The BJP better wrap up warm, for there is an East Wind coming. And it is called Akhilesh Yadav.
On Tuesday, as westerlies swept into Delhi bringing with them a biting cold, Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad indicated that the next challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP would come from east of New Delhi, rising perhaps from the shores of the Hooghly and gathering storm over the Sangam.
Ghulam Nabi Azad's announcement of an alliance between the Congress and the Samajwadi Party led by Akhilesh has not just indicated the direction of the wind in 2017. It has also defined the contours of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. In all likelihood, Akhilesh would be part of at least a troika of leaders that would take on Modi. By his side would be Rahul Gandhi and, if she can control her ambition and ego, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
The Congress-SP (Akhilesh) alliance has a ring of finality to it after Azad jumped the gun and announced it before the proposed Rahul-Akhilesh meeting. Aware of its limitations and a shrinking base, the Congress has realised that it can remain relevant in UP only by hanging on the coattails of the Uttar Pradesh chief minister. In all likelihood, it will settle for around 100 seats and work as the junior partner, riding pillion on Akhilesh's cycle.
Akhilesh, on his part, has realised the importance of gathering in his basket every voter opposed to the BJP, not giving them a chance to disintegrate. In a triangular fight, the SP chief understands how just a minor swing can make or break the fortune of a political party. He would now be hoping to consolidate the Muslim-Yadav vote, pluck the urban middle class and youth from the BJP basket with his development agenda and use the committed Congress voter as the icing on his electoral pie.
The SP polled 29.29 percent votes in the 2012 assembly elections. The Congress got around 13 percent in the seats it contested. In politics, 29 plus 13 is rarely 42. But even if Akhilesh gets the lion's share of the Congress vote, he would be hoping to sweep the polls. Also, the alliance raises a flag high — higher than that of the BSP — under which anti-BJP voters, especially the minorities, can gather. It literally aims to take the BSP out of the equation, turning the election into a clash of personalities — Akhilesh vs Modi.
From the selective leads and leaks in the media, it is apparent that the SP-Congress (and perhaps RLD) alliance would also be a clash of generations. Rahul-Priyanka Gandhi-Akhilesh-Dimple Yadav would lead a joint campaign against Modi and Shah.
It will obviously be fatuous to underestimate the BJP. Over the past one year, the BJP has worked continuously on the ground to put together a rainbow coalition of voters. Apart from retaining the Hindutva votaries, it has made huge dents into Mayawati's vote bank and played up class differences through Modi's demonetisation narrative. Its first list of candidates released on Monday indicates that the BJP would rely heavily on OBC candidates — a strategy aimed at stealing from Akhilesh's vote bank — for the final push.
Like the election in Bihar in 2015, this contest should be for the ages, a humdinger that could go right down to the wire. And since it is being built up as the clash of the titans, the results would have long-term ramifications.
One of them, obviously, will be to set up Akhilesh as the fulcrum of the opposition unity. Even if he loses the Assembly polls, Akhilesh is the only politician in north India who can stop the BJP from sweeping back to power with an encore of 2014 polls when it won 73 seats just from UP. Congress, with just a marginal presence in the state, knows this and its decision to accept the role of the junior partner is an indication of the party's realistic SWOT analysis. Unless the script goes horribly wrong, Congress is likely to latch on to Akhilesh even in 2019.
What is now interesting to watch is the stand Mamata Banerjee takes in UP. Ever since the demonetisation saga unfolded, Banerjee has been trying to set herself up as Modi's arch rival and nemesis — notice her verbal vows of ensuring the prime minister's defeat. She has also indicated support for any coalition that takes on Modi in UP and, in the war within the Mulayam parivar, thrown her weight behind Akhilesh, indicating her political preferences.
Sherlock Holmes fans would be aware of the significance of the East Wind. It rises all of a sudden, blows with a violent force and has the potential to uproot everything that doesn't have deep roots.
The BJP, as John Watson says in His Last Vow, better wrap up warm.
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Updated Date: Jan 17, 2017 16:01:12 IST