'The BJP would like to capitalise on Yogi's tough image on criminals, law and order situation, and hands-on CM.'
'Modi will be an additional advantage, but it is primarily a contest between Yogi and Akhilesh.'
"Yogi has managed to establish himself as an independent leader in UP. Unlike many other BJP chief ministers, he is not completely under the shadow of the prime minister," says Rahul Verma, Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.
His research interests include voting behaviour, party politics, political violence, and media.
In a phone interview, he tells Rediff.com's Archana Masih that UP will see a bi-polar contest between the BJP and SP and Priyanka Gandhi will have to put her neck in the electoral noose if the Congress wants to be a credible player in the state.
Is the battle for UP between Yogi and Akhilesh or Modi and Akhilesh?
It would largely be between Yogi and Akhilesh. Modi will, of course, remain in the background. Even Akhilesh would prefer not to make this election as a choice between him and the prime minister.
Yogi has managed to establish himself as an independent leader in UP. Unlike many other BJP chief ministers, he is not completely under the shadow of the prime minister.
In fact, if you see any national poll, Yogi is the second most recognisable BJP leader after the prime minister.
He has his own independent base and has a track record of five years as a chief minister. The BJP would like to capitalise on Yogi's tough image on criminals, law and order situation, and hands-on CM.
Modi will be an additional advantage, but it is primarily a contest between the present and former chief minister.
What would you say is the popular sentiment emerging from the state?
First, the ground reports at the moment suggests that UP may witness a 'normal' election this time -- with no state-wide sympathy for or anger against the government.
Second, the BJP's massive victory in 2017 gives the party an advantage entering this election.
The SP in the past few months is making efforts to expand its social coalition in the state -- will that be enough to overcome the gap?
Third, we know that the BSP is on the decline and its Muslim supporters are likely to rally behind the Samajwadi Party.
What is unknown is where the Dalit vote will go.
The indication based on the past pattern (since 2014) is that the BJP may benefit here.
If the BSP's Dalit votes go to the BJP, then the BJP will be easily at home. But if it goes to the SP, then this election becomes extremely competitive.
What about Priyanka Gandhi's campaign? Do you think she will contest?
She seems to be putting in a lot of energy and making the right noises, but the structure of competition determines the probability of electoral success of a player.
Priyanka is doing what she can by saying she will give tickets to women, or trying to create a party structure on the ground.
The UP contest is basically bipolar between the BJP and SP.
If she has to make the Congress party a relevant player in UP, she will have to put her neck in the electoral noose.
If she contests from Amethi or Rae Bareli, most likely she will win. Without putting herself in the contest will not help the Congress party's cause in UP.
One cannot change the fortunes of a party which is on a terminal decline without risking all you have.
What are the salient points of this election?
One, the contest is likely to become a bipolar contest between the BJP-led alliance and the SP alliance.
Two, the BSP and Congress may further shrink in terms of vote share and as a result get very few seats.
One shouldn't be surprised if they end up in single digits.
Thirdly, a lot of voters seem to have made up their mind about who they are going to vote for.
It could end up being a close contest, but we will have a better sense of the direction once the formal campaign begins and ticket distribution gets finalised.
Fourthly, as usual, like in every election, the campaign narrative may involve all possible angles -- developmental projects like highways, roads, airports, medical colleges etc.
Communal and religious issues will sometimes be mixed with law and order. The comparison of welfare benefits under Yogi and Akhilesh will also be an important indicator.
Unemployment will be another issue. No one will deny that things have become expensive, but a BJP supporter will say that the government will use this money for something important like vaccination and defend the government's actions.
Five, we have seen that the party leaves no stone unturned in any election, so the Opposition should be prepared for a very organised campaign beginning mid-January.
Will religious and social identity remain central to voters?
Social identities are central to election process everywhere.
The BJP will invoke religious identity as it has always done.
The Samajwadi Party will play on the backward-forward axis as it has always. It will try to subtly maximise the party's presence among Muslims.
The question is not whether parties play on the identity issues or not. The question is, why do identities play a larger role in vote choice in some elections and not in others?
The BJP always uses the Hindu-Muslim polarisation -- sometimes it clicks and sometimes it doesn't. It basically depends on what is the overall narrative of the election which develops during the course of the campaign.
In the 2014, 2017 (UP elections) and 2019 (Lok Sabha) elections, there were undertones of religious identity issues. I don't think that it was the most important factor that brought the BJP to power, either at the Centre or at the state, but it just clicked.
Yet, it did not click in 2009 when (then BJP leader Lak Kishenchand) Advani was campaigning, or it didn't click in 2012 when the BJP was reduced to 15 percent vote share.
It depends on what is the overarching structure of the campaign that a party is going to put forward and within that how is the identity issue going to get played.
Both parties will keep stoking the identity issue. One of these is going to click and it is going to click in the context of the overarching narrative of the campaign.
At the moment, the Samajwadi Party doesn't have a coherent campaign narrative. They have to mount a credible opposition to the BJP if they want to defeat them.
They have brought the allies and smaller players together, but there is no overarching positive campaign which says this is why you should elect us.
What do you see as the BJP's emerging overarching narrative?
Their narrative combines 'double engine ki sarkar' with a strong and popular leadership both at the Centre and the state.
They are showcasing infrastructure projects, welfare benefits, reduction in corruption and improvement in law and order.
These are the different themes that make the narrative. The religion card basically is the subtext of this entire narrative.
Will this work in BJP's favour? For the moment, it looks like that way. But this can change and it all depends on how quickly and effectively SP develops its own positive narrative.
Who is going to benefit from the vacuum created by the BSP? Any new forces/leaders emerging?
I don't see any serious new Dalit leadership emerging which can replace Mayawati and BSP in the short-run.
The Azad Samaj Party or Chandrashekhar Azad is not a force to reckon with even outside Saharanpur leave alone Western UP.
Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com