“I have endured too many abuses of the world for you,” bellows Azam Khan, addressing a huge crowd at a Samajwadi Party (SP) rally in the Muslim-dominated seat of Tulsipur in Balrampur district, “and now I ask you to return the favour, my brothers”. “Revenge” is the favour he is asking them for – revenge from the BSP, which he says is dividing Muslims, and revenge from the BJP, which is sowing seeds of communal violence, and calling Muslims “pilla” (puppy, referring to a remark Prime Minister Narendra Modi made when asked about those killed in the 2002 Godhra riots). As the crowd cheers at every jibe he takes at the BJP and Modi, Khan makes a curious omission. He does not attack Congress candidate Zeba Rizwan, who is contesting against SP’s sitting MLA Abdul Mashood Khan in what political analysts call a “friendly contest” between the alliance partners. Daughter of ex-MP Rizwan Zaheer, Zeba is likely to cut away a section of Muslim voters, which is giving BJP candidate Kailash Nath Shukla a reason to smile.
Polling for the fifth phase of UP elections is scheduled for February 27, covering 11 districts of Awadh and the Nepal-bordering parts of Purvanchal. Muslims form a sizeable population of districts like Balrampur, Shrawasti, Bahraich, Gonda and Siddharth Nagar, due to which both the BSP and SP are focusing on minority votes, while the BJP is banking upon polarisation on religious lines. Following its Dalit-Muslim alliance strategy, the BSP has fielded 16 Muslim candidates in the region against SP’s nine. The struggle for cornering Muslim votes, which had subsided in phase four, has picked up pace as both parties attack each other.
Too many stalwarts in the fray
The reputation of a number of well-known leaders from all parties is at stake in the fifth phase. There is Sanjay Singh of Congress, whose wife Amita Singh is contesting against alliance partner SP’s sitting MLA Gayatri Prasad Prajapati and his first wife Garima Singh (contesting on a BJP ticket) at Amethi. Since popular sympathy for Garima is clearly visible as one talks to voters in the region, the BJP seems to have played its cards well by fielding her. In another instance, the sons of two major Thakur leaders – Suraj, son of minister Vinod Singh alias Pandit Singh of the SP, and Pratik, son of Lok Sabha MP Brijbhushan Sharan Singh of the BJP – are pitted against each other at the Gonda sadar seat, as sitting MLA Pandit Singh has shifted to the Tarabganj seat in Gonda. Since a majority of Thakur respondents said that they will support the BJP, the SP has started appearing weak. Because of this, Muslim votes are shifting to the BSP’s Mohammad Jalil Khan. This return of the ‘upper’ castes to the BJP is taking its toll on a number of stalwarts, including SP’s Mata Prasad Pandey, speaker of the UP assembly who is losing support of Brahmin voters at the Itwa seat of Siddharth Nagar.
While ‘upper’ castes are returning to the BJP in other places as well, Muslims are not going with the BSP’s Muslim candidates in many seats. For example, the party has fielded three Muslim candidates out of seven seats in Bahraich, but only Kaiserganj candidate Khalid Ahmed Khan seems to be getting the community’s support. On the Nanpara and Matera seats of the district, Muslims are overtly favouring Muslim candidates of the SP-Congress alliance, making it a BJP-alliance contest. It now seems like a trend that Muslim voters are supporting BSP’s Muslim candidates only where they have a personal support base among the community and where the SP-Congress alliance seems relatively weak. Such is the case at the Bhinga seat of Shravasti, where Aslam Raini of the BSP is an important Muslim leader. The scenario is similar at Mehnaun, Katra Bazar and Gaura seats of Gonda and Shohratgarh seat of Siddharth Nagar, where the BSP candidates are quite strong.
While this trend has thrown the BSP out of contest on seats where its Muslim candidates are pitted against strong Muslim candidates of the alliance, it has created troubles for some other parties too, one example being that of Peace Party supremo Mohamed Ayub. Ayub is contesting from the Khalilabad seat of Sant Kabir Nagar district again, but since BSP candidate Mashhoor Alam Chaudhary, runner up in the 2012 elections, appears strong this time, Muslims are likely to shift to the BSP. This situation may only change if the recent FIR against Ayub in a rape case generates a wave of sympathy in his favour.
Muslim support not enough
But even polarisation of Muslim voters in its favour is not helping the SP too much in the region. For example, SP minister Yaser Shah is on weak footing despite getting overwhelming support of Muslim voters, as all other communities seem to be angry with him. “Koi kaam nahin karaya bina paise ke, isliye ham log is baar BJP ko vote denge (He wouldn’t get any work done without taking bribes, that’s why we’re voting for the BJP this time),” said a group of Yadav respondents in the Kazijot village of Matera. The same sentiment was echoed by Nishad voters in Ulhariya village and Nonia (Chauhan) voters in Azad Nagar village. As Kurmis and ‘upper’-caste respondents were also quite vocal about their support for the BJP at Matera, Nanpara and Balha seats, the party seems to be benefitting from support from different castes, with EBCs aggressively speaking for it. It is due to these reasons that SP ministers like Banshidhar Baudh at the Balha (SC reserved) seat of Bahraich district too have started appearing weak, while minister Shiv Pratap Yadav at Gainsari seat may also lose as Muslim support is likely to shift to BSP’s Allauddin Khan.
Top leaders of the BSP like Lalji Verma at Katehari, state president Ramachal Rajbhar at Akbarpur (both in the Ambedkar Nagar district) and Ram Prasad Chaudhry at Kaptanganj Basti are locked in close contest in this phase. Verma and Chaudhry are the main Kurmi leaders in the Kurmi-dominated Basti-Ambedkar Nagar belt (Gonda and Bahraich also have sizeable Kurmi populations) while Rajbhar could be considered as the biggest leader of his community. The BSP has fielded six Kurmi candidates in this phase. As Kurmis and Rajbhars are solidly backing the party in these parts, the challenge is to get votes from other communities and some candidates appear to be doing well in that respect. The BSP has fielded six Brahmin candidates in this phase, besides four EBCs, and some of its candidates like Ritesh Pandey at Jalalpur (Ambedkar Nagar), K.K. Ojha at Mahasi (Bahraich), Santosh Kumar Tiwari at Colonelganj (Gonda), Raj Prasad Upadhyay at Sultanpur sadar and Vinod Singh at Lambhua (Sultanpur) are getting significant support from the Brahmin and Thakur voters.
Though Peace Party president Ayub’s chances of retaining his own seat are dicey, the party’s chances in this phase are not wholly exhausted as its candidate Ashok Singh is locked in a close contest with the BSP and SP at the Domariyaganj seat of Siddharth Nagar, which it won in 2012. Siddharth Nagar district is also giving the RLD a reason to smile, as ex-MLA Pappu Chaudhry is fighting on the party’s ticket at Shohratgarh seat of the district and gaining significant support. While too much focus is being given to the high profile Ayodhya seat of Faizabad district, where minister Pawan Pandey of the SP is fighting to retain this seat from Ved Prakash Gupta of the BJP and Bazmi Siddique of the BSP, an interesting contest is taking place at the Goshainganj seat. The BJP has fielded Indra Pratap alias Khabbu Tiwari against Thakur gang-lord Abhay Singh of the SP on this BC-dominated seat, where the main contest is generally limited to ‘upper’-caste candidates. The BSP has fielded an EBC, Dharampal Nishad, this time and if the backward-EBC voters come together in his favour, Nishad could prove to be a surprise winner.
While the BJP appears weak on some of the seats in this phase, one significant trend needs to be underlined. The party was comparatively weak in phase two and four as well, but post-poll reports indicate that it succeeded in coming into main contest by polling day due to strange incidences, be it the murder of a Jat youth allegedly by Muslims in Bijnor (which prevented Jat votes from going to the RLD in phase two), last minute communal polarisation in Bareilly or the after effects of Modi’s overtly communal remarks in Fatehpur. As opponents level unsubstantiated charges of foul play on the party, one thing is certain. The BJP is succeeding in bringing the party into contest, even on those seats where it was perceived as weak, at the last minute. If this trend continues in the coming phases, the party could do better than expected in phase six and seven, about which it is currently not so confident.
Rajan Pandey is an independent journalist and author of Battleground UP: Politics in the Land of Ram.