At 9.30 am, a huge crowd, mostly young men wearing the Samajwadi Party cap, is gathered outside a three-star hotel on Jhansi’s Station Road. Hoping to catch a glimpse of SP national president and former chief minister Akhilesh Yadav, they keep breaking into lusty slogans of “Jai, Jai, Jai, Jai Akhilesh” and “Akhilesh Yadav zindabad”.
Akhilesh is scheduled to address a press conference before setting off on his ‘Vijay Yatra’. It is the fifth phase of the yatra, as part of which the SP leader is covering the backward region of Bundelkhand, all of whose 19 Assembly seats were won by the BJP in the 2017 polls (the spoils were evenly divided in the election before that).
Akhilesh arrives with some district leaders and begins by thanking the people of Bundelkhand for their “love”. The BJP will be reduced to zero in Bundelkhand in the coming polls, he says.
SP youth wing member Rajiv Yadav, who has travelled 45 km to hear Akhilesh, says: “The BJP will lose because of price rise and unemployment, and the SP will form the government. Log trast hain (People are suffering).”
Akhilesh talks about the price rise, as well as “rising custodial deaths”, “discrimination against minorities” and “farm distress” under the Yogi Adityanath government. He vows increased pension for women and supply of water to all — a perennial poll promise in the semi-arid Bundelkhand.
The yatra will be on a “rath” — essentially a luxury bus with bullet-proof windows, an office space and a pantry, a ramp to take Akihlesh to the roof, from where he can address people without getting off, and a window for him to shake hands with them.
The vehicle is plastered with pictures of SP patriarch and Akhilesh’s father Mulayam Singh Yadav, his uncle Ram Gopal Yadav, jailed SP Rampur MP Azam Khan, and party state president Naresh Uttam Patel. A slogan displayed prominently says: ‘Badon ka haath yuva ke saath (the youth have the blessings of elders)’.
Akhilesh sets off in a cavalcade, to the sound of the SP’s most prominent campaign song, “Janta pukaarti hai Akhilesh chaahiye (people are calling out that they want Akhilesh)”, and a showering of flower petals.
The first stop is 1.5 km away, at the Mandi chauraha, around noon, where Akhilesh’s halt causes a traffic jam.
Harshit Vimal (22), a student of B.Sc at Bundelkhand University, who calls himself an SP worker, says “Bhaiyya (as Akhilesh is referred to)” has done a lot for development, talking of the Agra-Lucknow Expressway.
Nishchay Rajput (24), a bystander, however, stops him, accusing the last SP government led by Akhilesh of “goondagardi”.
As Vimal now raises the issue of “bodies floating in the Ganga” at the height of the Covid second wave, an elderly man wearing the SP cap steps in, telling both to cool down. “When the results come, we will see who the people are with,” the man says.
Stuck in the jam are Pranjali Soni and Khushi Daksh, headed for classes at Bundelkhand University. Soni (20), who is doing B.Com (Hons), says she is yet to decide who to vote for. However, classmate Daksh (21), who belongs to the SP bastion of Firozabad, is clear that her vote is “for Modi”. “The BJP has ensured national security,” she says.
After speaking to the crowd for about 10 minutes, on the prices of petrol, his government’s scheme to distribute laptops and Covid deaths, Akhilesh moves on, making next halt near a statue of Rani Lakshmibai.
Dushyant Yadav (23), who says he has returned home to Jhansi after post-graduation from JNU in Delhi, speaks proudly about the town’s two heroes — Lakshmibai and the hockey star Dhyanchand. As Akhilesh refers to Dhyanchand’s skills and Lakshmibai’s valour, Dushyant says: “I am a supporter of Akhilesh’s politics. It is pro-development. He seems to be the future.”
However, Dushyant adds, the BJP will give him a tough fight. “They will do communal politics too. Seeing the crowd, it seems he will do well. But most of the people here are party workers or supporters.”
By 1.30 pm, Akhilesh’s bus is in Badagaon. Supporters here also wield the yellow flags of Mahaan Dal, led by Keshav Dev Maurya who commands support of the backward Maurya and Khushwaha community.
The Mahaan Dal is one of the many small parties the SP has aligned with – in a conscious decision to stay away from big partners. The SP alliance with the Congress is believed to have cost it in the 2017 Assembly polls, while in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the BSP is believed to have dragged it down.
The SP allies include the Rastriya Lok Dal (RLD) led by Jayant Chaudhury, Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party of Om Prakash Rajbhar and the Janwadi Party (Socialist) of Sanjay Chauhan. The RLD is strong in western UP, the region where the farmers’ agitation has been concentrated in the state; Rajbhar, a former BJP ally, is strong in eastern UP; while Chauhan and Maurya are expected to get the SP the non-Yadav OBC vote.
Manoj Parihar (45), a mason who says his village head sent him to Badagon, says the Kushwaha plus Yadav vote would sound the death knell for the BJP in the region. “I voted for the BJP in 2017 because they promised to make Keshav Prasad Maurya, who is a pichda (backward), the CM. Then, they made a Thakur (Adityanath) the CM and made Maurya his deputy. Which state has two deputy CMs (Dinesh Chandra Sharma is the second deputy CM)?” he asks, as people around him cheer in agreement.
Keshav Prasad has lately made some noises about the next CM choice not being decided in the BJP. However, both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah have publicly backed Adityanath.
Akhilesh’s bus is already off, and the next halt is at Chiragon, around 3 pm. Here, he talks about the death of protesting farmers at Lakhimpuri Kheri, comparing it to Jallianwala Bagh, and the “hardships” faced by migrant workers during Covid.
Speaking to The Sunday Express onboard the bus later, Akhilesh accuses the Adityanath government of “lies and deceit”. “They have manipulated all facts and figures,” he says.
The SP leader also claims that the BJP will ensure that work on the Ram temple remains unfinished. “They will contest the next two-three elections on that issue.”
The final halt, Moth, sees the biggest crowd yet for the day, with the sun by now much mellower. Loudspeakers blare songs taking off from the Trinamool Congress’s slogan for the West Bengal elections — “Khela hobe, khadedha hobe. Ab ke chunaav mein humarein voton ka rela hobe… UP mein khushiyon ka mela hobe (The game is on, change will happen. This time, in the elections, there will be a surge for the SP, a festival of happiness).” TMC chief Mamata Banerjee has declared support for the SP.
A local corporator, Naseeruddin Khan (52), says people from at least 200 villages are here to hear Akhilesh. “He supports the Muslim community. During the CAA-NRC protests, it was Akhilesh who gave compensation to those who died in police violence.”
Most of the vehicles parked outside the rally venue have SP flags, indicating they have been assembled by the party. Deep Narayan Singh (42), a local farmer, says he accompanied people from his village on the call of two-time SP MLA Garautha Deep Narayan Singh Yadav, who lost in 2017 to the BJP’s Jawahar Lal Rajpoot.
Around 4.30 pm, Akhilesh wraps up his speech, asking people “to increase the speed of the SP’s cycle”, and leaves to board a helicopter for Lucknow. People leave the ground amidst a swirl of dust and honking vehicles.
Some supporters linger around to chat. “Bheed toh aa rahi hai. Ab dekhna hai vote kitne milenge bhaiyya ko (The crowds are coming, but let’s see how many votes Akhilesh gets),” says Bahadur Yadav (48) from Hamirpur district.