Barely five days before the third phase of polling in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, scheduled to be held on February 20, 2022, several media outlets in the State, including a few prominent dailies, television channels and news portals, carried a report that became a point of widespread political debate. The report had it that Mohan Bhagwat, the Sarsanghchalak of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), held a virtual conference with top level activists of the Sangh Parivar in Uttar Pradesh after the second phase of polling on February 14, exhorting them to intensify efforts to ensure the victory of candidates of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
The reports said Bhagwat, while making the appeal, referred to inputs from the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) on the first two phases of polling (held on February 10 and 14) pointing to poor performance by the BJP and its allies. The reports quoted unnamed activists who participated in the virtual conference to state that Bhagwat cited a figure as low as 17 for the BJP in the 58 seats that went to polls in the first phase. The activists apparently quoted Bhagwat as having said: “The BJP is likely to win just 17 seats in the first phase, and in the second phase too the party has done equally bad.”
The leadership of the RSS and the BJP did not come up with a formal response to these reports. However, several senior Sangh Parivar activists based in Lucknow told Frontline that the reports were the “toolkit productions” of opposition parties such as the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the Congress and were aimed at confusing BJP cadre and voters. One of them asserted that Bhagwat had not referred to any I.B. inputs in any of his interactions with top-level activists of the Sangh Parivar. Another leader said: “It is beneath the dignity of the RSS to respond to such baseless and malicious reports.”
Yet, several Sangh Parivar activists, particularly of the BJP, admit that the dominance which the party had displayed in western Uttar Pradesh in elections held in 2014, 2017 and 2019 has indeed been shaken and that polling in the first two phases has given broad indications of this trend. Central to this perception is the realisation that significant sections of the Jat community, which has a big say in the 58 seats of the first phase, have parted ways with the BJP and aligned themselves with the S.P.-Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) alliance. The Jat-Muslim unity that got cemented during the year-long farmers’ struggle against the three controversial farm laws has also dented the BJP’s dominance.
Sangh Parivar insiders also admit that the second phase of polling witnessed consolidated voting by the Muslim community and by the S.P.’s core vote base consisting predominantly of Yadavs, who are an Other Backward Classes (OBC) community. This, too, is expected to reduce the BJP’s tally. In nearly half of these 55 seats falling in western and adjoining areas of central Uttar Pradesh, there is a considerably large Muslim population; these regions are considered to be S.P. strongholds. In nine seats that voted in the second phase, including Rampur, Sambhal, Amroha, Chamraua and Nagina Muslims constitute over 50 per cent of the electorate. In 14 seats, they account for 40 to 50 per cent of the total votes. In other words, in nearly two dozen Assembly constituencies, Muslims can decisively impact the electoral outcome—in some cases on their own, and in others with Dalits and OBC groups. Bijnor has about 43 per cent Muslim voters; Saharanpur, 42 per cent; and Badaun, 23 per cent.
Out of the 55 seats that voted in the second phase, the BJP won 38 in 2017, while the S.P. won 15. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the BJP could establish a lead in only 27 Assembly segments. This time around, the speculation is that even if the BJP does establish a lead, the margins will be much lower than the 2019 ones.
Pan-Hindu support base
In earlier elections in Uttar Pradesh, which are usually multi-phased, polling in western Uttar Pradesh was considered to be crucial. Political observers would comment on the general trend of the election after the voting in western Uttar Pradesh. This time, political observers and practitioners say the trend cannot be determined on the basis of polling in western Uttar Pradesh. Although the Jats have largely deserted the BJP, the pan-Hindu support base that the BJP has built in non-Yadav OBC communities is apparently still intact. These communities— Sainis and Kashyaps for instance—are numerically strong in this region. Similarly, the BJP’s hold on the smaller Dalit communities such as Valmikis continues to be strong. The votes of Jatavs, the most dominant Dalit community that forms the core vote base of Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), seem to be getting split into three parts in the current election. The largest chunk is still with the BSP; but given the party leadership’s relative inaction on the campaign front, some sections are reportedly moving to the BJP and the S.P. Observers are finding it difficult to quantify this shift to the S.P. and the BJP; this, too, is making it hard to arrive at clear-cut projections on the overall contest after just the first two phases.
After the second phase of polling ended, former Chief Minister and S.P. leader Akhilesh Yadav was confident that his party would be ready to form the next government after the third- and fourth-phase elections scheduled for February 20 and 23. At a rally in Ferozabad, he said: “Everyone has come to know that the S.P. and its allies have hit a century in the first two phases of voting. After the third and fourth phase, we will form the government in Uttar Pradesh.” He added that silence would prevail at the BJP’s booths by the seventh and final phase of the election.
Meanwhile, the BJP and other Sangh Parivar components continued with their shrill politics of polarisation. If anything it seemed to gather steam after Bhagwat’s reported interaction with top activists. Muslim women suddenly found themselves in the middle of a political tug of war with even the BJP trying to woo them.
Politics of polarisation
The timing of the hijab controversy in Karnataka schools was a point to note in this context. The developments in southern India became a talking point in election campaigns. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, publicist par excellence, did not waste any time in projecting himself and his party as the saviour of Muslim women in western Uttar Pradesh. In speech after speech, he focussed on the issues of law and order and safety of Muslim women. Muslim women, on their part, asserted their constitutional right to wear the hijab if they so wished and were very vocal at the booth level.
Between the first and second phases of the election, a student in a college in Jaunpur alleged that her political science professor threw her out of class for wearing a hijab. He called it a burqa and said that if it were up to him, he would ban the head gear from the whole of Uttar Pradesh. She apparently went home in tears without registering a complaint with the Principal, who said he heard about it from the media.
Ram Singh Saini, the BJP candidate from Muslim-majority Amroha, alleged that in many polling booths burqas were used for fake voting. Saini is pitted against the S.P.’s Mehboob Ali and the BSP’s Mohammad Naved Ayaz. In 2017, Mehboob Ali won the seat for the S.P., defeating the BSP’s Naushad Ali by 15,000 votes.
In Aligarh district, dozens of young men sporting saffron scarves handed a memorandum to the officials of the Dharma Samaj College seeking a complete ban on the hijab on the college premises. While the college does not allow girls to cover their heads and faces in classrooms, they are free to wear hijabs and burqa anywhere else on campus.
The hijab row also led to an exchange of words between various political leaders. Lok Sabha MP and All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen chief Asaduddin Owaisi tweeted that a day would come when a girl wearing a hijab would be the Prime Minister of India. “I may not be alive to see it, but mark my words, one day a hijab-wearing girl will be the Prime Minister. If our daughters decide and tell their parents they want to wear hijabs, their parents will support them. Let’s see who can stop them!”
In response to his tweet, Uttar Pradesh Deputy Chief Minister Dinesh Sharma said: “The opposition is conspiring to spread communalism in Uttar Pradesh. The Samajwadi Party’s B team is the AIMIM. The fragrance of development is in the State, there is no place for the foul smell of communalism.”
Telangana MLA T. Raja Singh of the BJP said: “As long as the BJP is there, no ‘burqa-wali’ will become the Prime Minister. No matter how much you increase your population, we won’t let this dream of yours come true. Hum Do Humare Do law will also be implemented soon. We know very well how to put a brake to your population.”
The BJP MP Sadhvi Pragya said there was no need to wear the hijab, especially in educational institutions. “No need to wear hijab anywhere. People who are not safe in their houses need to wear hijab. While outside, wherever there is ‘Hindu Samaj’, they are not required to wear hijab, especially at places where they study,” she added. Her statement was met with a lot of ridicule on Twitter. where someone commented that she should use bikes to ride and not for blasts.
But the most vocal of the opinions came from Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath. In an interview to a news channel, he said that hijab was forced on Muslim women and that no one wore it by choice. “No woman wears hijab by choice. Did women ever accept triple talaq malpractice by choice? Ask those daughters and sisters.” He also said that personal clothing was limited to an individual’s choice. “I didn’t force my sartorial choice on any official. Can I ask everyone at my office to wear bhagua [saffron]? Can I say this to everyone in my party? I can’t. Everyone should have freedom and if there’s an institution, there should be a discipline in that institution,” he said.
“Missing” voters is the other issue rocking this election. Testimonies from the ground revealed several instances in places like Moradabad and Rampur where the names of Muslim voters are missing from electoral rolls. In 2019, a “No Voter Left Behind” campaign spearheaded by Khalid Saifullah of Raylab Technologies had found that the names of 12 crore Indians were missing from electoral rolls, of whom four crore were Dalits and three crore were Muslims. Some of the weakest sections of society were being disenfranchised. Though no such study has been done for this election, the possibility of large-scale absence of voters is worrying.
The principal opposition S.P. continues to highlight the polarisation efforts of the Sangh Parivar and the issue of missing voters, along with the issues of price rise, unemployment and the many failures of the State’s health-care system under the Adityanath government. This campaign has evoked a commendable public response. Even BJP activists grudgingly admit this. Consequently, the morale of S.P. workers is markedly high, and they display great vigour and energy in ground-level campaigns. The S.P. has in fact made this election practically bipolar through concerted campaigns, roadshows and organisational manoeuvres.
Still, a large number of BJP and Sangh Parivar leaders and workers assert that the Hindutva project that they had advanced over several decades, creating a strong pan-Hindu socio-political constituency across northern India, has ingrained Hindutva sentiments in large segments of the population, especially in the upper-caste communities such as Brahmins and Thakurs and a sizeable number of OBC and Most Backward Caste (MBC) communities. “The ideas of Hindutva are so deep-rooted in the social psyche of these communities that our cadre does not have to make a song and dance like the S.P. workers. More importantly, no other political organisation can match up to our skills in monitoring and managing voters minutely across booth after booth in the State,” a senior RSS leader based in Lucknow told Frontline.
There is also an opinion, however, that the OBC-MBC consolidation created by the BJP has decisively broken up with the desertion of strong regional leaders like Omprakash Rajbhar and Swami Prasad Maurya. Rajbhar’s Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party, along with other smaller allies of the S.P. such as the Mahan Dal and the Janwadi Party (Socialist), is expected to bring crucial contributions to the S.P.-led alliance in the last four phases. Political observers in the State are generally in agreement that the current election is going down to the wire, and the ultimate decider will be the quantum of shift of the OBC-MBC communities from the BJP.