NEW DELHI: How does one get a sense of what battles matter more than others to political parties when television chatter paints every contest as a matter of life and death and party spokespersons have only tall claims to make about their prospects?

In the context of the ongoing assembly election process in five states, a chance remark from the neighborhood panwallah offers clues. The man, as staunch a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporter as you can imagine, concedes that the Dainik Jagran exit poll may be indicative of his party’s desperation in Uttar Pradesh (UP) but reads it, at another level, as a healthy sign of his party’s hunger for the state. Tellingly, he adds: UP is what really matters – so much that we would trade all the other states for it.

Perhaps the way to reading political parties’ minds lies in assessing what they would pick as their preferred outcome from a narrow list of outcomes.

What BJP and Congress strategists would choose, say, between a triumph in UP and one in the remaining states, could be illuminating. A BJP strategist, much like the panwallah, is likely to pick UP; her Congress counterpart the other states.

Why would the two largest political parties seek differently? The simple answer would be the immediate salience of India’s most politically prized state to them.

The BJP is looking for an opportunity to cement itself in the state that has catapulted it to power in Delhi; the Congress, being a junior partner to the Samajwadi Party (SP), isn’t similarly invested. But that’s the simple answer. There may be other issues at play.

The Goa, Manipur and Uttarakhand results matter more to the Congress because the party desperately needs to prove to itself more than anyone else that it has the wherewithal to best the BJP in a direct contest (the feat has become increasingly rare over the years). And that it has retrieved some credibility and ground vis-à-vis the BJP after the debacle in the parliamentary elections of 2014. In fact such is the Congress’ current situation that anything short of a jackpot - a win in all these states - will not allay doubts about the party’s ability to bounce back.

On the other hand, even a three state reverse, while disappointing, will not overly worry the BJP. Its battle preparedness in larger theaters, despite its long and far from exemplary years in power in Chhattisgarh, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh and Sachin Pilot’s exertions in Rajasthan, is enviable.

Punjab, where the BJP is a fringe player, represents another high stake battle for the Congress. Should the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) spring the surprise some post-poll reports from Punjab are predicting, it would suggest that the Congress, even when its traditional rival is hobbled by huge anti-incumbency and tainted by association with a disaster as unmitigated as demonetization, may not necessarily emerge the default choice for those disappointed in the BJP and its National Democratic Alliance (NDA) partners.

Further, while the prospect of the AAP carrying the momentum from Punjab (and, to a lesser extent, Goa) into Gujarat and other states will enthuse neither the BJP nor the Congress, it might hold greater near-term import for the Congress. For two reasons. A: The experience in Delhi and news from Goa suggests that the traditional Congress voter is more vulnerable to the AAP’s charms compared to the traditional BJP voter. B: The AAP’s rise could make acceptance of any Congress-led anti-BJP front that takes shape in 2019 more difficult.

Much has already been said how UP is the key battleground for the BJP. As several commentaries have pointed out, the UP result will say much about whether the BJP’s contentious acts and maneuvers in power have impressed the electorate, whether the aura of the Narendra Modi – Amit Shah duo remains intact, and, above all, whether the party is on course for another stint in power in Delhi beginning 2019. There is also the issue of heft in the Rajya Sabha (RS). Plainly put, a positive verdict for the BJP in UP will reassure, nay boost, the party heavily; a setback will signal the need for course correction.

(Aside: Whether a setback in UP will actually prompt substantive course correction within the BJP is uncertain, given how embedded hubris and the Sangh Parivar are in the party and government. Hopes that the BJP would moderate its abrasive politics after the embarrassments in Bihar and Delhi did not materialize and it can be argued that neither will one in UP.)

To explain the Congress’ relative indifference to UP, one needs to reflect on: (a) the party’s emerging strategy for large, multi-party states where it has been reduced to an also-ran; and, (b) the critical juncture that the SP, its current ally, and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), another key challenger, are at in their respective histories.

The Congress decision to play second fiddle to the SP in UP – after opting for junior partner status in Bihar and West Bengal and amidst efforts to keep channels open with the two largest Dravidian parties - appears part of its 2019 game plan for states where it sees no immediate turnaround prospects.

In these states, the Congress seems inclined to lend its weight to potential anti-BJP forces at the state level in expectation of reciprocal support for its national ambitions. This, of course, makes the Congress’ long-term rehabilitation plans (if any) tougher and provides no guarantee of future support either but the alternative – to go alone, witness demoralizing defeats, and lose the chance to cement relationships with other opposition parties – is hardly appealing.

It also means that the Congress is reconciled to the idea that it may not muster sufficient numbers on its own in 2019 and that nucleating an anti-BJP front represents its best chance of coming to power in that year.

In this backdrop, the Congress - somewhat fortuitously - finds itself in a good place in UP where both the SP and the BSP are likely to remain in the anti-BJP space for a while irrespective of the 2017 verdict from the state.

The SP is hoping to shed the past and chart a fresh course under Akhilesh Yadav; the BSP is anxious to prove that the disaster of 2014 marked only a temporary dip in fortunes and not the onset of serious blight in its brand of dalit politics.

For all talk of post-identity politics, Akhilesh Yadav will be acutely aware that his fortunes depend much on retaining his party’s traditional base among Muslims and Yadavs and achieving traction among the youth he has been wooing lately. This effectively makes the BJP, with its anti-Muslim image and inroads among young voters, Akhilesh Yadav’s principal political foe.

A similar situation obtains for the BSP whose revitalization project depends critically on the Muslim vote and retaining its core support among dalits (especially Jatavs), a group the BJP has been wooing aggressively in a bid to correct its anti-dalit image and achieve Hindu vote consolidation.

The above essentially means that while the SP and the BSP might have flirted with the BJP before, they are unlikely to contemplate that any time soon. This is a phase when they are seeking to re-build and witnessing an all-out BJP effort to alter the contours of UP politics. It also implies that, if it were to come to that, the two parties would prefer to see a Congress-led front installed at the center in 2019.

Which is exactly what the Congress is hoping for. Importantly, and this may be the reason for the Congress’ relative indifference to the UP verdict, this is unlikely to change whether the SP-Congress combine succeeds or not. A win would certainly be welcome but the Congress knows that an impressive BJP show in UP won’t change things substantively for it. In fact, it could push the SP and BSP further into the anti-BJP – and by extension, open to Congress - space.

Ironically then it is the Congress’ weakness in UP that might be shoring its 2019 prospects.

(Manish Dubey is an independent policy analyst working on decentralized governance, water and sanitation and rural livelihood issues.)