Uttar Pradesh

Battle for U.P.

Print edition : May 24, 2019

Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav, Bahujan Samaj Party supremo Mayawati and RLD chief Chaudhary Ajit Singh during a joint campaign rally in Firozabad on April 20. Photo: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, BJP Lok Sabha candidates and other leaders at an election rally in Ayodhya on May 1. Photo: PTI

Congress president Rahul Gandhi files his nomination papers in the presence of his mother, Sonia Gandhi, at the Collector’s office in Amethi on April 10. Photo: PTI

At the gathbandan’s campaign rally in Deoband on April 7. Photo: SANJAY KANOJIA/AFP

With voting in 39 constituencies in the first four phases of the election over in Uttar Pradesh, the gathbandhan, with its unprecedented social bonding of disparate groups, is expected to gain significantly.

Comments from Congress President Rahul Gandhi and his sister and party general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra in the course of a single day, May 2, turned out to be one of the most revealing pointers to the state of play in the electoral battle in Uttar Pradesh, though both the leaders may not have meant it that way. Talking to a television channel, Rahul Gandhi said that he had made it clear to the two party general secretaries in charge of Uttar Pradesh, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and Jyotiraditya Scindia, that “our primary aim in UP is to defeat the BJP” and “in the places where we are not going to win the elections, let’s support the gathbandhan”—the alliance of the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD). He also added that “the gathbandhan and the Congress party are going to clean Uttar Pradesh up”. Earlier that day, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra stated that “the Congress is fighting this election on its own strength” and that the party had “chosen candidates that are either fighting very strongly or cutting Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] votes”.

The remarks evoked varied responses. Union Minister and senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley said that her statement was acknowledgement of the decline of the Congress to the status of a “fringe organisation”. Talking to Frontline, former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister and S.P. president Akhilesh Yadav responded that he did not believe that the Congress had fielded weak candidates anywhere and added that the statements only showed that people were not with them and that the gathbandhan was the primary force in the country’s most populous State, which sent 80 members to the Lok Sabha, that was taking on and literally stopping the ruling BJP in its tracks.

A large number of political observers in the State were in agreement with the S.P. president’s reaction. Four rounds of polling had been completed in the State when this exchange between leaders took place, with three more rounds due for 41 seats on May 6, 12 and 19. Informal assessments of the trends in the 39 constituencies that went to the polls in the first four phases by political observers and activists were also in keeping with Akhilesh Yadav’s point of view. These assessments had it that the gathbandhan had put up a spirited fight right from the first phase, which had constituencies traditionally dominated by the BJP, and that the momentum was sustained in the other phases too, with varying degrees of electoral impact.

The Varanasi-based businessman Kumar Mangalam Appu Singh, who keeps a close watch on political trends, was of the opinion that the first two phases marked a more or less equal battle between the BJP and the gathbandhan, but in the third and fourth phases, the gathbandhan dominated in a big way. The constituencies in the third and fourth phases of polling included those such as Mainpuri, from where the S.P. founder Mulayam Singh Yadav contested; Kannauj, contested by Dimple Yadav; and Rampur, which witnessed an intense and rather acrimonious battle between the S.P.’s Mohammad Azam Khan and the BJP’s film star-turned-politician Jayaprada. In a kind of vindication of the statements of Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the active presence of the Congress in the third and fourth phase seats was confined to Kanpur and Unnao.

The constituencies in the remaining three phases include high-profile ones such as Amethi, where Rahul Gandhi and Union Minister Smriti Irani are engaged in a fierce battle; Rae Bareli, represented by Sonia Gandhi since 2004; Azamgarh, from where Akhilesh Yadav is contesting; Varanasi, from where Prime Minister Modi is seeking re-election; and Gorakhpur, considered to be the bastion of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath though the BJP lost a byelection last year to the gathbandhan candidate.

Even contest

Acknowledging that the BJP’s march had been thwarted significantly by the gathbandhan, a senior BJP leader hailing from Allahabad told Frontline that three factors had impeded a repeat of the BJP sweep of 2014, when the party won as many as 71 out of the 80 seats on its own and helped its ally Apna Dal win two seats. That victory was the most dominant ever for any party in Uttar Pradesh in the last three decades, and in the process, it pushed the opposition to a mere seven seats, with the S.P. accounting for five and the Congress two. The BSP did not win even a single seat.

The three factors listed by the veteran BJP leader for the new scenario marked by an equal battle between the BJP and the gathbandhan were as follows: the prevention of the communalisation of the election, especially in the first two phases, on account of the gathbandhan roping in a significant section of the dominant Jat community through the RLD; the unprecedented social bonding between the OBC Yadav and Dalit Jatav communities, which formed the core support base of the S.P. and the BSP respectively, supplemented by the silent but resolute rallying of Muslim communities in favour of the gathbandhan; and the persistent agrarian crisis in the State and the resultant rankling among the stakeholders in the sector, especially small and medium farmers.

Explaining these three factors one by one, the leader added that if the first two rounds of polling had witnessed communal polarisation, the trend would have continued in the other phases too. The scale of the bonding of the Yadavs, Jatavs and Muslims was not foreseen even by the most optimistic gathbandhan leaders, not to speak of the BJP leadership. The BJP leadership had expected to overcome the negative effects of the agrarian crisis through the campaign focussing on muscular nationalism and the projection of the personality of Prime Minister Modi for whom there was no alternative nationally at the level of individual leadership. But that did not gather the kind of traction the party had hoped for.

The leader further pointed out that in many ways the social bonding that the gathbandhan had managed in Uttar Pradesh this time was similar to the social coalition that trounced the BJP in the 2015 Assembly elections in Bihar. “In Bihar, that sociopolitical coalition consisted of the Yadav-Muslim base of the RJD, the OBC Kurmi and Most Backward Class [MBC] base of the Janata Dal (United) and a small upper-caste base of the Congress. These parties had fought separately in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, but when they came together, they began with a perceived arithmetical advantage in terms of vote share, but it was not clear whether the disparate social constituents would really bond on the ground. But they managed it and the BJP lost the election in spite of retaining a healthy vote share.

“In the current election in Uttar Pradesh too, the arithmetic in terms of vote share favoured the gathbandhan as reflected in the last two elections, the 2014 Lok Sabha election and the 2017 Assembly elections. In 2014, the BJP had a vote share of 42.3 per cent as it swept the election. But significantly, despite its washout, the S.P. had 22.3 per cent, the BSP 19.6 per cent and the RLD 0.85 per cent of the vote share. So, at 42.75 per cent, the combined vote share of the three parties was marginally higher than the BJP’s even in 2014. In the 2017 Assembly elections, the BJP had 41.35 per cent, while the S.P., which contested in alliance with the Congress, is estimated to have had about 25.1 per cent. The BSP had 22.2 per cent and the RLD 1.8 per cent. The total vote share of the combine, at 49.1 per cent, was way ahead of the BJP’s.

“The big question in this context was whether the social bases of these parties could come together electorally. What the trends of the first four phases indicate are that the Yadav-Jatav consolidation is complete, while the Jat shift has been about 50 per cent and that of Muslims close to 85 per cent. Of course, with its social base consisting of upper-caste and MBC communities, the BJP too has retained its vote share of close to 40 per cent, give or take a per cent or two. But in the first-past-the-post system, the balance of power between the BJP and the gathbandhan would be such that there would be a significant reduction in the seats of our party.”

There are many takers for this line of analysis presented by the BJP veteran to Frontline. Another factor widely cited across the State is that the impact of the social coalition built up by the gathbandhan in the context of the current election will acquire greater momentum as the voting progresses towards eastern Uttar Pradesh through central Uttar Pradesh. As many as 30 constituencies in these regions, such as Azamgarh, Ghosi, Domariyaganj, Ambedkar Nagar, Bhadohi, Ghazipur and Salempur, are considered to be veritable bastions of the gathbandhan’s social coalition.

superior organisational machinery

However, in the 14 constituencies that go to the polls on May 6, the BJP’s upper caste-MBC social coalition is perceived to have the upper hand. Buttressed by its superior organisational machinery, the BJP is putting up a remarkable fight in most of these constituencies. So much so that assessments at the grass-roots level by local leaders and workers of both the BJP and the Congress have it that the going will be extremely tough for Rahul Gandhi in Amethi. The gathbandhan has not put up a candidate in Amethi and Rae Bareli, but that by itself does not seem to be adding to the Congress’ drive in Amethi. The party leadership has initiated a sort of rearguard action by trying to ensure active participation of S.P. and BSP cadres in the Congress campaign. This is being led by none other than Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. Several political observers, and even Congress workers, are of the view that the May 2 statements of Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra endorsing the gathbandhan’s role in fighting the BJP is a signal to strengthen the rearguard action in Amethi. Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s decision not to contest against Modi in Varanasi, taken after much dilly-dallying, is also perceived by sizeable segments of Congress workers and by neutral observers as yet another acknowledgment that the gathbandhan is the primary force in the battle against the BJP in Uttar Pradesh.

Given the changing contours of the contest from region to region and even from constituency to constituency in a region, it will not be easy to exactly quantify the net result of the developing situation and the social and political manoeuvres that go along with it. However, in private conversations, there is a grudging admission even among the most optimistic BJP leaders that there would be a significant fall in seats from the high of the 73 that the party and its allies had in 2014. The quantification of this drop ranges from 30 to 45. The most optimistic talk in terms of a drop of 30 seats while those concerned by the effect of the gathbandhan social coalition and its bonding, such as the BJP veteran hailing from Allahabad, put the figure around 40.

Given this, there is complete unanimity among the State-level leaders and the rank and file of the BJP that only an aggressive campaign revolving around Hindutva and the personality of Modi can cut the losses. Many of these BJP leaders and workers remember how Modi turned the complexion of the 2017 Assembly elections by raising the Khabaristan versus Shamshan ghat argument, asserting that Hindus were being discriminated against even in death and in the performance of last rites by the Akhilesh Yadav-led S.P. government. Would Modi, the master campaigner, pull off yet another aggressive Hindutva ploy this time too, as the remaining three phases get ready to vote? The BJP looks forward to something like that even as the gathbandhan considers such a possibility with apprehension.