In eastern UP, the BJP appears to be struggling, while the BSP seems secure.
“Panja gail khadanja main
Phool gail murjhaay
Le ke cycle bhaaga
Haathi gail bauraay”
(The hand [Congress] has bitten the dust,
The Lotus’s [BJP] bloom is over,
The man on the cycle [SP] has run away,
As the elephant [BSP] has gone mad)
Ballia (eastern Uttar Pradesh): This couplet, penned by some people in Ballia, sums up the general mood in the Bhojpuri-speaking districts of eastern UP, which went to the polls on March 4. As one moves from the Nepal border areas of Maharajganj district to the districts bordering Bihar bordering – Ballia, Kushi Nagar and Deoria via Gorakhpur, Azamgarh and Mau – two trends emerge. First, the BJP is not on a very strong footing here this time, and second, the BSP is expected to do quite well in this phase, if the present situation remains unchanged until polling. A complex mix of permutations and combination, added with assembly level dynamics, explain these things.
For one, the Muslim voters, who compose a sizeable chunk of voters in this region, are more inclined towards the BSP than the SP-Congress alliance, contrary to the previous phases where its first choice was the latter. In Azamgarh, Mau and Kushi Nagar districts, the majority of Muslim respondents voiced their support for the BSP. While the induction of Mukhtar Ansari and family – who command a significant influence in Ghazipur, Ballia, Mau and Azamgarh districts – is one of the reasons for the increased support for the BSP, there are some other factors too.
The declaration of support to the BSP by the Rashtriya Ulama Council (RUC) has given additional reasons for Muslim voters in the district to support the party. The RUC came into the spotlight around 2008-09 when it launched a campaign demanding a judicial probe in the ‘Batla House encounter’ and protested against the “framing” of innocent Muslim youth from Azamgarh in a series of terrorist blasts that rocked the country. A number of Muslim youth were being framed for being “masterminds” of various blasts, for which the Indian Mujahideen was allegedly responsible. The RUC mobilised funds to fight their cases and demanded impartial judicial probes.
In 2009, the RUC contested the Lok Sabha elections from Azamgarh, securing over 50,000 votes, while it got around 10,000 or more votes in Gopalpur, Nizamabad and Didarganj assembly constituencies of Azamgarh in the 2012 assembly elections. Although the party’s electoral strength has been on the wane since then, it commands significant influence among Muslim voters in some parts of the district, which is now working in the BSP’s favour.
Besides this, a few strong BSP candidates in other districts in the sixth phase are also pulling Muslim votes as they are better suited to defeat the BJP. At the Hata and Khadda seats of Kushi Nagar district, Muslim voters expressed their support for BSP’s Virendra Singh Sainthwar and Vijay Pratap Kushwaha respectively, while at the Padrauna and Kushi Nagar seats, BSP leader Javed Iqbal’s influence among the minority voters is helping the party.
The BSP has also made significant inroads among the upper castes, especially the Thakurs and Brahmins in this region. The party has kept social engineering in mind, fielding three Thakur candidates in Azamgarh, which includes Bandana Singh, the wife of former MLA Sarvesh Kumar Singh, who was killed by criminals, reportedly at the behest of some Yadav politicians of the SP. In this district, known for its Yadav-Thakur rivalry, Bandana is winning the sympathy of the non-Yadav voters.
In Ballia’s Rasara seat, sitting Thakur MLA Uma Shankar Singh still appears strong while at the Chillupar seat of Gorakhpur, the BSP has fielded Vinay Shankar Tiwari, son of notorious criminal politician Hari Shankar Tiwari. Tiwari appears on strong footing as a majority of Brahmin respondents said that Hari Shankar’s “punishment is over now” as he lost two elections in a row.
Strange yet similar is the case of independent candidate Aman Mani Tripathi, son of criminal politician Amarmani Tripathi, a former SP MLA and minister. Aman is currently lodged in jail for the murder of his wife, while his mother and father are serving time for the murder of poetess Madhumita Shukla. Aman’s sisters are campaigning for him and it appears they may have succeed in securing the sympathy of the voters at the Nautanwa seat of Maharajganj, as many respondents said the family has faced “too many difficulties” and must now be “compensated”.
While the BJP has been succeeding in pulling non-Yadav OBC votes till now, in this region it is facing tough competition from the BSP, which has fielded around 17 OBC candidates in this phase. BSP candidates like Sabha Kunwar Kushwaha from Bhatpari Rani in Deoria, Sukhdeo Rajbhar from Didarganj in Azamgarh, Ambika Chaudhary from Phephana in Ballia, Dev Narayan Singh from Sahjanwa and Jai Prakash Nishad from Chauri Chaura (both in Gorakhpur) command significant influence among their Koeri, Rajbhar, Sainthwar and Nishad castes, which are numerically dominant in this region. On the other hand, a strong rebellion within party ranks is aggravating the BJP’s problems in this phase.
In his stronghold of Gorakhpur, BJP MP and Hindutva icon Yogi Adityanath is facing a tough time due to an open rebellion of his close associates in the Hindu Yuva Vahini, the organisation he had floated, which has fielded candidates on a number of seats, reducing the BJP’s chances to only two seats in the district. The rebellion is not limited to Gorakhpur alone; at the Basdih and Sikanderpur seats of Ballia, the saffron party is facing challenge from its own rebels. However, the swing of Rajbhar voters in the BJP’s favour, due to an alliance with Omprakash Rajbhar’s Bhartiya Samaj Party, is keeping hopes for the BJP alive, especially in Mau and Ballia districts.
Due to the presence of strong leaders both within the Congress and its own party, and the presence of Yadav voters on a number of seats, the SP appears better placed than the BJP in this phase. While SP leaders like Durga Yadav (Azamgarh Sadar), Alam Badi (Nizamabad, Azamgarh), Ram Govind Chaudhry (Bansdih, Ballia) and Shivendra Singh (Siswa, Maharajganj) still command significant influence on their seats, Congress leaders like Akhilesh Pratap Singh (Rudrapur, Deoria), Virendra Chaudhary (Pahrenda, Maharajganj) and Ajay Kumar Lallu (Tamkuhi Raj, Kushi Nagar) are also keeping the alliance very much in the fray. Even on the Bansgaon (SC), Campiyarganj and Pipraich seats of Gorakhpur, the SP-Congress alliance appears better placed than its rivals, giving the BJP reasons to worry. Some of the BJP heavyweights like former state president Surya Pratap Shahi (Pathardeva, Deoria), former minister Fateh Bahadur Singh (Campiyarganj, Gorakhpur) and former BSP stalwart Swami Prasad Maurya (Padrauna, Kushi Nagar) are contesting in this phase and while Shahi seems better placed this time (he lost the 2012 election from here), the other two are locked in a very close contest.
An interesting recent development is the rise of the Nishad Party in this region, which is contesting 60 seats in alliance with the Peace Party with a symbol of bhojan thali (food platter). An extremely backward caste, the Nishads are divided in a number of sub-castes – Bind, Mallah, Kevat – that reside near river banks across the state and depend on the rivers for their livelihood. Manoj Singh, a journalist in Gorakhpur says, “Nishads have been suffering from poverty, migration and underdevelopment since decades and they constitute a sizable vote bank in some seats of Gorakhpur and nearby districts. If they stay united behind the Nishad Party, then they would spoil the electoral equations of all mainstream parties.” While it is unlikely that the party will see much electoral success, with it struggling to attract votes from other communities, it could open its account in the state assembly with the Gorakhpur Rural seat, where party chief Sanjay Nishad is getting overwhelming support from the numerically-dominant Nishads.
Another significant feature of this phase is the number of independent candidates and candidates with criminal past/backing who are fighting pitched battles against candidates from the mainstream parties.
Other than Aman Mani Tripathi, Girijesh alias Guddu Shahi is another serious independent contender who is giving sleepless nights to the sitting MLA, the SP’s Fasiha alias Gazala Lari at Rampur Karkhana seat of Deoria. A runner up in the 2012 election, Girijesh is a self-styled philanthropist, who provides free medical aid to the voters of this region. In an interesting contest in the nearby district of Kushi Nagar, Congress’ sitting MLA Ajay Kumar Lallu is contesting against SP rebel P.K. Rai and BJP rebel Nand Kishore Mishra, while official SP and BJP candidates appear out of the contest. At the Bairia seat of Ballia, Ashni Singh is contesting as an independent. A member of the zila panchayat, Ashni belongs to the family of dreaded coal mafia king and Thakur ganglord Ramdhir Singh. Besides Mukhtar Ansari, the BSP also has another candidate with a criminal record, Murli Manohar Jaiswal from Barhaj, Deoria, who is the son of the late Ram Prasad Jaiswal, one of the main accused in the infamous National Rural Health Mission scam.
While the BSP and SP appear to be main contenders in this phase, the BJP is trying every trick in its book to overcome its handicap. It is perhaps due to this reason that the party mobilised immense resources, campaigners and leaders for the last phases of UP elections, as it knows that its chances of winning UP would suffer immensely if it lags behind in the last leg of elections, even if it does well in the previous phases.