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New Delhi: The seven-phase Uttar Pradesh assembly polls take off from the western-most districts of the state today, February 10.
The month-long campaign ahead of the date remained lacklustre largely because of the Election Commission of India’s restrictions on big rallies in view of the third wave of the pandemic. All parties in the fray had to rely on door-to-door campaigns and small public meetings.
Yet the political environment remained charged, especially in the districts where the year-long farmers’ protests had left a mark. Out of the 58 seats spread over districts like Muzaffarnagar, Shamli, Baghpat, Meerut, Agra, Mathura, Noida, Bulandshahr, and Ghaziabad, almost half of the seats are in what is known as the ‘sugarcane belt’ – the epicentre of the farmers’ movement in Uttar Pradesh.
The Bharatiya Janata Party won 53 out of the 58 seats in 2017 in what was a saffron wave, but faces the prospect of facing huge reverses in 2022 assembly polls. These seats witnessed massive polarisation of the electorate along religious lines in the years following the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots, lending the BJP an advantage over others. However, the farmers’ movement defused the religious polarisation to a great extent with a large section of population – both different Hindu and Muslim caste groups – building common cause on agrarian issues like delayed cane payments, low minimum support price, inflation, unemployment and the likes.
The saffron party, therefore, faces a tough challenge in repeating its previous performance. The emerging Jat-Muslim unity forced the BJP to only subtly push the strategy of religious polarisation through its political claims about an “improved” law and order situation under Adityanath’s rule – its primary pitch in the absence of any significant communal sentiments among the voting population.
Outside the sugarcane belt, the remaining seats fall in potato crop-driven agrarian economy. These are seats where the farmers’ movement has had a lesser intensity than their counterparts in the sugarcane belt.
Historically, these seats have had tough fights between the Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, Congress, and the BJP. However, BJP has been sweeping these seats over the last few elections, and remains the strongest organisation currently. In this background, though, since the electoral contests largely reduce itself to a fight between caste groupings, the Samajwadi Party-Rashtriya Lok Dal combine and Bahujan Samaj Party have emerged as formidable opposition forces because of their candidates representing numerically-dominant communities of the region.
Therefore, the polls in these seats will see a seat-to-seat contest – a big change from the previous elections where BJP appeared dominant from the word go.
A significant factor that has reduced BJP’s stature in these seats is non-performance of incumbent BJP legislators. Their lack of popularity is not just palpable but has also broken BJP ranks from within. The saffron party intended to put fresh candidates in the fray but a large-scale exodus of OBC leaders from its ranks at the last moment forced it to retain a large section of its incumbent MLAs. Any further rebellion would have damaged BJP’s prospects further.
The BJP is now banking entirely on micro-managing the elections through its huge pool of workers who are expected to improve turnouts of BJP-minded voters.
It has successfully managed to create a perception that Adityanath’s rule has seen fewer crimes than the Akhilesh Yadav-led SP government, although National Crime Records Bureau data refutes such a claim. It is also depending hugely on what it calls “laabharthis (beneficiaries)” — those who have benefitted from the state’s welfare schemes like free ration, housing funds, clean fuel, toilet facilities, and so on.
Also, the saffron party has managed to sway a large section of non-Yadav OBC communities and non-Jatav Dalits (comprising more than 30% of the electorate) away from the SP and BSP over the last few years. It hopes that it will retain those votes in the 2022 assembly polls to remain unassailable despite anti-incumbency factors.
The SP-RLD, Congress, and BSP are largely focusing on livelihood issues.
Their manifestos promise a slew of targeted promises to different groups and address universal concerns of unemployment, poor education standards, and the agrarian crisis. The BJP has made similar promises but with a good sprinkling of Hindutva on them. Unfulfilled promises from 2017 and 2019 are still pulling them down among the electorate. In such a context, it will have to heavily depend on Hindutva’s pull among the Hindus.
In the last leg of the campaign, the BJP that had appeared out-of-steam in the run-up to the polls appears to have consolidated most of its core Dalit voters, a section of whom had moved to the BJP, in the last few elections. BSP’s gain will therefore be BJP’s loss. However, the Mayawati-led party has been unsuccessful in luring communities other than the Dalits who form a little over 20% of the electorate. It attempted to strike a community alliance with Brahmins and Muslims in a social engineering model reminiscent of the 2007 assembly elections but the trends on the ground show that this has been largely unsuccessful.
Going by campaign colours and people’s observations, the polls have become a straight contest between SP-RLD alliance and BJP in a majority of constituencies.
The last time the state witnessed such a bi-polar contest was in 1985. Such a break from multi-cornered fights can throw up interesting results. There is a possibility that SP-RLD may end up consolidating a majority of anti-BJP votes, turning the polls into a tight contest between the two forces. Yet, for the alliance to win, it will have to scale the Himalayan heights of an above 40% vote share that the saffron party has secured consistently in the last few elections.
The emerging trends after polling on Thursday will set the stage for the next six phases – deciding in a big way whether BJP’s Adityanath will break the 35-year-old jinx of never returning the incumbent government to power.
Among the 58, some of the electoral battles will not only draw state-wide attention but also have a national appeal.
Kairana, Sardhana, Thana Bhawan, and Loni
The BJP has fielded candidates who were either prominent accused in 2013 Muzaffarnagar-Shamli and 2020 Delhi communal riots or are related to it.
In Kairana, riot-accused Hukum Singh’s daughter Mriganka Singh is contesting against SP’s Nahid Hasan who is currently lodged in jail facing charges under the Gangster Act.
The seat shot to limelight when the chief minister Adityanath once again raised the issue of “Hindu exodus” from the region because of Muslim-led lumpenism. Days later, the Union home minister Amit Shah began his UP campaign from the seat to highlight the same allegation of Hindu exodus again. Kairana’s alleged Hindu exodus became a leitmotif in BJP’s campaign across the state, in what was seen as BJP’s not-so-subtle attempt to foreground its anti-Muslim campaign.
The saffron party has fielded, once again, riot-accused Sangeet Som and Suresh Rana from Sardhana and Thana Bhawan constituencies. Rana, also the cane minister of the state, faces significant anger for delayed sugarcane payments in the region. His primary rival is SP’s Ashraf Ali.
Som, too, faces a tough challenge from SP’s Atul Pradhan against the backdrop of a majority of farmers consolidating against BJP.
Loni, near Ghaziabad, has the rabble-rousing Nand Kishore Gurjar contesting on a BJP ticket. Nand Kishore’s name came up many times in the testimonies of 2020 Delhi riots’ victims who accused him of instigating rioters to attack Muslims. He is up against the RLD strongman, known for his muscular Robin Hood-like image, Madan Bhaiyya.
BJP’s choice of candidate is interesting in this particular seat where it has fielded former Uttarakhand governor and senior leader Baby Rani Maurya. She is up against BSP’s popular leader Kiran Kesri.
It is a battle of two Congress turncoats in this seat. Vijay Kashyap, a junior minister in the Adityanath government who was among the many UP ministers to have succumbed to COVID-19, won the seat on a BJP ticket in 2017. His wife Sapna Kashyap is now contesting as a BJP candidate. She is up against Jat strongman Harendra Malik’s son and two-time MLA Pankaj Malik who had contested on a Congress ticket in 2017 from Shamli. Pankaj is contesting as a SP candidate in 2022 polls.
Power minister and a regular TV face Shrikant Sharma is again contesting but his fight is tougher this time with the popular Congress candidate Pradeep Mathur in the fray. The seat also shot to limelight because of Adityanath government’s proposal to develop a Mathura-Vrindavan belt on the lines of Ayodhya.
Union defence minister Rajnath Singh’s son is seeking a second term from the urban constituency. Noida is also one of the few seats where the Aam Aadmi Party is fighting with vigour, given the proximity of the seat to New Delhi. Its candidate, 27-year-old Pankaj Awana and Congress’s 29-year-old Pankhuri Pathak have made the contest interesting, although the seat has always been a BJP bastion.
BJP’s Sandeep Singh, the grandson of former UP chief minister and a heavyweight leader from the Lodh Rajput community Kalyan Singh, is seeking a second term. Singh who is also the education minister will have to dodge a spirited challenge by SP-RLD alliance’s Viresh Yadav.
In the first phase, nine ministers are in the fray – Suresh Rana from Thana Bhawan, Atul Garg from Ghaziabad, Shrikant Sharma from Mathura, Sandeep Singh from Atrauli, Anil Sharma from Shikarpur, Kapil Dev Agarwal from Muzaffarnagar, Dinesh Khatik from the bellwether seat Hastinapur, G.S. Dharmesh from Agra Cantonment, and heavyweight Jat leader Chaudhary Laxmi Narain from Chata.
With core voters fixed for all parties, the one who is able to swing the maximum number of “floating voters” – or those who haven’t yet decided on their vote – will emerge at the top.