All eyes are fixed on the first two phases of elections in Uttar Pradesh as it is widely believed that the polling trends in them will have a ripple effect on the other five phases of the State. On February 10, 58 constituencies in 11 western Uttar Pradesh districts—Shamli, Muzaffarnagar, Baghpat, Meerut, Ghaziabad, Gautam Buddh Nagar, Hapur, Bulandshahr, Aligarh, Mathura and Agra—will go to the polls. This will be followed by polling in 55 constituencies in nine districts on February 14—Amroha, Sambhal, Budaun, Saharanpur, Bareily, Rampur, Muradabad, Shahjahanpur and Bijnor. The seats in these two phases constitute over one fourth of the State’s 403 seats. Any party that dominates these initial phases will have an advantage in the rest of the seats. Although the results in Uttar Pradesh are not likely to have an impact on the outcome of the Lok Sabha election of 2024, they will definitely impact the mood of the nation as Uttar Pradesh is the most populous State in the country.
A subdued BSP
While Asaduddin Owaisi of All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra of the Congress are among the more visible faces in the campaign, this election is predominantly a two-cornered contest between the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Samajwadi Party (S.P.)-Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) combination, which also includes smaller parties such as the Suheldev Bhartiya Samaj Party, the Mahan Dal and the Janwadi Party (Socialist). Former Chief Minister Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), who had contested the 2019 Lok Sabha election in alliance with the S.P., has repeatedly said that her party will spring a surprise as it did in 2007, when she ended coalition-era politics in U.P. after a gap of 15 years winning a simple majority. However, there are no signs of such path-breaking emergence of the party this time.
The rather subdued presence of the BSP in the campaign has led to suggestions about a possible shift of Mayawati to the BJP side in the event of a hung Assembly. Mayawati herself has stated publicly, off and on, that she will not hesitate to ally with the BJP, since her party is totally opposed to the S.P. and will not allow it to take the reins of power. However, the BSP’s primary election plank is anti-BJP: it harpis on the manifold failures of the Adityanath government. These flip-flops and the party’s relatively subdued campaign have confused the its core vote base of Dalits. Dalit voters of diverse sub-castes, who are being wooed by forces on all sides, are indecisive and unsure of their choice.
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At a joint press conference with Jayant Chaudhary of the RLD, former Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav said: “Ambedkarwadi should come with Samajwadi [socialist] as we have to save the Constitution and democracy. If these are not saved, just think what will happen to our rights.” In many rallies and road shows on the campaign trail, Akhilesh was seen holding up a portrait of Babasaheb Ambedkar. Another player in the mix, Chandrasekhar Azad Ravan’s Azad Samaj Party, has limited influence in one or two districts and is not expected to dent the prospects of the larger parties.
Land of farmers’ agitation
The constituencies going to the polls in the first two phases are in the region that was the hotbed of the year-long farmers’ agitation that forced the Union government to roll back the three contentious farm laws. The government’s backtracking marked the phenomenal triumph of a grassroots movement, unparalleled in the country’s contemporary history. Some commentators compared the scale and dimensions of the farmers’ agitation to those of the freedom struggle. While that may be debatable, there is little doubt that no grassroots movement has been able to achieve a similar triumph, at least not since the BJP came to power in 2014. The results of the first two phases will answer the million-dollar question: will the farmers’ anger and their historic movement translate into votes against the BJP in electoral politics?
The BJP’s electoral successes in the region in the past decade is generally attributed to the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013. In the last two Lok Sabhae elections in 2014 and 2019 and the Assembly election in 2017, the BJP did well. The Jats, including farmers farmers from the community, were firmly behind the BJP, which grew from strength to strength. The Bharatiya Kisan Union endorsed the BJP publicly in those elections. But the three farm laws changed all that. By leading the protests, the BKU and the Jat farmers showed the BJP that if they could bring the party to power, they could also block roads and force the party to go down on its knees.
The victory of the movement, at least in Punjab, has managed to create a palpable wave against the BJP, which is showing signs of affecting the Assembly election in that State. But in western Uttar Pradesh, despite the widespread resentment against the BJP among farming communities, Jats are still divided over who to vote for. The social and political churning that is palpable across western Uttar Pradesh shows that the efforts of the S.P.-RLD alliance leadership in forging Muslim-Jat unity is only partially successful. The BKU has not openly supported any political party this time. But the union’s leaders have repeatedly asserted the need to defeat the BJP and have come up with gestures endorsing some RLD candidates. They alsoshared the stage with Jayant Chaudhary at havans and mahapanchayats. However, these gestures have not been extended to all the candidates of the S.P.-RLD combine.
The farmers’ movement also proved to be a factor that revived the RLD. Chaudhary Ajit Singh of the RLD passed away last year, which evoked a lot of sympathy for his son Jayant, who has been actively engaging with Jat leaders across the villages of western Uttar Pradesh and attending khap meetings. That he is the grandson of the beloved Chaudhary Charan Singh, who was a two-time Chief Minister and briefly the Prime Minister, has not been forgotten by the community. Local leaders of the BJP have found it tough to campaign in some of these areas as angry villagers accosted them. The S.P.-RLD may indeed prove to be a potent force against the BJP.
Yet, there are cracks in the alliance, which was all too apparent when the party ticket was distributed in western Uttar Pradesh. Jat leaders complained openly that too many Muslims were being given the ticket. For some of them, there was no reason to keep opposing the BJP once the government had rolled back the farm laws. The fact remains that the Jats as a community are more comfortable with the BJP, especially when the party is in power. While Muslims and Yadavs complain of a law-and-order problem in western Uttar Pradesh under Adityanath, voices within significant groups of Hindu communities, including Jats, say that the “minorities have been shown their place in the BJP regime”. Yet, at least 50 per cent of the Jat community has moved away from the BJP in the course of the year-long farmers agitation, as seasoned political observers of the region such as Megh Singh point out. And that shift, according to Megh Singh, is very crucial.
Meanwhile, at a press conference in Delhi, the Samyukta Kisan Morcha appealed to voters to punish the anti-farmer BJP in the elections. It was addressed by Dr Darshan Pal, Hannan Mollah, Jagjit Singh Dallewal, Joginder Singh Ugrahan, Rakesh Tikait, Shiv Kumar Sharma (Kakka ji), Yudhvir Singh and Yogendra Yadav. Observers say that this is a sign of the direction in which the wind blows among the farmers. While the wounds of Muzaffarnagar riots are receding into the past, the deaths of farmers at the protest sites are still fresh in the minds of many. The government’s apathy towards those deaths has added insult to injury. Besides, the unending struggle for sugarcane prices, failure of the government to announce a minimum support price, lack of payment of cane dues and the growing menace of stray cattle are other irritants for the farmers. Ever since the ban on cattle slaughter and lynching of suspected traders, eaters and carriers of meat began in Uttar Pradesh, old cattle that is no longer useful to the farmers are let loose in public spaces. The Gaushalas take in some of these and later release them on the roads. They eventually find their way to the farms, leading to chaos and huge monetary losses for farmers whose crops are destroyed.
Unemployment has emerged as a huge problem, especially after the pandemic. While free ration is a welcome welfare measure for the voters, they need jobs. However, it is not clear whether this will affect voting preferences. The bigger question is whether the opposition, and specifically the S.P., is able to capitalise on this issue.
The economist Kaushik Basu explained how polarising people by using politics actually damages the economy. According to him, the problem of unemployment in Uttar Pradesh pre-dates the pandemic. In a series of tweets, he said, “Youngsters in UP are angry and want change. Here's why. Youth unemployment in UP was 23.2 per cent in 2021 which is very high and exceeds India's average. The problem began before COVID: Unemployment in UP was 5.9 per cent in 2018 and 9.9 per cent in 2019. In Uttar Pradesh, between 2016 and 2021 working age population rose from 146.9 million to 169.2 million and the number of people with jobs fell from 56.4 million to 55.8 million. Much of this loss had occurred before the pandemic—a result of policy focus being on grand projects rather than human welfare.”
BJP’s ultimate weapon
If all these issues hurt the BJP in the election, it still has one weapon left: communal polarisation. With so many real issues agitating the minds of voters, it may be difficult to polarise the electorate right now, but that does not mean that the BJP is not trying to muddy the waters.
In January, the party’s national spokesperson Sambit Patra tweeted a 47-second clip from TV9 Bharatvarsh’s show “The M factor” in which11 interviewed Muslims were shown as supporting the BJP to show that the entire community was behind the BJP and Adityanath. This widely shared video clocked over 2 lakh views.
Alt News, the site that specialises in busting fake news, analysed the clipping and showed that a large number of the people shown as supporting the BJP in the show were in fact existing members, workers and supporters of the BJP. This is but one example of the propaganda being carried out by the BJP’s online campaigners.
The firing of shots at Owaisi’s cavalcade when he was returning to Delhi after campaigning in Meerut has also become fodder for the campaign of polarisation. Owaisi tweeted that no one was injured in the incident and that his car tyres were punctured.
The follow-up campaigns by several Sangh Parivar outfits on the basis of the earlier and more blatant attempts at polarisation, such as the Dharm Sansads., are continuing apace. One of the programmes associated with this campaign was organised in Prayagraj (earlier Allahabad), where hate speeches were made a la Haridwar. The event was renamed Sant Sammelan and was organised at the annual Magh Mela venue at Sangam It adopted three resolutions: proclaiming India as a Hindu Rashtra; advocating capital punishment for those indulging in religious conversions, and demanding release of Yati Narsimhanand and Jitendra Narain Tyagi alias Waseem Rizvi, who were arrested for making hate speeches at Haridwar.
The chief guest of the event, Sumeru Peethadheeshwar Jagadguru Swami Narendranand Saraswati, said Islamic jehad was a threat to humanity and must be crushed by the adoption of the Chinese policy of sanctions. “If matts and temples are being acquired, then mosques and churches should also be acquired,” he added.
Mahamandaleshwar Annapurna Bharti of Niranjani Akhada said that comments made at the Haridwar Dharm Sansad led to arrests but when “Tauqeer Raza gathered a crowd of 20,000 in Bareilly and spewed venom against Sanatan Dharma, no action was taken. Did his action not hurt our sentiments? Owaisi’s threatening video is released but no action is taken.”
In the last week leading up to the election, the BJP appeared to be considerably weakened in western Uttar Pradesh, especially on account of the depletion of the Jat support base. Observers are unanimous in their view that the saffron party has not been able to add to its voter base of 2017.
However, the effect of the pan-Hindu sentiment that the party and its associates created in non-Yadav Other Backward Classes (OBC) communities such as Kurmis, Sainis and Most Backward Caste (MBC) communities like Pasis remains intact.
Some political observers say that the support of the OBC-MBC communities other than the Yadavs,and of upper-caste Thakurs and Brahmins will keep the BJP afloat. But there are strong apprehensions within the BJP and other Sangh Parivar constituents that the depletion of support among the Jats and OBC-MBC communities like Rajbhars and Khatiks will harm the BJP substantially.
What happens in the first two phases of the election will give an indication of which way the wind is blowing.