People in Firozpur, a small locality of Ghazipur, voted for the Samajwadi Party (SP) in the last two elections. But the upper caste voters — Brahmins, Thakurs, Bhumihars — have recently become Narendra Modi supporters, although they remain unsure about the BJP.
That’s the first challenge Modi faces as Uttar Pradesh prepares for the last two phases — of the 33 seats that go to the polls on May 7 and May 12, the BJP won only four in 2009. Even as Brand Modi makes inroads, the party loses visibility and the Hindutva sentiment weakens as one moves away from areas associated with saffron symbols.
Of the four seats it won in 2009, Varanasi and Gorakhpur are staunch Hindu seats, while the other two, Bansgaon and Azamgarh, are neighbouring constituencies. The BJP has not won Faizabad, the other symbolic seat, in the last four elections.
“Sab Modi ko ho. BJP dikhbe na karela (Everything belongs to Modi, BJP is hardly visible),” say some youths wearing Modi T-shirts. Even in Dalit villages of Ghosi and Muslim villages of Azamgarh, most residents immediately admit a “Modi wave”, which has put the BJP in a direct contest in almost every seat. Varanasi’s election in-charge Ashok Dhawan claims party workers have already visited every house in the constituency.
But across the Ganga, villagers say they rarely see a BJP campaign. “We hear about Modi on TV, but the party is not here,” says Rafiq Khan, a shopkeeper in Bheer village of Mau district. On Sunday, Modi’s close aide Amit Shah addressed a rally in Manikadeeh village of Azamgarh.
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The party managed a good crowd, but neighbouring villagers could not remember when they last saw a BJP leader. This despite Azamgarh having a sitting BJP MP, Ramakant Yadav.
Second, the BJP’s penetration still seems limited to the upper castes and influential OBCs, so victory may only be possible if the votes get split between at least two other parties. For instance, in Azamgarh and Bansgaon in 2009, Muslim candidates contested from smaller fronts and dented the SP and BSP’s vote share, due to which the BJP managed to scrape through. Even BJP stalwart Murli Manohar Joshi won by a margin of just 17,000 votes in a tough triangular contest in Varanasi.
In Ballia, the BJP’s Bharat Singh faces two-time SP MP Neeraj Shekhar, son of former PM Chandra Shekhar. This time, the Quami Ekta Dal’s Afzal Ansari is expected to affect the SP’s Muslim and other backward votes, giving a lead to the BJP. But such victories would be due to the dynamics of a triangular contest, rather than any Modi factor.
If just one party, say the SP, weakens, it would make the BSP stronger vis-à-vis the BJP, says Ram Avtar, in-charge of the BSP’s election office for Ghosi seat. This means Muslims and weaker OBCs would move towards Mayawati, and her vote gain may be significantly more than the consolidation of upper castes, he adds.
The BJP is limited by a third factor — weak Hindutva sentiment in Poorvanchal as compared to western UP and Brij Pradesh. Several leaders like Afzal Ansari of Quami Ekta Dal and SP’s Madan Rai in Ballia agree that while religious sentiments dominate in the state’s western region, caste equations play a determining role in the eastern region, ensuring more space to the BSP, SP, and other caste-based local parties.
The BJP’s biggest advantage is a weakened Congress and struggling SP. The two parties won 19 of the 33 seats in the last polls. This time, barring a few seats like Amethi, Barabanki (both Congress strongholds) and Azamgarh (where SP has fielded Mulayam Singh Yadav), no other seat can be termed comfortable for either party. But this may still not mean a victory for the BJP — the Congress and SP’s weaker section votes may go to the BSP.
Upper castes who voted for other parties in 2004 and 2009 are now back with the BJP, and they seem determined to vote in large numbers. But that has been the BJP’s traditional vote bank, ever since the Mandir movement, not an expansion of its base. Even this upper caste vote is divided in many seats like Bhadohi and Jaunpur where other parties have fielded Brahmin or Thakur candidates.
A “Modi wave” would signify a surge only when the sections that never voted for the BJP now become its voters. But so far, the BJP does not seem to have won over these sections, except in a few seats. Modi made Varanasi his base, hoping to win over Poorvanchal. While the move has energised his partymen, the SP and BSP’s caste vote bank does not seem to have switched over in sufficient numbers.
One way to assess the Modi impact is a comparison with the BJP’s peak performance in UP. The BJP crossed 50 seats twice — in 1996 and 1998 — as Hindus cut across castes to vote for the party at a time when the SP and BSP were yet to build their forts in the state. City after city, village after village, people say the present “wave” seems far weaker. Besides, the SP and BSP are now formidable opponents. “BJP seems to have wasted its entire energy on the Congress here, it forgot that we and SP are also here,” says BSP’s Ghosi candidate Dara Singh Chauhan.
BJP insiders claim to have won about 35 of the 47 seats in UP where elections have already been held. If this is true, they will need to win 15 of the 33 seats going to polls in order to reach the 50 mark. This would mean decimation of not just the Congress, but the SP and BSP as well. Can Modi and Amit Shah cut across the caste voting here is a question everyone is asking.
But UP has seen unexpected swings and surges in the past. In the 2012 assembly elections, BSP plummeted from 206 to 80, while SP surged from 97 to 224. The BJP won just 51 and 47 seats in the last two assembly polls.
While western UP was expected to vote for BJP, especially after the Muzaffarnagar violence, Poorvanchal will determine how Brand Modi worked in Uttar Pradesh.