The BJP and the Bahujan Samaj Party have made inroads into several districts across the phase two region, a Samajwadi Party stronghold since the 2012 elections.
Moradabad: “No Hindu is an MLA in our district and Hindus don’t like this, so we will fare better this time,” says 27-year-old Rajesh Chauhan, a BJP activist, near the campaign office of the party’s Moradabad candidate Ritesh Gupta. Chauhan comment was an indication of the present situation – five of six sitting MLAs in the Moradabad district are Muslims and the lone Hindu MLA, BJP’s Sarvesh Singh of Thakurdwara, had to leave the seat after winning in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. In the by-election, Samajwadi Party’s Nawab Jaan won the seat. “This lack of a single representative will help us polarise Hindu voters,” Chauhan said, hoping that the BJP will do better this time not just in Moradabad, but in nearby districts as well. It is due to such fears of polarisation, which could weaken the SP’s prospects here, that a number of SP functionaries and leaders are leaving no stone unturned to maximise the party’s chances in the crucial second phase of the UP elections, where 67 seats in the 11 districts of Uttar Pradesh will go to polls on February 15.
The significance of phase two for SP
While the SP did well in the phase one districts in the 2012 elections, it was the party’s spectacular performance in the phase two districts that enabled it to emerge victorious in the contest for control over Uttar Pradesh. Out of the 67 seats that will go to polls in phase two, SP won more than half (34) in 2012 and this tally goes to 37 if we include the three seats won by the Congress. Divided in two parts, the Terai (districts bordering Uttarakhand and Nepal) and Ruhelkhand (districts coming under the erstwhile kingdom of Ruhella Pathans, who came from Afghanistan in the late Mughal period), this region comprise a number of districts with high percentage of Muslim population like Rampur, Moradabad, Sambhal, Amroha, Pilibhit and so on. The SP swept this region, winning all eight seats of the Sambhal-Amroha districts, four of eight seats in Lakhimpur Kheri, four of six in Badaun, three of six in Shahjahanpur, three of four in Pilibhit and four of six seats in the Moradabad district.
Acknowledging this exemplary support, the SP leadership gifted ministerial births to more than half a dozen MLAs coming from this region like Omkar Singh Yadav, Bhagwat Sharan Gangwar and Manoj Paras. Four of its Muslim ministers come from this region, including Azam Khan, the party’s most prominent Muslim face. The party is now under tremendous pressure to repeat its past performance, which seems extremely unlikely.
Ministers in trouble
Muslims in the region are divided among a number of lines, the Turks, Pathans, Saifis and Ansaris being the most assertive sections. Other than Muslims, Kurmis are the most dominant OBC caste in this region, followed by the Mauryas. Yadavs are only influential in the Sambhal-Badayun region and while Jats have pockets of influence in Bijnor, Gurjars are politically and numerically dominant in the Saharanpur district. This time, most of the SP ministers are pitted in a close contest even at their own seats in the region. At the Sambhal seat, minister Iqbal Mahmood is facing anti-incumbency and opposition of voters for failing to get district headquarters constructed in Sambhal town. Bahujan Samaj Party’s Rafatullah is cutting into his Muslim votes while Ziya-ur-Rahman Barq, the All India Majlis-e-Musalmeen candidate and grandson of ex MP Shafeeq-ur-Rahman Barq, is making the contest interesting by trying to take away a sizeable number of Turk votes. Shafeeq is said to be the tallest leader of Turks Muslims and his weight behind Ziya is enabling the AIMIM to remain in the race.
But it’s not just Mahmood who is angry with Shafeeq. Another SP minister, Mehbub Ali of Amroha, is facing opposition from the Turk community this time, which used to support him in elections. The reason: Mehbub’s name came up in the murder of a Turk strongmen, after which a ‘panchayat’ of Turks was held in the region, allegedly at the behest of Shafeeq, which decided to boycott him in polls.
And in the beautiful city of Rampur, further beutified by the efforts of Azam, the urban development minister of the SP government. Azam seem comfortable in the contest, but his reputation is at stake at Suar and Chamraua seats, where his son Abdul Azam and right hand man Nasir Khan are pitted in a close contest with BSP’s Muslim candidates. In the Pathan-dominated politics of Rampur district, being the lone Turk MLA is helping BSP candidate and siting MLA Ali Yusuf Ali at Chamraua, as the community votes en bloc for him. On the Suar seat, sitting MLA and BSP candidate Nawab Kazim Ali commands traditional support among both Hindu and Muslim voters.
Bhagwat Sharan Gangwar, minister and SP candidate at the Nawabganj seat of Bareilly, is also pitted in a close contest this time, as his opponents are Kesar Singh Gangwar of the BJP and Virendra Singh Gangwar of the BSP, both Kurmis who also come from his own native village in Ahmedabad. Shahla Tahir, a candidate of the Bareilly-based outfit Ittehad-e-Millat Council, is expected to corner a sizeable chunk of Muslim votes, destabilising the SP’s calculations. At most of these seats, it’s the BSP and BJP who are gaining at the cost of the SP. The only relief for the party comes in Saharanpur, where an alliance with Congress could enable it prevent any division of Muslim votes due to Imran Masood, who commands sizeable influence among the minority voters.
What explains the SP’s fears in this region this time? “The general positive mood of voters that we had in 2012, which created an undercurrent in our favour, is missing this time, despite a lot of advertising,” says a senior SP functionary in Moradabad, on the condition of anonymity. The rebellion within party ranks due to the Shivpal-Akhilesh clash and the denial of tickets based on that is another reason. It is due to this that Dharmendra Yadav is working overtime these days. The Badaun MP from SP and Akhilesh’s cousin has been camping in his Lok Sabha constituency, especially the Gunnaur seat, for some time to quell the in-fighting within the party, as a couple of Yadav leaders of the SP are opposing the party candidate Ramkhiladi Yadav from Gunnaur, the power house of Yadav politics of Badaun.
Though the party still commands huge support in the Muslim community, helped by Akhilesh’s pro-development image and the benefits of his welfare schemes like laptops, scholarships, pensions and so on, careful seat-to-seat arithmetic from the BSP is helping the party gain a sizeable chunk of the Muslim votes. Many Muslim respondents across districts agreed that there would be a 60-40 or 70-30 division on their seat, with the BSP cornering the smaller portion. “Even that is no less for the BSP, as the party’s support among Muslims has never gone beyond roughly 20%,” says Sajjan Kumar, a research scholar from JNU associated with the survey agency People’s Pulse. The fact that the BSP has fielded the lone Muslim candidate on some seats is not helping it in getting Muslim votes, as a majority of respondents said they were going to vote for the SP-Congress alliance even on seats like Kundarki in Moradabad and Sheikhupur in Badaun, where the BSP candidate is the lone Muslim while the SP candidate is a Yadav. But, in terms of seat-to-seat math, the BSP is still pulling sizeable votes from the community.
Sultan Baig of the BSP is getting a majority of the Muslim votes, said respondents in Meerganj, Bareilly, though his brother and BSP candidate Suleman is weak compared to the SP candidate Shahjil Islam at the nearby Bhojipura seat. The same is the case with Haji Bittan and his brother Haji Arshad, both BSP candidates, who are getting a majority of the community’s votes, according to Muslim respondents at Bilsi and Sahaswan seats of Badaun respectively. Further, in districts like Bijnor, the fact that the BSP has fielded Muslim candidates on all six general seats of the district is helping the party, as a majority of Muslim voters said they are inclined to vote for the BSP. “See, in terms of ability to win, the BSP is better placed to defeat BJP candidates in the west as it has the core base of Dalit voters, while Yadavs are not here on much of the seats to help the SP. Hence, the BSP is likely to attract a significant number of Muslim voters despite the fact that in general, they are inclined towards the SP,” sums up Kumar.
Though the BJP too is facing in-fighting due to ‘parachuted’ and ‘outsider candidates’, especially in Badaun and Lakhimpur Kheri districts, its support among non-Yadav OBCs and upper castes, along with its polarisation strategies, are helping in keeping its prospects alive, especially in the Terai region, where it fared badly last time. As the SP struggles to defend its hold in phase two this time, seat by seat, BSP and BJP’s attempts to inflict small damages could severely undermine its prospects of coming back on Lucknow, if this trend continues in the next phases.
Rajan Pandey is an independent journalist and author of Battleground UP: Politics in the Land of Ram.