NEW DELHI: Who will win Uttar Pradesh? “I will” declared Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he declared that the size of the rally he addressed in Lucknow on January 2 made it clear who would win. “Bhade ki bheed” (rented crowd) scoffed Bahujan Samaj party leader Mayawati confident that the tide had turned in her favour.

The Election Commission has announced the schedule for the elections in UP, Punjab, Goa, Uttarakhand, Manipur with the country’s largest state going through a seven phase poll starting February 11 and ending March 8. The votes for all the states will be counted on March 11 when the ballot box will finally answer the question that is being discussed all over the country as the first referendum for the Modi government almost three years after it came to power at the centre.

The UP contest will be between the BJP and the BSP. The Congress remains at Place 4 hoping at best to lend marginal sheen to any regional party that allies with it. The Samajwadi was considering an alliance at one stage, but the family feud that has still not been resolved has driven the ruling party of UP into a corner. And interestingly while the Delhi wisdom, fed by BJP leaders to willing scribes, is that a losing Samajwadi will help the BJP the possibility of it helping the BSP is very real.

This is largely because both the BSP and the Samajwadi party are in the fray for the same votes, with the Dalits and the Yadavs being specific to each respectively. The other backwards, the sizeable Muslim vote in the state, a section of the upper castes remain common to both and can now shift towards the BSP with the Yadav First Family slugging it out in full public view.

This worries the BJP that has pegged its poll strategy in UP to demonetisation, and its ability to persuade all voters of its ability to rid the state and the country of corruption to benefit the poor. PM Modi’s speech on January 2 sounded the election bugle where he made it clear that one, all other political parties in the fray were corrupt; two, they were all against him personally while he stood for the poor and for development; and three, that demonetisation had placed the rich in the dock where they would remain if they were stealing from the poor.

A strong argument that has created a stir in the districts, even though now the impact of recession is being felt by the informal sector. This sector interestingly is not being addressed by the BJP on the issue of demonetisation, but by the RSS cadres who have spread out in UP with the caste and religious cards as well. A potpourri of emotion is packed into the politics being dealt out by the BJP in UP, with victory seen as essential y the party for a confident run up to the 2019 elections. The party workers are running a house to house campaign in the districts to convince the voters that the demonetisation decisions has hit the corrupt, and the rich, hard and will bring dividends to the poor. The other issues of communalism and caste remain active although now with the Supreme Court ruling, and the EC compliance as is mandatory, these cannot be easily hung out on the washing line in public view now.

The BSP is currently heading the counter offensive against the BJP in UP, with Mayawati working hard ---silently---to mobilise the voters in her favour. As against the mega rallies of PM Modi, Mayawati remains stuck to the ground as is her style, drawing tight schedules for each candidate, setting up a monitoring and feedback system for each, and making it clear that she will ---as she has in the past---change a candidate if he or she does not meet the exacting campaign strategy drawn up by the central command of the party.

Mayawati has pinned her campaign against communalism, and demonetisation. She has made Dalit atrocities a major issue as well, and in fact started her campaign last year with this issue by supporting the protests in Hyderabad, Delhi and in Gujarat on the Rohith Vemula and Una incidents where Dalits were flogged by cow vigilantes in a video that was posted on the internet and went viral since. She has included the Muslims in her justice and rights campaign, moving on to field 97 candidates in these elections from the minority community. But as she herself pointed out, she has not been partisan, with 113 upper caste candidates, 106 backwards and 87 Dalits.

Both the BSP and BJP know that a consolidation of Dalit and Muslim votes in UP provide a winning formula for any one political party. And with the Samajwadi party in the current mess, the chances of the minorities shifting to the BSP are high at this point in time. Although Mayawati’s traditional Dalit vote is usually silent, reports from Lucknow suggest a consolidation behind her because of what is perceived as an anti-Dalit stance by the BJP. It might be recalled that the BSP leader Mayawati is also a keen campaigner, with a sense of the ground.

BSP has ruled out an alliance with the Congress or any other party before the elections. “Only those who are weak need alliances, BSP sees the possibility of forming its absolute majority government,” Mayawati said. She has been campaigning hard amongst the Muslims---with a huge turnout in the initial days at her rally in Saharanpur---uring the minorities not to waste their vote, as a division would “only benefit the BJP.” The Muslims, however, have not decided as yet with the Samajwadi remaining a favourite amongst the more elite sections in UP that are still optimistic about a rapprochement in the family. However, now that the elections have been announced it is clear that Presidents rule is not going to be an option.

PM Modi is, in a repeat of his Lok Sabha campaign, promising development and a corruption free India. Mayawati is focusing more on the issues of security, rights and justice even as she attacks the PM for not speaking the truth with facts on demonetisation, and for trying to mislead the poor voters with false promises. The Prime Minister has kept away from the rights and justice altogether in his recent speeches in UP speaking of development, even as the party workers focus on demonetisation and communal polarisation heightened in districts that have witnessed communal violence all across the state. Mayawati is working to cut across this polarisation by focusing on a Dalit consolidation behind her, while she tries to convince the Muslims to move in too.

The Congress party does not have a base on the ground or a leadership in UP that has been able to build an organisation. In fact, in an election where as in Bihar, a CM candidate matters neither the BJP nor the Congress party have one to offer. Sheila Dikshit had been named as its candidate by the Congress but her reluctance has driven her out of the reckoning. Mayawati is clearly the only CM candidate visible in this election, with the Samajwadi feud now making even Akhilesh Yadav’s position as CM after the elections uncertain.