The campaigning for UP polls has reached a frenzied pitch with all parties realising what they are up against. They already knew what was at stake, but a few weeks into actual campaigning have made them confront the ground realities.
The impact of this realisation is apparent in the blitzkrieg by the BJP leaders in western UP districts where polling is scheduled on February 10 and 14. Every other day, the party’s top brass — Amit Shah, Rajnath Singh, JP Nadda, Yogi Adityanath — is touring some district or the other, combined with virtual rallies by PM Modi himself. As for other parties, BSP chief Mayawati, SP leader Akhilesh Yadav, Rashtriya Lok Dal leader Jayant Chaudhary, AIMIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi and Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra are engaged in high-pitch campaigning in districts adjoining Delhi such as Gautam Buddh Nagar (Noida), Ghaziabad, Bulandshahar, Aligarh, etc.
BJP had been a little shaky about its support among Jats and other non-Muslim communities in western UP, particularly because of the long-drawn farmers’ protest and resurgence of the SP-RLD combine in many districts including Meerut. The ambiguity of Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) leader Rakesh Tikait on supporting either BJP or any other party had also caused an uncertainty. But the BJP responded by organising a massive campaigning by its top brass during which Amit Shah met Jat leaders, local community organisations, traders’ associations. It was at one such campaign when he threw a hint that RLD’s Jayant Chaudhary was “welcome” to change his mind.
The resultant confusion and the leaders’ visits sustained on a daily basis has helped the BJP recover some lost ground, although it will be too early to say if the entire region will come to the BJP’s support as it did in 2017, when the party won 53 out of 58 seats. It was made possible by a socio-political rift between the Jats and Muslims — a combination that had been strong for decades till 2013-14, when the riots in Muzaffarnagar caused the two communities to move apart.
There was also a time that the RLD had its own pockets of influence stretching from Meerut up to Mathura and the Jats — the party’s major supporters — wielded influence in about 25-30 seats. Dalits and Muslims were thought to have an impact on about 30-35 seats. The BJP’s massive victory was made possible by the Jats and Dalits voting in its favour, causing a loss to RLD and SP in the elections in 2014, 2017 and 2019.
Sensing the loss of support in the region, the BJP has revived the fears of Hindu-Muslim riots, the sway of criminals in places like Kairana and Shamli, and the choice of candidates by SP. By repeatedly referring to the SP as a party having a soft corner for criminals, and also ridiculing the coming together of Akhilesh Yadav and Jayant Chaudhary, the party expects the Jats to take the lead in shifting towards it.
For the SP and RLD, the problem is that the BSP, too, has their areas of influence. In the 58 seats of the first phase, the BSP has fielded 16 Muslims, 18 OBCs, 15 from the upper castes, followed by only 9 Dalits. It is obvious that the BSP intends to eat into the Muslim base of the SP even if it goes in the BJP’s favour. In her campaign also, Mayawati has kept SP and Congress on target, sparing BJP.
Incidentally, Owaisi, too, is visiting Muslim pockets in the region and trying to mobilise the community on the premise of having someone from among themselves as being their representative. His consistent argument has been that Muslims need to have their own leadership rather than looking out to parties.
If the BSP and AIMIM manage to eat into a significant number of Muslim votes — regardless of whether they win seats — the SP-RLD assessment can take a hit. For the BJP, which is banking heavily on the fissure between the Jats and Muslims, it could be good news. The Congress campaign is also not targeted at the Jats and also does not appear to woo Muslims either. The desertion by many Muslim leaders, including Imran Masood, has weakened the Congress.
The coming election will prove whether the Jats and Muslims have actually come together after the drift of 2014, and also whether the farmers’ agitation actually became an election issue. It will also indicate whether Dalits of western UP would like to rally behind BJP, or the symbolism of a strong Mayawati is more important to them. For RLD’s Jayant Chaudhary, it is a test of his political acumen in aligning with the SP. Jats do remember that Jayant’s late father Ajit Singhand Mulayam Singh Yadav were strong rivals in the non-Congress, non-BJP political landscape. In fact, Ajit had never forgiven Mulayam for foiling his chances of becoming CM in 1989.
It is also noteworthy that SP’s alliances with the Congress in 2017, and with BSP in 2019, did no good to any of the parties. Akhilesh has gained in strength with full control over the party, so much as that even once-estranged uncle Shivpal Yadav has to be content with just one seat in his alliance with SP.
The “pattern” of voting in the first phase on February 10 will spread a perception by word of mouth, and all parties are preparing to create a buzz in their favour on that day itself. This perception is expected to influence voting in the second and third phases. The BJP top leaders’ intense campaigning, the regular joint appearances of Akhilesh and Jayant Chaudhary, and Mayawati’s statements are all a part of that preparation.