Rae Bareli’s Unchahar Reflects Why the UP Election Is Tough to Call

The Unchahar seat can be seen as a microcosm of the rest of UP, where conventional electoral formulas may not work for the parties involved.

The candidates in Unchahar: (L-R) Ajai Pal Singh (Congress), Manoj Kumar Pandey (SP), Utkrisht Maurya (BJP) and Vivek Vikram Singh (BSP). Credit: Twitter/Ajai Pal Singh, Facebook/Manoj Kumar Pandey, Facebook/Rishikesh Unchahar, Jahnavi Sen

The candidates in Unchahar, UP: (L-R) Ajai Pal Singh (Congress), Manoj Kumar Pandey (SP), Utkrisht Maurya (BJP) and Vivek Vikram Singh (BSP). Credit: (L-R) Twitter/Ajai Pal Singh, Facebook/Manoj Kumar Pandey, Facebook/Rishikesh Unchahar, Jahnavi Sen

Rae Bareli: Surrounded by his trio of majestic Alsatians, the former MLA from the Unchahar assembly seat, Ajai Pal Singh, sipped his tea and answered innumerable calls on the last day of his campaign. Coordinating last-minute polling booth management strategies with his supporters had kept him busy through the day.

The Congress candidate, also the former talukdar of the area, was unnaturally confident of his victory in a tight four-cornered battle, which is laced with complex caste equations.

“I am confident of winning. Not only me but my whole family is dedicated towards the development of the region. If you look at my previous tenure, you will know that I resolved many of the persisting problems here without discriminating against one or the other community. The sitting MLA has ruined his reputation because of many reasons. So, I have faith,” Ajai told The Wire.

The incumbent MLA he was talking about is Samajwadi Party’s Manoj Kumar Pandey.

Unchahar is one of the seats where a Congress candidate is facing an SP nominee, despite the alliance. There are nearly two dozen seats where both parties are clashing against each other, further complicating the electoral fight.

Ajai, in an interview to The Wire, had said that his decision to contest opposite the SP’s sitting MLA was backed by the Congress high command.

Yet, many of his supporters understand that they cannot openly defy the alliance. So one can hear creative expressions which may be read as both rhythmic puns and sturdy resistance from within the joint camp.

Take this, for instance:

UP ko yeh saath pasand hai par Unchahar ko haath pasand hai, (UP likes the alliance but Unchahar like only the hand symbol),” went a clever slogan that attempted to take a dig at the alliance’s motto.

Or this: “Akhilesh se bair nahin, Manoj Pandey ki khair nahin (No enmity towards Akhilesh but Manoj Pandey will not be spared).”

The Unchahar seat signifies that although Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi are putting up a united face in road shows and press conferences against the BJP and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the situation on the ground is much more complicated.

One might argue that problems in only around two dozen seats out of the 403 contests does not belie the legitimacy of the alliance. Both the SP and Congress have euphemistically termed the overlapping contests “friendly fights”, but they are far from it. Matters have also been made worse by fact that  the alliance has precipitated an unprecedented rebellion, with many local leaders from both parties either contesting independently or from other parties, especially the Rashtriya Lok Dal.

The BJP office in Unchahar. Credit: Jahnavi Sen

The BJP office in Unchahar, UP. Credit: Jahnavi Sen

In many of these seats, while the actual contest may be between the three front-runners – the SP-Congress combine, BSP and BJP – the presence of rebel candidates and sharply divided caste and community groups, each perceived to be loyal to one party, have made the election too close to call. A minor swing of votes because of these extraneous factors may tilt the balance either way and prove to be a crushing blow on the carefully sketched-out caste arithmetic by different parties during candidate nominations.

Unchahar, an example of the complex electoral patterns across UP

The Wire had earlier reported that the conventional electoral formulas on which different political parties rely may be inadequate for the remaining phases of the UP polls, given the complex population mix in the vast region of eastern UP.

Within this context, Unchahar is an ideal example to explain the point. Understanding Unchahar’s electoral equations may give a larger sense of this incomprehensible void that exists around the UP polls and, perhaps, explain the current political scenario better.

A sizeable population of all social groups comprise Unchahar’s three lakh-odd voters.

The biggest group in the area are Pasis (around 65,000), a Dalit community. Apart from them, Brahmins (30,000), Thakurs (25.000), Kayasthas (10,000) and Banias (10,000) dominate the upper caste population while OBC groups like Yadavs (40,000), Kurmis (20,000), Lodhs (30,000) and Mauryas (40,000) too are present in big numbers. Around 40,000 Muslims too live in the area. (All these numbers are unofficial figures and were arrived at after talking to a number of informed people and party activists in the constituency.)

Although ‘upper’-caste Thakurs have been politically dominant in the region, the voices of other castes have grown in the last two decades or so. Almost every major political party has been trying to articulate the concerns of the other groups to expand its vote base.

Despite these efforts, none of the parties has fielded a Pasi candidate, which means that the often-talked about caste arithmetic in UP generally favours the powerful.

What used to be a triangular struggle between the SP, Congress and BSP in Unchahar has transformed into a complicated four-cornered contest with the resurgence of the BJP as an alternative. That all the parties have fielded political heavyweights in the seat also makes it a high-profile, keenly-watched contest.

Parties’ electoral logic

While striking the right social alliance on the ground has been the elixir for all parties, this time around the traditional logic may prove to be lacking because of a further fragmentation of the electorate on party lines.

Pandey, the SP candidate and sitting MLA, is a Brahmin. With a high number of Brahmins in the seat, the SP hopes to get their votes along with its traditional vote base of OBCs and Muslims.

Forty-two-year-old Pandey, who was also a cabinet-rank minister in the Akhilesh’s government, is seen as the Brahmin face of the largely Yadav-dominated SP. At one point, he was so close to Mulayam Singh Yadav that he helped Pandey organise the first Brahmin sammelan after coming to power in 2012.

While his candidature may sound quite winnable on paper, he is facing strong anti-incumbency on the ground, coupled with allegations of leading innumerable instances of illegal land grabbing.

In addition, much of the vote he received from the non-Yadav OBCs has shifted to the BJP in this election.

As a result, the BJP has fielded its senior OBC leader Swami Prasad Maurya’s son Utkrisht Maurya. Both father and son were in the BSP until August last year before they switched sides. For the BJP, their induction into the party was seen as a great catch. Swami Pasad was one of the most prominent leaders of the BSP and served as the leader of the opposition in the assembly until June last year.

Utkrisht, who had contested the seat on a BSP ticket last time, lost to Pandey by only a margin of around 2,000 votes. He received approximately 59,000 votes as opposed to Pandey’s nearly 61,000. This time, he hopes to ride on the support of non-Yadav OBCs and a substantial section of Pasis.

But again, fragmenting this already delicate equation are two Thakur candidates from the Congress and the BSP.

Ajai, a former MLA from Dalmau (as the Unchahar seat was called before delimitation) who finished third in 2012 with more than 47,000 votes, is contesting on a Congress ticket and hopes to cash into his traditional support base comprising sections of Thakurs, Pasis and Muslims.

On the same platform, BSP candidate Vivek Vikram Singh has challenged him and hopes to give all the candidates a stiff fight. The BSP candidate is the son of Thakur heavyweight and former SP MLA Gajadhar Singh, and is therefore a well-known face in the area.

“The BSP is the only party which will get votes from all sections of the community. Our ground reports suggest that people are more inclined to vote for us than any other party,” Vivek told The Wire.

While BSP activists believe that he will get a substantial number of votes from Thakurs because of his father’s popularity along with a majority of Pasis, other parties see it as beneficial for them. “Thakur votes will be divided between the BSP and Congress,” said a BJP activist.

However, this does not necessarily mean that theBJP will have an advantage as The Wire found many Kurmis, Lodhs and Banias voting for non-BJP candidates who seemed more accessible to them.

Similarly, most of the Pasi and Muslim respondents (who will influence the result tremendously just because none of their community members are represented in the fray) The Wire talked to were divided in their preferences. The Pasis seemed to be divided among all parties while Muslims looked confused between the BSP, SP and Congress.

All these factors make Unchahar, and many other seats across UP, a complex algorithm to crack, as no one big issue is greatly dominant. The low margins of victory over the last few elections also mean that anyone can win as all parties in the fray are placed almost equally in the first-past-the-post system of elections.

Unchahar, if looked at as a microcosm, will tell you more about the complications of the UP polls than any PR-driven campaigns run by various political parties.

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