With the Bharatiya Janata Party deciding to field its prime minister-in-waiting, Narendra Modi, from Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh has, unsurprisingly, become the focus of interest in this election. For long, it was an article of faith with pundits that the road to Delhi lay via U.P. The Congress under P.V. Narasimha Rao broke the myth; it won just five of 84 Lok Sabha seats from U.P. in the 1991 general election but nonetheless went on to form a government at the Centre. And yet, the sheer size of U.P. meant that the major political parties would continue to place the State at the centre of their electoral calculations. For the BJP especially, U.P. has been a high-stakes State with its overall electoral fortunes tied to its seat tally from here. The party held sway over U.P. right through the heady Ram mandir phase, winning 50-plus seats from the State in the general elections of 1991, 1996 and 1998. The party’s electoral graph soared in tandem with its performance in U.P, and in 1998 it formed a coalition government at the Centre on the back of an incredible tally of 57 seats from the State. The critical importance of U.P. in the BJP’s electoral and government-formation calculations can be gauged from the fact that, in all, the BJP won only 181 seats in that election.
The BJP’s remarkable run ended in the 1999 general election, with the party’s seat tally from U.P. plunging to a decadal low of 29. That year the BJP returned to power helped by its bandwagon of allies, but by 2004 its luck had run out. Over the past decade, the BJP has hit rock bottom in U.P., coinciding with the spectacular rise of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party. The coming of Mr. Modi has placed the BJP once again in top league, and indeed opinion polls uniformly suggest a U.P. seat tally for it in the region of 35 to 40 — a remarkable potential upswing in fortunes for a party seemingly without a hope until recently. It helps Mr. Modi that he has arrived at a time of deep despair with the incumbent United Progressive Alliance government. The UPA’s 10-year incumbency and the policy paralysis and corruption witnessed during its second term appear to have combined to push Mr. Modi to the forefront in this election. However, no election is won till it is won. And Mr. Modi faces a new challenge in the form of the indefatigable Arvind Kejriwal. The Aam Aami Party’s convener has already raised the pitch by relentlessly attacking the Gujarat Model. With his possible emergence as a candidate from Varanasi, the holy city is bound to witness a David versus Goliath battle. Mr. Modi’s entry, and its sheer size, have restored to Uttar Pradesh a pre-eminent position in this election.