There are two reasons why the Uttar Pradesh elections generally exert a more than normal influence on Indian politics. One is that since the state sends the largest number of MPs to the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, it can hope to determine the political contours of the government at the centre.
But the second, and perhaps more important reason, is its location in the country's heartland. The electoral outcome is expected to provide, therefore, an indication of the national mood and the future prospects of the main contenders for power.
However, these customary assumptions are seemingly no longer as valid as before. The explanation for this change lies in the rise of regional parties and the consequent marginalization of the so-called national parties. Since the regional, mainly state-based outfits, are generally not seen to reflect the nationwide trends, the contests in Uttar Pradesh have lost some of their earlier luster.
So, just as the performance of the communists in West Bengal or of the Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (DMK) in Tamil Nadu or of the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra are of importance mainly in those states with only marginal influence on the country as a whole, the impact of the ruling Samajwadi Party's (SP) or of the Bahujan Samaj Party's (BSP) showing in the ensuing poll will also be largely confined to Uttar Pradesh. The implications for coalition arrangements in the state and at the centre will be a later development.
At the same time, there will still be considerable interest in how the two 'national' parties - the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - fare if only because their success or failure will affect their role at the national level. Their continued importance stems from the fact that as these two have led coalitions at the centre, they have - or are expected to have - a much broader perspective on issues like the economy or foreign affairs than the mainly caste-based parties like the SP and the BSP.
The irony of the Uttar Pradesh elections is that it is these two regional organizations which will hog the limelight while the 'national' parties will bring up the rear, so to say. The situation, therefore, is exactly the opposite of what it used to be when the state set the national agenda by sending as many as eight prime ministers - Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira Gandhi, Charan Singh, Rajiv Gandhi, V.P.Singh, Chandra Shekhar and Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
The fact that during the pre-independence period, the 'Pakistan' movement received considerable impetus from the Aligarh Muslim University also showed how Uttar Pradesh could influence the national discourse even in a negative sense, as many Indians will argue.
Uttar Pradesh's fall from grace can be attributed to the familiar bane of casteism in the Hindi heartland or cow belt, as it is also derisively called. While the overall decline of the Congress paved the way for the rise of the smaller parties, it is also undeniable that politicians like Charan Singh within the Congress had little hesitation in playing the casteist card.
Charan Singh's wooing of the backward castes via the Lok Dal after he left the Congress paved the way for the formation of parties like the SP and the Janata Dal (United) with their support base mainly among these groups.
It is the unabashed use of the caste factor which explains the rise of the SP and the BSP, the latter being primarily a party of the Dalits or Scheduled Castes and is the SP's main political adversary.
The trend of the last few elections is that both these parties have gained while the BJP and the Congress have suffered setbacks. For instance, the tally of seats of the SP and its allies in the state assembly rose from 107 in 1996 to 146 in 2002. Similarly, the BSP and its allies increased their total number of seats from 67 in 1996 to 99 in 2002.
On the other hand, the BJP and its allies experienced a decline from 157 seats in 1996 to 109 in 2002, of which the BJP's share was 88. The Congress is no longer in the same league as these three parties, having lost ground heavily in the state. Its numbers of seats reflects its sad position, dropping from 33 in 1996 to 26 in 2002.
It has to be remembered in this context that in 1996, the state assembly had 425 seats while in 2002 it had 403 after Uttarakhand was hived away from the state.
If these trends continue, the SP and the BSP will again be the No. 1 and No. 2 parties. But the events of the last few weeks seem to have queered the pitch for the SP. Even before the recent Supreme Court judgment indicting it for aiding and abetting the defection of the BSP legislators persuaded Governor T.V. Rajeshwar to favor its dismissal on 'moral' grounds, the SP had found itself hopelessly embroiled in the shocking Nithari carnage of children.
Before the Nithari episode, Lucknow University had to be shut down with the vice-chancellor saying that it had become a den of crime and prostitution. The incident had again drawn attention to the widely acknowledged deplorable law and order situation in the state.
But if the SP is in trouble, its main opponent, the BSP, too, is under pressure because of corruption cases against its leader, Mayawati.
There is little doubt, therefore, that the voters in Uttar Pradesh are facing a choice between a rock and a hard place, not least because the BJP and the Congress are not in the reckoning. The BJP may believe that its recent satisfactory showing in local civic elections indicates an improvement in its fortunes. But it cannot hope to prevail in the rural areas.
In any event, as the results of the recent past show, no single party can expect to secure a majority, a fallibility which the SP sought to obviate by enticing defectors from the BSP and the Congress.
On their part, the BSP and the BJP have tried to win the numbers game by forming an alliance on three occasions. But their basic incompatibility quickly led to a rupture. As is known, the BSP is against upper caste dominance while the BJP's main sources of support are the Brahmins and others in the upper echelons of Hindu society.
It is a safe bet, therefore, that a messy aftermath awaits the conclusion of the elections.