbing moments from the campaign will bring you up to speed.
Lion From Hyderabad
The first politician to grab headlines in U.P. this year was not from the usual cast of characters. It was Hyderabad's firebrand lawmaker Asaduddin Owaisi who had travelled north to woo the Dalits and Muslims. With crowds chanting, "dekho dekho kaun aaya, sher aaya, sher aaya" (look look, who has come, lion has come), Owaisi blasted his political rivals over their treatment of Muslims. "I have not come here to become a leader but make you a leader," he said. Owaisi's All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) is still looking for an alliance partner.
Enter Prashant Kishor
The Congress party looked ready to do battle when it hired Prashant Kishor, one of India's most successful political strategist, who had steered Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar's campaign to victory. Kishor made the wooing of Brahmins central to the party's campaign and he wanted Priyanka Gandhi Vadra to revitalise the Grand Old Party's election campaign in Uttar Pradesh.
Will She, Won't She
Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, generally regarded as more charismatic than her younger brother Rahul Gandhi, was seen as one person who could turn Congress' fortunes in U.P. But party leaders were also concerned about playing their trump card in a game stacked so heavily against them. Over and over again, the media and the public were led to understand that her leading the campaign was imminent. But with just a month left before elections, it appears that the exhausting build up is going to end in an anti-climax.
Likes Or Nothing
Early in the campaign, BJP President Amit Shah threw the gauntlet, a rather unusual one, in U.P. -- BJP members who wanted tickets to contest the election had to prove their worth on social media by acquiring at least 25,000 followers. Shah's demand left some party leaders perturbed. "The real parameter of a leader's popularity is gauged by the work he does in his area and not how many followers he has on social media," one member pointed out.
Last summer, BSP supremo Mayawati vowed not to construct any more statutes of herself if she came to power. "I'll not build memorials, because my work is over. Now I'll focus only on development," she said. Given her penchant for parks and statues (of herself), Mayawati's promise gave us a moment of pause. Ten days later, a poster depicting Mayawati as Goddess Kali slaying the then HRD minister Smriti Irani, caused a bit of a stir. The poster also featured Modi, in miniature.
Friends Become Foes
Mayawati lost key OBC (Other Backward Classes) leaders early on in the race. Swami Prasad Maurya, who pulled in votes of the non-Yadav OBCs, left the party after accusing her of selling tickets. BSP's loss turned out to be BJP's gain. Next, it was R.K. Chaudhary's turn to bolt. Chaudhary, a leader of the second largest Scheduled Caste community in Uttar Pradesh, also accused Mayawati of selling tickets. In a scathing attack, the Pasi leader and Kanshi Ram loyalist said that the BSP "is no longer on the mission of social change."
Around the same time, the BJP appointed Keshav Prasad Maurya, a non-Yadav OBC with RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) credentials, as the state president. Maurya is also embroiled in ten criminal cases including murder, inciting riots and fraud.
No Goondas Allowed
In a sign of things to come, Akhilesh stood up to his powerful uncle, Shivpal Yadav, when he tried to merge the Samajwadi Party with the Qaumi Ekta Dal, the party floated by gangster-turned politician Mukhtar Ansari.
Ansari, a lawmaker from Mau constituency, is on trial for the murder of a political rival. He has been lodged in jail for ten years. Ansari is also accused of abduction and extortion. "We don't want such people in the party," Akhilesh said in June. Three months on, Shivpal went ahead with the merger despite his nephew's objection.
BJP's Dayashankar Singh managed to shock even members of his own party when he compared Mayawati to a prostitute. "Even a prostitute fulfills her contract. But Mayawati sells party tickets to the highest bidder. She'll sell it for a crore. But when someone offers her two crores, she'll sell it to the person. In the evening if someone offers her three crores, she'll sell a party ticket to him," he said.
Sheila Dikshit For CM
The Congress projected Sheila Dikshit as its chief ministerial candidate in U.P. The three-time chief minister of Delhi was chosen to further Kishor's strategy of wooing Brahmins, but observers pointed out that the 78-year-old leader was a spent force with little resonance in Uttar Pradesh. In a conversation with HuffPost India, one Lucknow cab driver confused Dikshit with Kiran Bedi, referring to her as the "IPS officer from Delhi."
Surendra Singh, proprietor of Varanasi's Hotel Modern, received a surprise guest on the day Congress party kicked off its campaign in the city that is represented in the Lok Sabha by Modi. Congress president Sonia Gandhi showed up at the hotel after she was taken unwell during her roadshow. Singh opened up his best room, priced at ₹950, and equipped with a double bed and AC. Gandhi's roadshow was meant to be a challenge to Modi on his home turf, but the day ended with him wishing her a speedy recovery. "Heard about Sonia ji's ill health during her Varanasi visit today. I pray for her quick recovery and good health," he tweeted.
Things at Rahul Gandhi's first khat sabha, an outreach program to connect with U.P.'s farmers, didn't quite go as he must have imagined. The idea was to have him engage with farmers, both sides sitting on cots for a tete-a-tete. It was to be the highlight of his month-long kisan yatra across the Uttar Pradesh. Television visuals of farmers carrying off the cots in Deoria district post the khat sabha turned into a PR embarrassment for Rahul's team, but left the country in splits.
Khoon ki Dalali
The posters that surfaced in Uttar Pradesh after India conducted surgical strike on terrorist bases across the Line of Control depicted Modi as Lord Ram, Pakistan's prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, as Ravana and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal as Meghanad, the son of Ravana.
This led to an outcry against the BJP for shamelessly exploiting the surgical strikes for electoral gains. Then, Rahul Gandhi went a bit overboard, accusing Modi of "khoon ki dalali". The remark backfired and, unfortunately for the Congress party, also eclipsed the conclusion of his kisan yatra.
Another blow to the Congress campaign came with the defection of longtime party leader in the state, Rita Bahuguna Joshi, to the BJP. "Rahul Gandhi's leadership is not just unacceptable in U.P. but also to the rest of the country," she said in a parting shot.
Bahuguna also said that nothing could have been more unfortunate than "handing over the party on contract to Prashant Kishor." "How long we have to walk, when we will stand and sit, all these things were told to us a day before, despite the fact that leaders are grassroots workers," she lamented.
At the height of the Yadav family feud, an Akhilesh supporter accused Sadhna, Mulayam's second wife and Akhilesh Yadav's stepmother, and his uncle Shivpal, of using black magic to harm him.
Akhilesh fired Shivpal from his cabinet posts on two occasions, once in September and then after reinstating him, again in October. Shivpal moved out of his official residence in October, with mini-trucks taking away his belongings from the ministerial house on Kalidas Marg in Lucknow. Mulayam and Shivpal in turn kicked out their cousin Ram Gopal Yadav, Akhilesh's uncle and supporter, from the party but then took him back. Mulayam's public verbal lashings aimed at Akhilesh made people wonder -- with a father like this, who needs enemies.
The feuding has resumed with a vengeance as the year draws to a close. Akhilesh, Mulayam and Shivpal have released competing lists of SP candidates who will fight the Assembly elections.
First, Kishor met with Mulayam Singh Yadav in Delhi, sparking speculation of a pre-poll alliance between the Congress and SP. But the Congress party denied all knowledge of the meeting. Then, Kishor met Akhilesh Yadav at his residence in Lucknow. Why Kishor darted off to meet SP leaders still isn't clear, but the Congress appears to have dumped its strategist in Uttar Pradesh -- unofficially, of course.
Whether demonetisation will make BJP's fortunes in U.P. or prove to be the party's undoing, remains to be seen. While Prime Minister Modi's surprise move has led to anger and suffering in cities and rural areas, many believe that Modi genuinely wants to combat black money and corruption. So far, he is on the right side of the perception battle. With Modi expected to make a major announcement at the biggest political rally that Lucknow has ever seen, which the BJP has planned for 2 January, one can safely say that the drama is far from over.
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