Virendra Singh Rawat: Parties rev up to hit the UP battleground in 2017

Now that Assembly polls in five states, including Assam, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, are over, the focus shifts to the much larger political theatre of Uttar Pradesh, where elections are due early next year.

Uttar Pradesh is not only the most populous state, but it is also the state with possibly the most complex and heterogeneous electorate profile in terms of religion, caste, creed and sect, apart from other vital socioeconomic parameters.

Formulating a winning poll strategy for such a multi-polar constituency could be the worst nightmare for even the deftest political strategist, psephologist or "election campaign manager" - the last a new breed of poll experts in India's electoral milieu.

Gung-ho after wresting Assam from the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will look to replicate the strategy it used in that north-eastern state in Uttar Pradesh, where the party has been out of power for almost 15 years now. The state has been ruled in turns by the incumbent, Samajwadi Party (SP), or the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

Elections are still nine to 10 months away, but the BJP has already kicked off its campaign with a public meeting in Saharanpur district that was addressed by none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The party has also deployed its senior Union ministers to publicise the work done by the Modi government at the Centre in the last two years. This, the party hopes, will serve two purposes. One, it would impart momentum to the BJP's election campaign in the state and help the party connect with the grassroots voter; two, its ministers would subtly appeal to the electorate belonging to different castes and communities.

The BJP has appointed its Phulpur Member of Parliament, Keshav Prasad Maurya, the state president of the party. Being a non-Yadav, he would likely be able to appeal to voters from those castes, which includes some backward classes. Maurya's hardline Hindutva image could also attract other Hindu voters towards the BJP and pose a tough challenge to the SP and the BSP.

While the BJP is not known to declare its chief ministerial candidate in the run-up to Assembly polls, the good showing in Assam - where it had projected Sarbananda Sonowal for that post in advance - might egg it now to do so in Uttar Pradesh, too. Such a candidate, then, would likely be from an upper caste.

Apna Dal, the BJP's ally in the state, is firmly backing the saffron party, as are several leaders belonging to Scheduled Castes and other backward categories from other parties.

BJP chief Amit Shah recently broke bread with members of a Dalit community in eastern Uttar Pradesh, a gesture usually made by the BSP and the SP in the past.

Even as the SP government in the state led by Akhilesh Yadav harps on development, the party is discreetly banking on Muslim-Yadav votes to counter the BJP and the BSP. The SP's choice of candidates for the Rajya Sabha and the state Vidhan Parishad indicates its inclination to give representation to all communities. Grapevine has it the party may now rejig the list to accommodate a Muslim candidate, too. This, after Delhi's Jama Masjid Shahi Imam Syed Ahmed Bukhari recently met SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav and his son Akhilesh Yadav to register his protest over the exclusion of Muslim candidates.

A recent opinion poll predicted that the BSP would emerge as the single-largest party in the 403-member state Assembly, followed by the BJP and the SP. BSP President Mayawati was the top choice for the chief minister's post with Akhilesh Yadav coming second.

Political pundits say that even with a development agenda - reflected in the launch of mega infrastructure projects such as the Lucknow Metro Rail and the Agra-Lucknow Expressway - Akhilesh Yadav might have lost the perception war.

With incidents of communal violence scarring the state in the past few years, the common refrain of the man on the street is that law and order has deteriorated under the rule of the SP. This perception has gained currency despite Akhilesh Yadav's talk of a police modernisation programme and smart policing initiatives.

To add insult to injury, he has not yet been able to stamp his authority in a party which has tall leaders such as his father Mulayam Singh Yadav, uncles Shivpal Yadav and Ram Gopal Yadav and cabinet minister Azam Khan.

The state government has been liberally spending on publicity, both in the print and electronic media, to spread awareness about its work.

The budget of the state government's publicity department has jumped fivefold - the estimate for FY 2016-17 is Rs 354 crore, compared to the 2015-16 revised estimate of Rs 350 crore and Rs 77.45 crore in 2014-15.

Amid these developments, the Congress, which has not figured in the state's electoral race for years, roped in Prashant Kishor as its election manager. Kishor was a major force behind the BJP's stunning 2014 Lok Sabha poll victory and later helped Nitish Kumar and the Grand Alliance win the 2015 Bihar Assembly polls convincingly. With Kishor on its side, the Congress would hope to at least match its 2012 tally of 28 seats in Uttar Pradesh.

Kishor has been busy in the last few weeks holding meetings with district-level Congress leaders to get their feedback, give them pep-talk and prepare them for the poll challenge.

The Congress has not been in power in the state for nearly three decades. In 2013, Pramod Tiwari, the then Congress Legislature Party leader, and another prominent party leader, P L Punia, had to take the support of the ruling SP to enter the Rajya Sabha.

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