It’s going to be Modi vs Akhilesh in Uttar Pradesh by the looks of it. From being a chief ministerial state-level battle, the entry of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has upped the stakes for the UP polls. But then for any state election during the Modi era, the Prime Minister is the BJP’s star campaigner and his entry puts him above any state leader.

One had thought that in Uttar Pradesh since the BJP already has a star campaigner in Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, the battle would be limited to the regional level, but with the PM on an inauguration spree not to mention the fact that he is now trading barbs directly with the Samajwadi Party chief, the media is now portraying this as a Modi Vs Akhilesh fight.

What this portends for Yogi’s continuation as Chief Minister should the BJP sweep the state is another story. But one thing is certain, both Amit Shah and Narendra Modi see 2022 as a `margdarshak’ (roadmap) election for 2024. This is not quite how Prashant Kishor, the election strategist behind Mamata Banerjee’s national buildup sees it, for in a recent magazine interview he stated that the two should not be seen in conjunction. But the fact of the matter is that the BJP needs the UP MLAs if it wants to put its candidate in Rashtrapati Bhavan next year when the Presidential polls are due. And it is also a fact that the Modi-Shah duo takes no election lightly.

Akhilesh Yadav’s numbers have been steadily creeping up in opinion polls though the BJP is still at first place and the Congress at third. Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has come up with some novel schemes to woo women voters but is it too little too late? Moreover, the Congress lacks an infrastructure on the ground to reap any goodwill it may accrue.

Akhilesh Yadav, on the other hand, has gone in for some smart tie-ups – from Jayant Chaudhary to other smaller parties like Om Prakash Rajbhar’s Suheldev Bhartiya Samaj Party. After the tie-up, Rajbhar declared that they are together in the fight for Dalits, backwards and other weaker sections of the society. In fact, with Mayawati’s declining vote base, the Congress and the BJP are equally hopeful of wooing the Dalits and OBCs. That is why the BJP is playing both the Mandal-Kamandal card, flaunting Modi’s OBC credentials as well as the Mandir plank, from Ayodhya, Kanshi Viswanath makeover to revive the Mathur temple agitation.

As of now a united opposition taking on the BJP in the state seems out of the question as relations are very bitter between the Congress and the SP.

The controversial farm bills have been rolled back but it remains to be seen if the mostly Jat-dominated farmers of western Uttar Pradesh will once again pledge their faith with the BJP as they did in the last Lok Sabha. Jayant Chaudhary has emerged as a favorite in Western Uttar Pradesh and his tie-up with the SP could see his party contesting as many as 40 seats of the roughly 120 seats in western Uttar Pradesh. Will the duo be able to get the Muslims & Jats to vote together? Dividing this vote is going to be the cornerstone of the BJP’s strategy in Western UP and the one reason why it rolled back the farm laws. But the `UP Ke Ladke’ – both Jayant and Akhilesh – seem confident.

Moreover, unlike the last elections, the SP is not bogged down with a family fight, nor is it going to waste over a hundred seats on a non-performing ally (in 2017 the Congress was given 105 seats when it tied up with the SP). Akhilesh seems confident that the BJP’s downfall will begin from Uttar Pradesh and end with the next Lok Sabha.

That optimism aside, one cannot forget that Uttar Pradesh is the land of Prime Ministers. Like many of his predecessors, Narendra Modi has also made it his karma bhoomi by contesting from Varanasi. Numbers aside, even in terms of optics, this is one state he cannot afford to lose