With the seventh and final phase of polling in the general elections for the 17th Lok Sabha scheduled for Sunday on May 19, Prime Minister Narendra Modi remains confident of a second consecutive term as the Head of Government at the Centre.  At the same time, the combined non-BJP opposition believes it can halt the saffron surge witnessed five years back in the Hindi belt, which catapulted the party to power with a majority on its own for the first time after it was formed in 1980.

Andhra Pradesh chief minister Nara Chandrababu Naidu is keen that the leaders of the non-BJP front should meet on May 21, two days before the counting of votes on May 23, to chalk out their strategy. Amid all this, Telangana chief minister K Chandrasekhar Rao is in hot pursuit of a non-Congress, non-BJP front in a bid to enhance his bargaining power with an eye on the Deputy Prime Minister’s post at the Centre.

Amid all this, the RSS as the ideologue of the BJP continues to give a push to its pursuit of cultural nationalism. A dampener for the ruling BJP led NDA is that there is no discernible Modi wave this time around. The saffron brigade has to contend with the SP-BSP alliance playing out in Uttar Pradesh.

If this combine lives to its promise of limiting the BJP to less than half the 80 seats, the maximum that this critical state enjoys compared to any other in the Lok Sabha, it might have struck a telling blow. This assumes significance as the BJP won a whopping 71 seats on its own from UP in 2014 and along with the Apna Dal ally winning two seats, the NDA’s tally was a mind-boggling 73/80.

This time around the saffron party remained muted in pitching for 74 seats, one more than last time in the wake of the inherent pitfalls ahead. The common refrain among the Yadavs and the Muslims in UP is that Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s regime is to the exclusion of both these communities.

The last time, with the BJP concentrating on the most backward among the Yadavs and Jatavs, the vote went in their favour. However, both these social formations are firmly opposed to the BJP this time. Along with the Muslims, they form the social coalition of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party.

What is shocking is that there appears to be a deliberate exclusion of the Yadavs. This and other factors have contributed to the consolidation of the “YMs” (Yadavs and Muslims) behind the SP-BSP combine. There are several other factors which have contributed to this partnership bringing into its fold other groups as well.

This is the first time that the BJP is contesting more seats than the Congress in the general elections. The party strategists realise that they will have to make up for the loss in the Hindi heartland from the South which accounts for 130 seats as well as West Bengal (42)and Odisha (21) in the East, which account for another 63 seats.

Much as the BJP is trying to make inroads in chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s West Bengal, it appears to be an uphill task. The party has only two Lok Sabha seats at present — Darjeeling and Asansol — and is seen as a rising force with the Left and the Congress having become inconsequential.

Mamata stormed to power in her home state in 2011 with the promise of change —”paribortan”. The involvement of the TMC cadres in government matters at the local level is rampant. Political violence in the run-up to the elections has exposed Mamata’s vulnerabilities. The question is can the BJP overcome Mamata’s aura in West Bengal? Impartial observers believe BJP’s hopes of making a significant dent in Didi’s bastion appears far fetched.

Five years back the BJP’s seats were extremely region-centric. Six states — Bihar, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh — contributed 194 seats to the BJP’s kitty or 69 per cent of the total number of seats won by the party. It also enjoyed a spectacular strike rate against the Congress, thanks in large measure to its remarkable performance in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

The Yadavs have been at the receiving end as a community under the Modi-Yogi Adityanath raj in UP. Regardless of their flirtation with Hindutva, they appear to have decided to vote overwhelmingly against the BJP. Keen watchers of UP insist that the lower castes have seen through the BJP’s gambit and plans.

Nevertheless, the Hindutva party has managed to woo a section of the Yadavs, particularly in urban areas. For the record, the BJP’s strategy has focused on isolating the Yadavs. In some parts of UP, the Yadavs were showing signs of rebellion but the last minute intervention by SP’s Akhilesh Yadav appears to have consolidated his core base.

The last phase of polling for 59 seats next Sunday remains crucial for the BJP. This is particularly so as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and West Bengal figure in all the seven phases. In the circumstances, does the first time voter hold the key to who forms the government at the Centre?

T R Ramachandran is a senior journalist and commentator.

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