The new year sees parties readying for battle. Three states due to go to the polls will see the Congress trying to defend its record in power against adversaries determined to worst it. Manipur, Punjab and Uttarakhand will have new governments set to take office by the time the budget is presented before the parliament. Even before that, crucial municipal polls will be held in Delhi, with the Bharatiya Janata Party hoping to upset the Congressís applecart. Goa will go to polls in May. Towards the end of the year, Narendra Modi will seek a fresh term in office. Nobody can bet on it, but the alliance governments in Jharkhand and Karnataka may well collapse under strain and precipitate polls by the end of the calendar year. Yet, nowhere are the stakes as high as in Uttar Pradesh. This is true of the national parties, the BJP and the Congress. But it is more, much more the case with the former. In more ways than one, UP is the key to what lies ahead for political India.
After dominating the state and its polity for much of the Nineties, the Hindutva party has slipped quite a bit. The 221 seats it won on its own steam in 1991 in the wake of the Ram temple movement are but a dim memory. Kalyan Singh was then marked out as an emerging leader in his own right, with a mix of strident Hindutva and backward-class lineage. He is now a much chastened figure but still one with a base.
For all the hype surrounding Rajnath Singh, few now recall how he fought his first legislative election only after becoming chief minister. In fact, he got a rebel Congressman to resign, and he contested and won from that seat. What will help him now is the sense of despair in the upper castes who, just a few months ago, gave the BJP a thumbs-up in the urban local body polls.
While the BJP watches with hope, the Congress may be focussing only on a few winnable seats. The outgoing state assembly has barely 15 Congress MLAs. It is as long ago as 1985, under the winning team of Narain Dutt Tiwari (as chief minister) and V.P. Singh (as UP Congress committee president), that it last won a majority. A substantial increase will put it in the king-makerís seat, but the exact contours of the strategy remain unclear. UP is, more than any other state, crucial for the Congress. In Bihar, it is a junior partner of strong local players like Lalu Prasad and Ram Vilas Paswan. In Nehruís old stamping ground, there is, as yet, little sign of action beyond waiting for Rahul Gandhi.
In one sense, the pre-poll scene already shows signs of change. Last year, in the West Bengal polls, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee put forward a slogan for a prosperous and industrialized state. The land battles in Nandigram and Singur notwithstanding, there are signs of industrial confidence in West Bengal after many decades. Next door in Bihar, Nitish Kumar is overseeing a major surge of investorsí interest in the sugar sector. If it is automobiles and ports in West Bengal, ethanol may well be the major driver of the new phase of Biharís economic upturn.
UP is more populous than either Bihar or West Bengal. It has also been for long a major driver of new political currents in the country. It was here that the political family-saga of the Nehrus began. In the Sixties, the farmer-backward card was tried out in its plains by Charan Singh. The carve-up of the new states in the Hindi heartland in 2000 was also powered primarily by the Uttarakhand movement. More centrally, the assertion of each of the three rival currents of mandir, Mandal and Dalit politics has held power in Lucknow in the post-Congress era. But economics was not foregrounded in the political sphere, although it has begun to be so in the neighbouring states. The Marxists in Calcutta and the socialists in power in Patna have become agents of a process of industrialization.
Of course, Mulayam Singh Yadav would claim such accolades for himself and his Samajwadi Party. To an extent, he is right. There has been over Rs 50 billion invested in the sugar sector alone. The partyís close links with the Sahara Group have helped in the creation of several new townships. The Dadri plant is mired in controversy, but a decade ago few would have wagered a bet that Mulayam Yadav would go so far as to promote a private-sector gas-fired power-plant.
The snag is that the safety and security of human capital are of paramount significance in this wave of industrialization. It is here that Mulayam Yadav faces an acid test. Mayawati may not be an economic manager par excellence, but she will play on his weak record on the law-and-order front. There is also no comparison between Sahara and the Tatas in terms of public image. The chief ministerís new-found friendships may prove costlier than he thinks. New friends may alienate older supporters.
UP no longer determines who rules in New Delhi. But the future of both the Mandal and the Dalit platforms hinges centrally on what happens in this state. The Third Front dream will either gain fresh vigour or die a sputtering death depending on how Mulayam Yadav performs. For Mayawati, in this first major electoral challenge in the post-Kanshi Ram period, her ability to forge and expand a Dalit-led social coalition will be put to test. Either way, the events in the state will have a bearing on the nation at large.
This will be so not only in terms of how the large players do. There is surely more to politics than how parties fare at the hustings. Politics is also about how society is reshaped. It concerns all who want a bigger cake or a larger slice of it. For far too long, the politics of Indiaís most populous and, arguably, most politically-conscious state has centred on kin, clan, caste and community. Its counterparts elsewhere in India have not transcended such politics, but they are evolving towards something qualitatively different. The issue is whether UP will set the pace or be a laggard.
In this sense, the 2007 poll is as critical as the state assembly elections of 1993. Then a unified alliance of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samajwadi Party halted the juggernaut of the BJP. It also paved the way for a new kind of statewide polarization with the backward classes and Dalits vying with each other for dominance. Neither has achieved hegemony. In the quest for power, each has moderated its image and reached out to non-traditional supporters and even to erstwhile antagonistic social groups. Any process that carries this forward will only strengthen democracy. But it would be better still if the issues of governance and economic growth come to the fore. In that specific sense, this will be the poll to watch. Only time will tell whether or not it will mark a change in the terms of the public debate.