Two political heavyweights, one a heartland veteran, the other an ascendant force on the national landscape, are locked in one of the most important battles of elections 2014.
Narendra Modi and Mulayam Singh Yadav are contesting from adjoining constituencies. Varanasi and Azamgarh have emerged the poles of a political fight for 20 neighbouring seats in Awadh and eastern Uttar Pradesh where the third UP heavyweight, Mayawati, has her own clutch of six or seven stronghold constituencies .
At 75, Mulayam the veteran is trying to stop the Modi onslaught that has after years consolidated the upper castes —Brahmins, Rajputs, Baniyas. In UP’s complex caste arithmetic, this has put the BJP in the race for 80 per cent of the state’s constituencies.
The anti-SP campaign built around slogans such as “Jai jawan, jai musalmaan”, coupled with the rise of communal violence during the SP government’s tenure, has aided the BJP cause, allowing it to add sections of the extremely backward castes Kurmi and Rajbhar to its upper-caste bandwagon in the name of Hindu solidarity.
In the past few weeks, however, statements by the likes of Giriraj Singh and Pravin Togadia have done Mulayam a similar favour. “Why will we go to Pakistan? We will die here, Hindustan is ours too,” says Munir Ahmed.
Around this minority insecurity are visible the first shoots of what one can call counter-polarisation. Mulayam’s decison to contest from Azamgarh anchors that narrative. It’s having a visible impact on the traditional Yadav vote that responds to his personal appeal and has been unsettled by the Hindu consolidation around the upper castes.
This has underlined a backward-forward divide, a starting point to prevent a bunch of floating EBCs from flocking to the BJP in rural areas. It’s this backward-forward axis on which even the BSP is looking to counter the Modi upsurge even as it fights to retain the upper castes by backing Brahmin candidates in places such as Ambedkarnagar.
For an SP combating anti-incumbency, this is like oxygen. After all, as one moves eastwards from Lucknow, a common refrain is, “This time SP will be wiped out.”
Yet, as Hindu solidarity assertively seeks to extend beyond the upper castes, the SP is emerging the first choice for Muslims except in key BSP strongholds. In Faizabad, for instance, there was a clear Yadav-Muslim split in one of the assembly segments that the BJP won with a Yadav candidate in 2012. The SP’s local Muslim strongman, Rushdie mian, lost by a thin margin. This area was also the site for a communal incident that year.
In the Lok Sabha seat, the SP has put up Mitrasen Yadav, a veteran. And just before the elections, Rushdie too has been given a job of ministerial status in the UP government to keep the Yadav-Muslim combination intact. But in a seat that the Congress had won last time, this SP effort could end up helping BJP local strongman Lallu Singh as votes split between the Congress and the SP. “If we vote SP, they will end up supporting the Congress at the Centre, so why not vote for the Congress directly?” says Ram Gopal, a remark that keeps getting thrown back across the constituency.
Nearer Azamgarh, in Ambedkarnagar, the communal polarisation is impacting the influential Kurmi population that complains about Muslim aggressiveness, particularly the administration’s perceived softness towards Muslim criminals while referring to the killing of a Yuva Vahini leader. “There is a Modi wave. It’s a Hindu-Muslim election. Other parties only want to bring back the Mughal empire,” says Dayaram Verma, who had voted SP in the last election.
To counter this, the SP has put up a strong Kurmi candidate in Ram Murti Verma and is hoping to shore up Yadav votes with Mulayam’s presence in the adjoining constituency, and rally the Muslims. It’s still an uphill task for the SP, and the strong presence of the BSP has turned this into a three-way contest that will again test Muslim loyalties with the SP.
In Chandauli, which neighbours Varanasi, Modi’s presence has translated into massive mobilisation among upper castes in what is, otherwise, a backward-Dalit dominated constituency. “One of the problems in Brahmin families is that our women don’t come out to vote in large numbers like, say, among SCs. So this time Brahmin families in my village have decided to ensure we take the women along. They have to vote if we have to do better than the BSP,” says Sheetla Tiwari, who had voted for the winning SP candidate last time.
The Muslim population is in a quandary between sitting SP MP Ramkishun Yadav and a likelier winner in BSP candidate Anil Maurya. “Our preference is with the SP. The BSP candidate has not reached out properly to us,” says Sheikh Abdul Hamid of township Syed Raza, a short distance from Mughalsarai.
But in Dhaurahra village of Ajgara assembly segment in the same constituency, the Muslims are inclined towards the BSP because they feel Maurya has a better chance. “We have not decided yet, but the thinking is towards BSP,” says Zaheer Ansari while stressing they have to stop the BJP.
The Mulayam effect scores over Modi’s in Yadav-dominated Ghazipur, where Babulal Kushwaha’s wife Shivkanya is strongly placed despite a Yadav opponent in the BSP’s Kaliashnath Yadav. “Mulayam is the biggest leader in the community,” is a line commonly heard across Yadav villages. The SP candidate is attracting backward Kushwaha voters, alongside Muslim voters.
The same cannot be said of Bhadohi, adjoining Varanasi, where the Modi effect and anger among Yadavs against the SP’s Brahmin candidate Seema Mishra, daughter of SP MLA Vijay Mishra, has split Mulayam’s core vote with a huge chunk going towards the BJP and others to a local leader from the community, Tej Bahadur Yadav of the JD(U). “We all love Netaji but he is like a big river and we just want to cut this rivulet. Why can’t we have a backward candidate?” says Jilajeet Yadav of Jaroi village, who has never voted for any party other than the SP. “We know that the JD(U) will not win and that this will help the BSP or the BJP but we want to send this message to Netaji,” adds Rakesh Yadav.
Muslims, traditionally with the SP, are in a bind. “We have always been with the SP, but we have to consider the BSP.”
With western UP showing a BJP trend, Mulayam, unlike Mayawati, has entered the field himself to check the wave in the east. In the process, he has put himself on test.