04/01/2017 3:57 PM IST | Updated 04/01/2017 11:51 PM IST

UP 2017 Is Increasingly Looking Like Bihar 2015

Déjà vu.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Prime Minister Narendra Modi along with BJP President Amit Shah, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh and other senior BJP leaders during a Parivartan Rally at Ramabai Ambedkar Grounds, on January 2, 2017 in Lucknow, India.

Uttar Pradesh is not Bihar. It's a state much bigger, more complex.

Hindutva politics has always been defeated by OBC assertion in Bihar. UP has had a history of communal polarisation propelling the BJP.

Bihar 2015 had the maximum opposition unity possible, with Lalu, Nitish and Congress coming together. Uttar Pradesh is still a three-cornered fight between Akhilesh Yadav, Mayawati and Narendra Modi.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP did even better in Uttar Pradesh than Bihar.

And yet, the 2017 assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh are beginning to look a lot like Bihar 2015.

1. Big Modi rallies: Addressing a mammoth rally in Lucknow's Ramabai Ambedkar Maidan on 2 January, Prime Minister Narendra Modi remarked that the crowd was bigger than what he had seen during the Lok Sabha elections. He asked Uttar Pradesh to rise above caste politics. He sold vikas (development), accusing other parties in UP of not having done any.

2. Whose Vikas is it anyway? Exactly the same things the prime minister had said in his Bihar speeches, and they never worked. Mobilised rally crowds don't mean election victories, caste politics is a reality even the BJP is deeply engaged with. As for the promise of development, not only does it sound stale because of Modi's Acche Din campaign in 2014, it also appears weak before Akhilesh Yadav's achievements.

Just as Nitish Kumar's image as a man who had delivered on development in Bihar was unassailable, so is the case with Akhilesh Yadav. Everywhere you went in the Bihar elections, you'd see the BJP's saffron and yet people (except the upper castes) would say Nitish had delivered. Similarly in UP, the BJP is the only party that had so far been consistently campaigning on the ground. That is why you see the BJP's saffron everywhere, and a sense the BJP is strong. But if you ask people, they say Akhilesh is the one who has delivered.

In Bihar, prime minister Modi kept telling people Nitish hadn't kept his promise of improving electricity supply, but actually he had. Similarly in UP, accusing all other parties of doing nothing for development doesn't match the ground reality as Akhilesh has won the perception war on that front, while people still wait for Modi to deliver on his 2014 promises.

3. Modi achievements? In Bihar 2015, even the BJP's supporters were at a loss of words when asked what Modi had done for them – they would say his foreign trips are raising India's stature before the world. Similarly in UP today, Modi supporters are able to cite only one achievement, notebandi, which the rest don't buy.

4. Failed disruption: Modi tried to bring a big disruption in the Bihar elections. He tried to pull the rug beneath Nitish Kumar's feet by announcing a financial package three times of what Nitish Kumar was demanding. But it had no impact. Lalu Yadav made fun of how the prime minister announced it, and Nitish Kumar pointed out it wasn't a new package at all, only a rehash of existing financial aid.

Similarly, before the UP elections the prime minister unleashed the disruption of notebandi. Initially it appeared the poor were enthused by a programme that was fighting black money.

Travelling in the last week of December from Lucknow to Kasganj, through Unnao, Kanpur rural and the Yadav stronghold districts like Etawah, this writer found people still giving Modi time. "Let's see what Modi does after 30 December." They expected two things after 30 December: cash crunch to go away, and some reward for the hardship they had suffered. A lot of poor people expect Modi to put hard cash, lots of it, in their Jan Dhan accounts. None of that has happened, there's still a cash crunch causing economic hardship. The relief measures for the poor announced by the prime minister on 31 December haven't had much political impact.

5. No CM face: As in Bihar, a major problem for the BJP is the lack of a chief ministerial candidate around whom it could build and crystalise its larger campaign. Since Narendra Modi is not going to be chief minister of UP, people don't really have a face they could compare with Akhilesh Yadav or Mayawati.

6. Weak MBC strategy: The BJP's caste strategy in UP also sounds a lot like Bihar. It is mainly to add upper caste vote bank to non-Yadav OBCs. The BJP is doing well with Lodh and some Kurmi voters, thanks to having their senior leaders in the party. But the wider MBC vote is too fragmented to be mobilised en masse. Leaders of these communities have a limited hold over their voters. These are also voters hit hard by notebandi, whose benefits they are not sure about, and by contrast they see the ambulances and roads Akhilesh Yadav has provided. UP does have a lot more upper castes than Bihar, but it risks losing some of its upper caste support because of demonetisation and the Akhilesh wave.

7. Communal polarisation may not work: Like Bihar, the BJP and the RSS have been working on communal polarisation in both localised and state-wide ways. It has given up talking about triple talaq these days, noticing that it wasn't resulting in polarisation. As the election proceeds, the BJP will have no option but to try some more Hindu-Muslim polarisation, and no doubt it will have fruitful results in some pockets. But a state-wide communal polarisation looks difficult as the BJP's main competition, Akhilesh Yadav, has been shedding the Samajwadi Party's image of Muslim appeasement. Akhilesh Yadav's message to Muslim voters is the same as for Hindu voters: development. In Bihar, too, Nitish and Lalu had stayed away from Muslim identity politics. In UP, Mayawati is trying to woo Muslims with identity politics but Akhilesh is staying away from it, realising that would alienate a number of Hindu voters and drive them away to the BJP.

8. Modi image is intact: Despite the hardship of notebandi and its failure to make black money disappear, the Modi image hasn't taken much beating. People still give Modi grace marks for good intentions, for at least trying. Most people's response to notebandi is mixed and unsure. Even if the BJP loses UP, it is likely to be in second position, and it won't be much of a reflection on Modi, and perhaps not even on demonetisation. This election isn't about Modi but about Akhilesh Yadav. In Bihar too, people weren't enthused by Modi's pitch but the sentiment was more pro-Nitish than anti-Modi. Like Bihar, there is the sentiment that Modi is good at the centre and our regional party at the state level.

Things could still change: There are two factors that could change the situation in BJP's favour. Firstly, if Akhilesh contests the election on a symbol other than the Samajwadi cycle, he could face the challenge of voters being unaware of his symbol. Secondly, if there is a big communal disruption and the BJP succeeds in making voters vote for Hindutva, Akhilesh could lose.

For now, it appears the BJP in UP is a strong party with no face, a faltering narrative and an inability to convert the Modi image into a Vidhan Sabha wave.

Also in HuffPost:

Photo gallery 'Indica: A Deep Natural History Of The Indian Subcontinent' Is More Compelling Than Sci-Fi See Gallery