While the country has just seen off a solid round of elections in big states this year, come 2017, it's the big one by every measure. Uttar Pradesh, the country's most populous state and one that ticks all the boxes in a high-energy, high-stakes political battle, goes to the polls.
It's a cliché to suggest that the next election looming in the near future is poised to be the most interesting ever, but the one coming up in UP will make good on that claim.
For starters, it is by all accounts the most crucial election since the Modi-led conquest of 2014. Crucial not because it's more significant than elections in other states – which it is in terms of numbers and implications – but because it will serve as a barometer for a vastly refreshed field of play.
In many ways, the UP election will settle many questions: for the incumbent Samajwadi Party, for a seriously troubled Congress, but, most of all, for a Bharatiya Janata Party that needs a win to shore up credibility and consistency – something it has had wrested from it post-2014 in the conclusive defeats in Delhi and Bihar.
With 70 Lok Sabha seats from UP in the 2014 election, the BJP cannot afford to lose face. And coming as it does just two years before the 2019 general election, the UP result could prove a prescient and psychologically significant barometer of things to come.
The dynamics of power in the BJP party structure have changed so profoundly in the last 24 months that the prospect of musical chairs ahead is as good a bet as any.
Hectic parleys and negotiations have now begun at the BJP HQ in Delhi. Top sources indicate that the following four names are in the field of play, before the PM and Amit Shah make a final decision. In order of seniority in government and party:
Currently Union Home Minister and the MP from Lucknow, Rajnath would appear a 'safe' choice. The top brass of the party looks favourably upon Rajnath being the CM candidate for 2017. Sources say that even though Rajnath himself is not sure of his prospects, he is a leader that checks all the boxes for the job.
A Rajput born in a farmer's family, he's a veteran lawmaker from the state, and has always represented UP. Rajnath's closeness to the RSS doesn't hurt his prospects either. But having served as CM in 2000, the possibility of not getting the numbers the second time around scares him – he believes there's too much risk for him personally.
Currently Union HRD Minister, she lost Amethi in 2014 to Rahul Gandhi in one of the most heated battles of the election. Fiery, strong-willed and a woman leader admired massively by the middle class and by younger voters, Smriti will be banking on her rock-solid relations with PM Modi to secure her projection as a CM face in UP. Controversies within her domain aside, Smriti has usefully demonstrated he ability to weather tough times and hostility from within the party. Her fearsome stance on the Gandhis is still seen as one of the most visceral and powerful within the BJP.
But given the unvanquishable matrix of caste in the state, Smriti doesn't check enough boxes – she simply doesn't fit the bracket of castes in UP. Second, despite it being a token prestige battle that served to unnerve the Congress and the Gandhis, her loss in 2014 to Rahul Gandhi is still a loss. Most importantly, Smriti is not from Uttar Pradesh. Smriti's supporters will be quick to remind you, however, that neither is PM Modi. And he's an MP from Varanasi.
A consistently controversial leader in UP for the BJP, Adityanath manages to stay visible no matter what. A mahant and a devout saffron-wearing Hindu with a record for communally charged speeches and comments, Adityanath is angling hard to be the BJP's CM face.
He's popular in the Gorakhpur area, but his baggage and readily hostile stance on a range of issues make him controversial for a party that's trying to turn down the gas on its many hot potatoes.
Feroze Varun Gandhi
One of the BJP's youngest leaders, he is little seen in the usual bustle of the Delhi stage and national media, preferring to keep a low profile. When he isn't in Delhi attending Parliament, he's usually touring in UP. And make no mistake – he has had an eye fixed on the possibility of fronting the BJP's campaign for UP in 2017.
First the positives: For starters, his farmer outreach programme has been well received at a time of agrarian crisis in the state. Varun also has a progressive liberal approach that's visibly at odds with his party's markedly right wing approach – he'll be hoping that means he attracts those outside the core vote base of the BJP too. To top off the positives, Varun has managed to be marked favourably in regional newspaper surveys.
The negatives, as it turns out, are just as significant. Whether ideological or a personality clash, Varun's relations with both PM Modi and Amit Shah aren't exactly warm. The crowd numbers controversy (where Varun reportedly said that media reports of the numbers at a Modi rally were exaggerated), his praise of his cousins in the Congress and a general sense that he is detached from party work definitely go against him.
The BJP is holding its campaign committee/national executive meet in Allahabad on June 12-13 in the run up to the state elections of 2017. More decisions will be firmed up in the next fortnight.
The battle for UP is a matter of honour for the Prime Minister. His election-winning prowess already slowed by significant defeats, he needs a strong result in UP to re-conjure the idea of a Modi wave and get that crucial, if inscrutable, ball rolling towards 2019 once more.
Bihar 2015 was a wake up call for the BJP. Assam 2016 was a major shot in the arm. But Uttar Pradesh 2017 will be the ultimate post-2014 test for Modi and his party.