Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader gestures as he addresses a state assembly election rally in Uttar Pradesh's Ghaziabad. Photograph: (AFP)
Not only does UP have the highest number of Lok Sabha seats, it also has given more prime ministers than any other state in the country
By Arghya Roy Chowdhury
The mother of all battles, kickstarts in Uttar Pradesh from Saturday. The importance of UP in India's electoral politics can't be overstated. Not only does it have the highest number of Lok Sabha seats, it also has given more prime ministers than any other state in the country.
The state is so important, even Narendra Modi had to contest from Varanasi to leverage his own charisma to get Bharatiya Janata Party home.
The frenzy generated by Modi mixed with an electorate divided along communal lines, ensured that BJP managed to virtually sweep the entire state. But this time the situation is bit different, and one of the main reasons is the alliance between Congress and SP.
The first phase, where 73 constituencies are going to polls are spread across 15 districts. They are Shamli, Muzaffarnagar, Baghpat, Meerut, Ghaziabad, Gautam Buddha Nagar, Hapur, Bulandshahr, Aligarh, Mathura, Hathras, Agra, Firozabad, Etah and Kasganj.
Many of these districts are communally sensitive and the Muzaffarnagar riots in 2013 greatly affected the voting patterns in 2014. One of the biggest puzzles of this phase would be whether people chose to vote along religious lines or go back to their usual pattern of caste-based identities.
One party which would be hedging their bets for the conventional order to resume is Ajit Singh's Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD). A party predominantly asserting the Jat identity, its message resonates well in the sugarcane-soaked Jat heartlands.
The party won 9 of out 73 seats, in the last Assembly elections and was on the cusp of stitching up an alliance with SP and Congress before talks fell through.
RLD still enjoys decent clout and may upset equations in several constituencies where close contest is on cards.In the last elections, SP and BSP both won 11 seats out of the 73 up for grabs on Saturday.
For BSP, this is a crucial phase as many of the seats have a strong concentration of Dalits and Muslim, once Mayawati's favourite hunting ground.
But it will be up for a stiff concentration with Owaisi's AIMIM in contention and SP and Congress fighting together. Congress has been a marginal player in Western UP for decades now, but it will try to galvanise the upper-caste votes for SP.
But no other party has more riding on phase one than the BJP. A good start will give it much-needed momentum to march towards the majority mark.
The party has made a major gamble by not putting up a CM face. It hopes that carpet-bombing by top leaders including Modi and Shah will do the trick.
Some of the top BJP candidates contesting in this phase are Rajnath Singh's son, Hukum Singh's daughter and controversial leaders like Sangeet Som and Suresh Rana.
In some of the more urbane districts like Noida and Agra, the party is likely to perform well.
The issues which have dominated the campaign cycle so far have been demonetisation, the law-and-order situation, communal disharmony, lack of industries and the informal sector facing a crisis.
Of which the opposition have tried to skewer BJP on demonetisation. Western UP is the hub of small scale industries, many of them been adversely affected by the cash crunch.
The SP government is facing the heat for poor law and order condition, especially it's ham-handed handling of the riots.
While Western UP is no longer the communal tinderbox it was in 2014, undercurrents of deep religious disharmony permeate till this day. And politicians of all hue have tried to exploit that according to their vote banks.
Both SP and BSP will be pretty happy if they can hold on to their 2012 tally.
For BJP, a good start is extremely necessary. PM Modi has given a clarion call for voting out SCAM (Samajwadi-Congress-Akhilesh-Maywati) which got an angry response from others.
Amit Shah has made a bold prediction that BJP will win 90 out of 143 seats in the first two phases.So, BJP is looking for high strike rate in Western UP to make up for its organisational weakness in other phases. Others will be desperate to deny them the perfect start.
(This report first appeared in DNA)