Political fallout from the selection of candidates and the realignment of voter communities is making a Samajwadi Party victory unlikely in phase three of the assembly elections.
Lucknow: The third phase of elections in Uttar Pradesh is unlikely to go down well for the ruling Samajwadi Party as its hold on a number of seats in this region has weakened due to a number of reasons – from the realignment of caste-based groups to the selection of candidates. In 2012, the party swept Mainpuri, Etawah, Auraiya, Barabanki and Kannauj districts, while also cornering six of the eight seats in Hardoi, three of four in Farrukhabad and five of six in Unnao. The BJP and BSP performed poorly in this region in the last elections, but the tables are expected to turn this time.
The urban centres of Lucknow and Kanpur may cause significant changes in these polls. Nineteen seats in the third phase come from these two districts alone (excluding the Kanpur rural district), and more than a dozen of these are totally or almost totally urban. Traditionally, the BJP used to do well in these districts while the SP, which was considered a rural party, would lag behind. The 2012 assembly elections changed this scenario. Chief minister Akhilesh Yadav’s efforts to make-over the SP’s image from the party of an ‘English hating, computer-fearing, unruly and corrupt landed elite’ to the party of ‘educated but assertive, tech-friendly youth, committed to development and governance’ paid off. Its promises of free laptops, unemployment allowance, pensions and accessible, free healthcare created a favourable buzz, while the in-fight ridden, leaderless BJP failed to project itself as a worthy replacement for the corrupt and authoritarian BSP. As a result, the SP bypassed the BJP in urban centres, doing well by winning seven of Lucknow’s nine seats and five of 10 in Kanpur – a performance it had never achieved before.
On the other hand, the BJP scored its lowest tally of just one out of nine seats in Lucknow, where it had managed to win three to four seats even at its worst. In Kanpur, the party could get only four seats compared to the SP’s five, while the Congress won one. For a number of reasons, it seems difficult for the SP to repeat that performance this time. Its promises have failed to generate the enthusiasm they once created, while the BJP has managed to win back those sections of voters that it lost in 2012. Most of those who said they will vote for the BJP this time acknowledged that they had voted for the SP in 2012. Another reason for this switch to the BJP is the selection of candidates. On the Lucknow East seat, Ashutosh Tandon alias Gopal Ji of the BJP was facing some anti-incumbency sentiments, but the SP-INC alliance has fielded Anurag Bhadauriya, from the Congress quota on this seat, which has increased the chances of a BJP return since voters see Bhadauriya as a “weak candidate”. “Koi jaanta bhi nahin tha pahle” (nobody knew him earlier), was the common refrain of many there and the assumption is that now the BJP is likely to sail through again.
Similarly, on the Lucknow North seat, the SP’s prominent face and minister, Abhishek Mishra, is facing problems as Niraj Vora, who fought him in 2012 on a Congress ticket, is contesting this time on a BJP ticket. As a Congress man, Vora lost the 2012 election by only around 2,000 votes but is expected to do better with BJP’s vote bank solidly behind him. The BSP too is creating troubles for the ruling party on the Bakshi Ka Talab and Sarojini Nagar seats, where its present candidates were the runners up in 2012. Adding to the SP’s problems is the rebellion on the Sarojini Nagar seat as sitting SP MLA and ex-minister Sharada Pratap Shukla is contesting as an RLD candidate. He switched parties after he was denied a ticket by the SP; instead, the party gave the ticket to Anurag Yadav, a relative of Akhilesh.
In Kanpur, instead of helping, the SP-INC alliance has created trouble for sitting Kidwai Nagar MLA and Congress strongman Ajay Kapoor in unique ways. Despite being perceived as ‘anti-Brahmin’, Kapoor used to win from this Brahmin-dominated seat with the support of traders and Muslims as Brahmin votes used to get divided between the SP and BJP’s Brahmin candidates. “Is baar SaPa ka ummidwar nahin hoga to Brahmin vote Bhajpa par hi jayega” (this time, there won’t be an SP candidate so Brahmins will unite behind the BJP candidate), said group after group of Brahmin respondents in the constituency. Though it lacks strength on the urban seats (the only exception being the Govind Nagar seat, where the BSP’s Nirmal Tiwari is locked in a close contest), the BSP is doing well on the rural seats of Bilhaur (SC), Bithoor and Ghatampur (SC) seats, increasing the woes of the alliance.
Tactical voting and the silent ‘Brahmin card’
The BSP’s strategy to woo Muslim voters by fielding Muslim candidates may not have worked as expected in the first two phases, but it is certainly paying dividends in the third phase. Both of its Muslim candidates in Barabanki – Hafeez Bharti in Ramnagar and Mohammad Mubashir in Dariyabad – are likely to attract significant chunks of votes from their community; village after village, Muslim respondents said that they will vote for the ‘hathi’ this time. This shift has signalled trouble for the SP’s tall Thakur leaders – Arvind Singh Gop of Ramnagar and Rajiv Kumar Singh of Dariyabad – who used to rely on minority votes.
But this shift is not limited to Barabanki alone. At the Laharpur and Sewata seats of Sitapur, Chibramau seat of Kannauj, Bangermau seat of Unnao, Farrukhabad sadar seat of Farrukhabad and Shahabad seat of Hardoi district, Muslim voters’ inclination towards the BSP’s Muslim candidates is clearly visible. Even its non-Muslim candidates, like Narendra Nath Chaturvedi at Etawah and Shashank Shekhar Singh at Bhagwantnagar seat, are getting huge support from Muslim voters as they are more likely to defeat the BJP on these seats.
Adding to this is the ‘silent Brahmin card’ played by the BSP. The party fielded 67 Brahmin candidates this time – the highest for any party in UP. Though it did not talk too much about it, it is certainly helping the party in the seat-to-seat math. On the Sawaijpur and Bilgram-Mallawan seats of Hardoi, BSP candidates Anupam Dubey and Anurag Mishra are getting overwhelming support from their community. The same is the case for the Dibiyapur seat of Auraiya and Etawah sadar seat of Etawah, where the BSP has fielded Ramkumar Awasthi and Mahendra Nath Chaturvedi, who are cutting into the Brahmin vote bank. ‘We are by heart with BJP, but this time we will vote for Awasthi,’ was the sentiment echoed by Brahmin respondents in Kudhra, Mahatepur, Umar Sana and Budha Dana villages of the Dibiyapur constituency. “People don’t know that Etawah is a Brahmin dominated seat but this time we will prove it by making a Brahmin MLA from here,” said a Brahmin respondent in Etawah town.
Rebellion and re-alignment of communities
The SP’s turf war is clearly visible in Etawah and Mainpuri districts, where the Shivpal camp is reportedly helping BSP candidates. Raghuraj Singh Shakya, the sitting SP MLA from Etawah, was denied a ticket due to his association with Shivpal, which has irked his supporters. And though the party’s chances are still strong on the Kishni (SC), Karhal and Bhogaon seats of Mainpuri district due to comparatively weak candidates and in fighting in the BJP, it is locked in a close contest with the BSP and BJP on the Mainpuri sadar seat, where Shivpal supporters are openly working against sitting MLA Rajkumar Yadav, a close aide of Ramgopal Yadav. In Sitapur, two of the party’s sitting MLAs, Mahendra Kumar Singh alias Jhin Babu at Sevata and Rampal Yadav in Biswan, have rebelled after being denied tickets and are working to weaken the SP’s prospects here.
Another problem is the Kurmis’ dissatisfaction with the SP in the Barabanki-Sitapur belt. Beni Prasad Verma, the SP’s Rajya Sabha MP and a Kurmi leader of Barbanki, is reportedly working for the BSP after the SP denied a ticket to his son, and though not overtly communicated, the message to support the BSP is being circulated within the community. In village after village, I heard Kurmi respondents expressing their support for the BSP (which has fielded two Kurmis on the six seats of Barabanki, while the BJP has fielded one). They complained that the SP wanted to remove Kurmi leadership from the district (SP has not fielded a single Kurmi candidate in Barabanki).
While the SP struggles to keep its house in order, the re-alignment of communities is happening in the SC castes too. The Pasis are a dominant SC community in this region, and have traditionally supported the SP and BSP. Since 2014, the BJP has been making significant inroads among the caste, as its Barabanki MP is also a Pasi. The coming of R.K. Chaudhry, a tall Pasi leader of this region, into the BJP has also helped the party. Chaudhry is currently the BJP’s candidate at the Mohanlalganj (SC) seat of Lucknow. Besides this, it has given two seats – Balamau (SC) and Sandi (SC) – to family members of Kuber, who used to be the tallest Pasi leader of Hardoi district. As one travels across Pasi villages of this region, the voices of support for the BJP ring loud and clear.
While the BJP and BSP are cutting into the SP’s support base district after district, helped by the re-alignment of castes, the Congress has little to add to the alliance’s tally as it had won only one seat in the 2012 elections in this whole region. Given this scenario, if the present situation persists, then the SP is expected to suffer big losses in phase three of the UP elections.