If the latest allegations against Robert Vadra and the reappearance of Dadri on the country’s political scene tell you something, it is that the poll battle in Uttar Pradesh is going to be a no holds barred one.

Whatever be the facts behind the exposure that Robert Vadra allegedly had links with a defence dealer which facilitated his acquisition of a property in London – vehemently denied by no less than Sonia Gandhi who has sought an impartial probe – or behind the purported findings of another forensic lab that the meat recovered from the spot of the Dadri lynching was indeed beef, it is the timing of these revelations which is significant.

The meat of a “cow or its progeny” conclusion of the Mathura lab will muddy the waters in western UP, considering the earlier forensic report had concluded that it was not beef. It can also intensify polarisation along Hindu-Muslim lines. And raise the temperatures once again in Uttar Pradesh, all to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s advantage.

The Vadra gambit

Is the Vadra expose a preemptive strike to stop Priyanka Vadra Gandhi coming in to play a larger role in Uttar Pradesh? There has been a great deal of speculation around Priyanka’s entry, with many in the party demanding she play a larger role. Poll strategy expert Prashant Kishore had suggested by way of a plan that the Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal merge with the Janata Dal(United), the merged party align with the Congress and Priyanka be the face of the alliance. The merger story is over – Ajit Singh is now looking at an alliance with the Samajwadi Party – but Priyanka, and the Congress High Command, are yet to open their cards. Priyanka had said at the time of the Lok Sabha elections that if her family was attacked she would fight back.

Priyanka is an unknown quantity, a wild card, in what is still an evolving game. Would the Congress play its last card in UP, where it does not have stakes today, or keep Priyanka for 2019, if nothing else, at least to the keep the party together?

It would be hardly surprising for the BJP to do its utmost to try and halt her in her tracks. At the same time, there is also the risk of pursuing Robert Vadra beyond a point, particularly if it brings Priyanka into a lead role.

Multi-layered strategy

Not unexpectedly, the BJP’s UP 2017 strategy seems to be a multi-layered one – to create a hype about the achievements of the Central government’s two year rule, thereby focussing on the party’s 2014 development-governance theme; create a communal polarisation around issues like beef, nationalism, “appeasement” of minorities; and once again fashion an upper caste, most backward caste, Dalit axis, as in 2014.

And since the Modi wave has waned, and it is unlikely that he party will garner a 42% voteshare it managed in 2014( up from 15% in 2012), the BJP chief Amit Shah will also try and keep his opponents as divided as possible, so that even with a reduced voteshare, the BJP can romp home.

The BJP brass had turned its attention to Uttar Pradesh even before the dust had settled on its Assam victory. Within hours of the poll outcome for five state assemblies on May 19, the Prime Minister was ensconced with senior colleagues, it was reported, to discuss cabinet reshuffle. Clearly, one of the compelling reasons for the expansion of the Modi ministry would be to give appropriate representation to UP.

Narendra Modi launched the celebrations of his two years in office – “Vikas parv” – from Saharanpur. The party’s national executive is being held in Allahabad from June 12-13. Thirty teams, made up of a cabinet minister, a minister of state, and a party office bearer, have fanned out to 200 places all over the country to take the message of the government’s achievements. Interestingly, the meetings in UP are getting greater response from the party workers than in other places.

Triangular contest

Even more interesting was Amit Shah’s casually delivered but calculated remark that the BJP’s main fight in UP was going to be with the Samajwadi Party, not the BSP. He made a special point of giving a certificate to the Samajwadi Party and to its “strong” base in the state.

The more the Samajwadi Party beats back anti-incumbency, the more the chances of the contest becoming truly triangular. So it would be in Amit Shah’s interest for the SP to strengthen. So much the better if the Ajit Singh-led RLD joins the SP. So much the better if the Congress-JD(U) raise their heads, just that little bit, and cut into the secular vote.

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav has been in an overdrive to take up the development agenda, and an image makeover. He has announced many new infrastructure and social structure projects and pursued them with vigour. Mulayam Singh is bringing in Amar Singh, with his cross-party links in Delhi, into the Rajya Sabha, more with an eye on 2019, than on 2017.

A unified phalanx of non-BJP parties in UP would have given the BJP a run for its money, as in Bihar. But this is an impossibility, given the bitterness between Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav. Mayawati had also ruled out any understanding with the Congress.

And yet, in recent months, it has been the BSP which has been on the upswing, as the law and order issue has gained traction and people remember Mayawati for setting it right. The BSP is the quietist of all the players, though the Dalit-Muslim combination, particularly in Western UP, could help the BSP sweep in the region, and it accounts for around 120 seats of the 404 in the state Assembly.

Crucial election

The BJP may make wrong moves which can rebound, as in Delhi and Bihar, but that is not for lack of hard work. It is this that the opposition – particularly the Congress– has to contend with in the duo of Modi and Amit Shah.

Amit Shah is known to give as much weightage to weakening the opponent as to strengthening his own side – and to detailed planning. For example, the BJP has its own candidate for the Rajya Sabha from UP but is also backing the Rajya Sabha candidature of Socialite-social activist Preeti Mahapatra, who is the 11th candidate standing as an independent. Since only 10 candidates can be elected – now necessitating an election – she will try and mop up support from every party.

The question is: Is she being backed with a view to putting out of the race someone like Congress’s Kapil Sibal, who needs additional votes, to the Congress’ 29, to get through?

It goes without saying that the 2017 poll outcome in Uttar Pradesh will either set the BJP on a downhill journey or give it the fillip it needs to win the 2019 battle. For UP today is not just about 2017. It is also about 2019, and who makes it to Raisina Hill.