As federal elections in India inch closer, tensions are rising in one of the most politically crucial states, Uttar Pradesh, which holds the key to winning the polls with the maximum number of constituencies.

Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state with 80 constituencies, is also the electoral turf of India’s two most powerful politicians – Prime Minister Narendra Modi and opposition leader Rahul Gandhi; they represent Varanasi and Amethi respectively.

Stakes are high for both leaders in next year’s elections and it is believed that anyone who wins Uttar Pradesh is likely to win the national election. In 2014, the currently ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies won 73 seats from this state alone.

With three important regional parties forming an alliance to contest 78 of the 80 seats, the north Indian state is likely headed for a triangular contest. It will be the BJP, the Indian National Congress and the alliance in the fray.

Although the alliance has not been officially announced yet, there seems to be a consensus among three outfits – the Samajwadi Party (SP) will contest 37 seats, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) 38 and Rashtriya Lok Dal three seats. But they will not contest seats where Congress chief Rahul Gandhi and his mother and former Congress president Sonia Gandhi fight, an SP leader told Asia Times. SP itself usually doesn’t field candidates against the Gandhis.

Congress has not shown its cards yet but senior leaders indicate the party will go solo contesting almost all seats for better electoral gains in the general election and also in the long term.

Three-way fight

The possibility of a three-way race in the polls has energized all political parties and the public alike, fueling debates and speculations across the state over prospects of all the three sides.

Political observers say three distinct outcomes of this high-decibel contest include the return of Modi as the prime minister of a BJP-led government that commands a majority; a National Democratic Alliance, not led by Modi, that manages to secure a majority; or a coalition government comprising parties currently in opposition where the Congress plays a significant role. Key to any of these scenarios is how the BJP fares in Uttar Pradesh.

BJP battles anti-incumbency in UP

The new political formation by the SP, BSP and Rashtriya Lok Dal headed by Akhilesh Yadav, Mayawati and Ajit Singh respectively is yet to prove its mettle.

The SP won five parliamentary seats in 2014, an now holds seven after winning two by-elections. The BSP and RLD scored zero in 2014 but RLD won a by-election this year with the backing of the SP, BSP and Congress.

Rahul Gandhi’s Congress has faced existential crisis in Uttar Pradesh since 2014 when only two candidates managed to reach Parliament – Gandhi himself and his mother Sonia. The party’s fortunes have not changed much in last four and a half years.

Congress believes that going solo in a triangular contest might change its position in UP. One Congress leader said, “Joining hands with the alliance would weaken the party further.”

The BJP was in a better position in UP after its thumping victory in the state polls in March 2017. Things gradually changed this year when the BJP lost three parliamentary by-elections in UP. After Congress’ recent victory in three states in the Hindi belt, the balance is now slightly tilted toward Gandhi.

Modi, the BJP’s chief vote catcher, seems to have diminishing appeal. The right-wing party lost more than 70% of the seats he campaigned for in the three Hindi states recently.

The BJP’s prime plank, Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism, has few takers, polls suggest. The party’s second big campaigner Ajay Singh Bisht, the monk chief minister of Uttar Pradesh who is also known as Yogi Adityanath, had a slightly better strike rate than the PM. The BJP won 40% of the seats where he delivered communal speeches.

Surveys suggested in August that the PM’s popularity is on a decline while Rahul’s is rising. Depreciation of the rupee, a job crisis, and rising inflation were cited as reasons behind this.

Things have gone to the extent that at a public rally Modi held early last week in Raebareli, the UP constituency of his rival Sonia Gandhi, three-quarters of the seats in the audience remained vacant. This has never happened before.

Congress and the alliance leaders have held no major public shows so far.

Hope for division of votes

As the BJP increasingly loses influence in Uttar Pradesh because of anti-incumbency, it remains to be seen whether the Congress or the alliance can capitalize on it.

Political commentator Ramesh Dixit said, “BJP stares at a massive loss of seats in UP.” Some analysts believe the party will lose half of its seats in the state. Even BJP insiders fear the loss of one-third of its seats because of its failure to keep electoral promises both federally and in UP.

Division of votes could also impact the outcome in many constituencies.

“The three-way contest would hurt the ruling party in the constituencies where victory margins were slim in 2014 or 2017,” a senior SP leader said, pointing out that the opposition defeated the BJP in two crucial by-elections – Phulpur and Gorakhpur – this year in a triangular contest.

A similar battle in Madhya Pradesh gave favorable results to the opposition. Of 35 constituencies reserved for Scheduled Caste candidates, the BJP won 17 seats, 11 down since 2013 and eight fewer than in 2008. The Congress won 18 of these seats, up from four in 2013 and nine in 2008. The BSP was not able to win any seats but got an average of 10,000 votes in each constituency.

Caste-religion mathematics

Caste polarization will play a key role in UP as always. About 80% of the state’s population is Hindu, while Muslims make up around 18%. The remaining population consists of Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians and Jains. Among Hindus, 20% are Dalit (lowest caste historically subjected to untouchability) and tribals, 50% OBC (Other Backward Class) and 10% upper castes.

A BJP leader said, “Caste factions improved the BJP’s vote share from 15% in 2012 to about 42.6% in [the] 2014 general elections and 40% in 2017 state assembly elections in UP. Congress was dented the most.”

In both 2014 and 2017, the BJP had devised a strategy of “divide and rule” in UP. The prosperous castes among the OBC and Dalits already supported the Samajwadi Party and BSP. The poorest among OBC and Dalits were categorically mobilized into the Hindutva fold.

Political commentator Shailendra Singh said, “The Congress hopes that disappointed Dalit and OBC voters would return to their fold to some extent. Many upper-caste voters might leave BJP and support Congress, for they are upset over amendment to the SC/ST Act.”

On the other hand, SP-BSP members say the parties fear losing their Muslim vote bank to Congress as voters might choose a national party over the regional players to unseat the BJP from the central government.