While Congress president Sonia Gandhi would like to see a return of the 1947-77 situation, where her party had a majority on its own in both Houses of Parliament, L.K. Advani of the BJP would be satisfied with a US-style duopoly, where two parties take turns at governance. However, for that to happen, they will need to ensure that their respective political parties have a pan-Indian appeal, so that they can win votes and seats across the country. This ought not to have been a difficult task, seeing as to how the middle class is growing in India. While there are certainly regional and other differences within this expanding segment of the country's population (which the average of estimates place at 280 million), overall they share broadly similar tastes in food, entertainment, lifestyle and even language, English being spoken by more than 70% of this class, a figure that goes up to over 90% in those below 30). The middle class voter seeks economic benefit and societal stability, which is why even Mayawati has switched to development as her election pitch. In the Samajwadi Party as well, Mulayam Singh has given way to son Akhilesh, who has adopted a "good governance" plank, even going to the extent of denying re-admission to D.P. Yadav, despite the latter's formidable muscle. Even the ultra-regionalistic Shiv Sena has moved away from its linguistic plank. Now that Uddhav Thackeray has taken over the day-to-day control of the party from his ailing parent, it has been positioned as the outfit best able to provide an effective administration.
Should the Mumbai municipal corporation elections result in the return of the Shiv Sena to civic power, despite the efforts of the tacit Congress-MNS alliance to derail the Sena-BJP combine, that would strengthen Uddhav against party leaders such as Manohar Joshi, who are more comfortable with linguistic than with developmental politics. However, Uddhav has seen the resonance of not just Modi but Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and to a lesser extent, Orissa's Navin Patnaik as well, and understands that the key to power in Maharashtra is to offer a credible promise of a better administration. In that sense, both Akhilesh Yadav and Uddhav Thackeray are second-generation political inheritors who have already made a substantive difference in the approach and chemistry of their parties, with Sukhbir Badal some distance behind the two in Punjab.
Rahul Gandhi is the most prominent of the "Rising Sons", but should the Congress tally in UP fall below 50, that would be seen as a reflection on the lack of charisma of Sonia Gandhi's choice to lead both the party as well as (in future) the government. In the case of the BJP, a party that had 220 Assembly seats two decades back is now struggling to go beyond its current level of 51 seats. Should the party win less than 75, it would be seen as a reflection of the performance of Nitin Gadkari, the "young face" who was brought in by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat to lead the party in 2009. At a time when the BJP adopted the anti-corruption plank, after the 2G expose by PAC chairperson M.M. Joshi and the anti-graft yatra of L.K. Advani, its embrace of tainted candidates in the Assembly bypolls has diluted this message and reduced the perceived difference in ethics between the Congress and itself, which has suffered severe erosion in its image since 2009. The very "strength" of the party, which is its centralised (in the person of Sonia Gandhi) leadership, has become a liability now that the Congress president is unable to devote much time to party matters, for reasons of ill-health. Sonia's illness has meant a leadership crisis within the Congress. Given the party's reliance on the Nehru family, the only substitute for her is Rahul Gandhi, who has thus far confined himself to the Youth Congress and to UP. Despite the immense potential that he has for appeal to the middle class, thus far his adoption of the populist Indira-Sonia-Jean Dr Drèze model has dimmed his appeal to this segment. The neglect of grassroots cadre, the prominence given to cash and bloodline in the distribution of tickets, corruption at the Centre and in Congress-ruled states, and an economic policy which discriminates against domestic players to favour foreign interests, are each factors working against a party that no longer has a single caste, region or community to call its own.
Over the course of the dismal trajectory that it has followed since 2009, the Congress has seen its regional presence diminish in most parts of the country, so that it is today scarcely different from the BJP, which too has only a very attenuated presence in several parts of the country. Indeed, the BJP too has been having major problems, including in its sole southern outpost, Karnataka, as also in three of the states going to the polls, UP, Uttarakhand and Punjab. In all three, infighting is vicious, in a context where central authority seems to be breaking down within the BJP. This weakness has led to a confused stance on economic policy, where the BJP has sought to attach itself to the populist policies and rhetoric of Sonia Gandhi and Sitaram Yechury, oblivious to the impact of such a stance on its credibility. In UP, the BJP manifesto promises voters millions of extra jobs and abundant power and credit to farmers, without saying where the money for such largesse will come from. In Uttarakhand, the party is still suffering the effects of the decision by its central leadership to replace the government of B.C. Khanduri with the graft-prone regime of Ramesh Pohriyal after the 2009 Lok Sabha polls. The re-instatement of Khanduri as CM just six months before the polls may not succeed in limiting the damage done by his ouster, except that the Congress in the state is in even greater disarray than the BJP.Image 2nd
In the BJP as in the Congress, nominations get done on the basis of clout with the "High Command" (here referring to the Advani-Gadkari-Jaitley-Swaraj quartet). This has been most pronounced in the case of Punjab, but has afflicted nominations in Goa and UP as well, although in Uttarakhand Chief Minister B.C. Khanduri has succeeded in keeping away some of the more dubious elements. For Nitin Gadkari, a good performance in the February polls is crucial to preserving his post of BJP president. Victory in Goa (possible because of the image of Manohar Parrikar) and Punjab, if followed by the winning of 75 or more seats in UP and the retaining of Uttarakhand, would be the best-case scenario for the BJP and the worst-case outcome for the Congress. Should the other Mr G (Rahul Gandhi) comfortably cross the 50-mark in UP, wrest Punjab and Uttarakhand from the NDA and retain Goa, he would regain the momentum his party has lost since 2010. For the two Gs, the ensuing polls will be decisive.