On January 20, hundreds of Samajwadi Party workers led by former party MP Ramkishun rushed to Baburi Police Station in Chandauli district bordering Varanasi to demand an FIR against BJP MLA Sadhna Singh for her derogatory remarks against BSP chief Mayawati. To those looking to see if the SP and BSP could put behind 23 years of animosity to work together, this incident coming eight days after they announced an alliance was an encouraging sign. Ramkishun, who won narrowly in 2009 against the BSP candidate before trailing behind the BJP and BSP in 2014, may have had more immediate concerns — like a ticket with BSP support — but in Battle Uttar Pradesh 2019, now wide open with its new tie-ups (SP-BSP) and new sign-ups (Priyanka Gandhi), the BJP would have taken note.
Five years after seeking a vote for change, both at the state and in the Centre, it is the BJP, with Ram temple back on the table, that is fighting the fatigue factor. And the Opposition that, seemingly, has a spring in its step. However, can the SP plus the BSP and its presumed plus one, the Congress, subtract enough from the BJP’s tally of 71/80 seats in 2014 to decide who rules Delhi?
Trick lies in BSP, SP going beyond own vote banks
UP’s 80 Lok Sabha seats will decide who forms the next government at the Centre. SP and BSP coming together after 25 years marks a major political realignment, but while this seems to be working with their traditional vote banks, what will prove crucial is whether they can extend this beyond, especially when BJP, despite some attrition, seems to be holding on to its hardcore supporters. As for the other claimed game-changer, the entry of Priyanka, Congress can expect some gains in pockets where it won in 2009.
Or will that traditional political wisdom against alliances hold true again — “Neta mile hain, janta nahin… Dal mile hain, dil nahin (It’s the leaders, parties who have joined… not the public or hearts).”
The swathe of green wheat fields dotted with patches of yellow of the mustard crop bears a calm contrast to the political churning and calculations that have begun in all major political, economic and even cultural centres since Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav announced the BSP-SP alliance on January 12.
But there is no doubt in the minds of the staunch vote banks of the two parties, across 11 Lok Sabha seats—Mohanlalganj, Barabanki, Dhaurahra, Sitapur, Kheri, Shahjahanpur, Hardoi, Misrikh, Unnao, Akbarpur, Fatehpur — comprising 58 Assembly segments, that The Sunday Express travelled through. These Lok Sabha constituencies near capital Lucknow have a mix of population, including a sizeable chunk of Dalit votes.
“If the SP and BSP are in alliance, I will vote for the BSP. Why not?” asks an elderly Lal Bahadur Yadav in Bhuhera village in the Barabanki Lok Sabha seat. With the sowing operations for the Rabi crop over, there are many from this village lazing around the roadside tea stall where he is sitting. It’s not only they who echo Lal Bahadur but Yadavs across the 11 constituencies.
“I will vote for the gathbandhan (SP-BSP). I have no objection voting for the bicycle (the SP’s election symbol). It will get deposited with the elephant (the BSP’s symbol), isn’t it?” says Rambujh, a Dalit in his late 30s at Lakhimpur Kheri town, voicing what the BSP’s traditional voters repeat across the constituencies.
This bonhomie, for now, appears untainted by both the Guest House episode of 1995 — with Mayawati at the receiving end of a violent attack by SP supporters — and the allegations of misuse of the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act against Yadavs during Mayawati’s regime. The faith in this arithmetic is bolstered by the three-on-three success rate the gathbandhan has had with the tie-up experiment so far — in the bypoll contests for Gorakhpur, Phulpur and Kairana Lok Sabha seats in 2018.
Basking in the winter sun at Ganj-Muradabad in the Bangarmau Assembly segment of Unnao Lok Sabha seat, Raju Khan harks back to the results in the Gorakhpur and Phulpur seats, vacated by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and Deputy CM Keshav Prasad Maurya respectively. “The BJP lost both seats. It lost MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh despite a relatively small share of Muslim votes there. They will lose very badly here,” he says.
The BJP argues it won’t be that simple. “Except in UP and, to a lesser extent, Karnataka, the arithmetic does not appear to be any significantly different from 2014. The whole emphasis in these two states is on caste coalitions. Vote transferability in such caste coalitions is not so simple. Local chemistries react differently. Many of these combinations end up as theoretical propositions,” senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley wrote on January 21.
However, Jaitley too agreed that the BJP was looking at a tough climb: “The BJP and NDA have to be prepared for a battle for 50 per cent vote in a direct fight contest.”
That BJP calculation comes not just from the realisation that there will be at least some accretion of SP and BSP votes. It also comes from the knowledge that the party will lose some votes since the 2014 Modi wave.
Most people who say they will vote for the BJP in 2019 say they had also voted for it in 2014 and the 2017 Assembly polls. But, across social groups and age gaps, many who had voted for the BJP last two times say they would prefer the SP-BSP this time.
“I voted for Modi in the Modi lehar (wave). Now it is not there,” says Dhirendra Pasi of Dharnar village in the Sitapur Assembly segment of Dhaurahra Lok Sabha constituency.
This support that Narendra Modi’s popularity had earned the BJP even among communities such as Yadavs and Dalits — widely associated with the SP and BSP — had been a big factor in the party’s crushing win of 2014 in UP. In the absence of the Modi wave, many of these voters are drifting away, citing reasons varying from local grievances to the BJP forgetting Ram temple till now.
The 2014 results show that this double whammy, of SP-BSP votes coming together and the attrition among BJP voters, could make the BJP vulnerable in theoretically 53 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats won by it (excluding 5 won by the SP). In 36 of these seats, the SP and BSP had together polled more votes than the BJP. In 17 others, the SP, BSP votes had trailed behind the BJP’s by less than 10 per cent.
BSP, SP supporters cite the bypoll wins in 2018 when the two parties came together. The BJP lost despite having won the three seats in 2014 with more than 50 per cent of the votes — Gorakhpur (51.8 per cent), Phulpur (52.43 per cent) and Kairana (50.4 per cent).
The BJP’s hopes of Akhilesh’s rebel uncle Shivpal Yadav confusing the SP voter base seem misplaced too. Across constituencies, he is not even a consideration for the Yadavs. In face of this, the BJP is banking on the public’s past experience of such disparate alliances. “The Opposition’s alliance is not based on any ideology. The electorate knows that they will flop, like the Opposition flopped in 1989 and 1996 (at the Centre). Their slogan is ‘Modi Hatao’, our slogan is ‘Garibi Hatao’,” says UP Law Minister Brajesh Pathak.
BJP leaders also claim that the party will more than make up the gap created by its declining votes, by the votes it will gain among people who have benefited from its policies. They cite Ujjwala (LPG cylinders), Saubhahya (power connections), PM Awaas Yojana (housing), Swachh Bharat (toilets) and the recently launched health insurance scheme.
Says UP Power Minister Shrikant Sharma, “Modi has made a grand alliance with the three crore poor people of the state. We derive our strength from beneficiaries of our welfare initiatives.”
Ultimately, the BJP hopes, when it comes down to the wire, it is this Modi factor that will kick in. Writing last week, Jaitley said, “If a second term for PM Modi is the issue, it is advantage BJP. The election will be more presidential.”
This edge that Modi enjoys, over an Opposition that hopes to leave the PM tussle for later, is clearest among the upper caste voters. Listing
the Modi government’s achievements, Jitendra Dubey, a Brahmin in his 40s at Bilanda village in Fatehpur Lok Sabha constituency says, “Corruption has gone down, law and order has improved, there is no discrimination on caste lines.”
Incidentally, the BJP appears to have made no visible gain from the recently announced 10 per cent quota for EWS among the general category. If the upper castes make only a passing mention of it, among the beneficiaries of existing reservations who could have borne
some grudge, like SCs/STs/OBCs, the 10 per cent quota — yet to be implemented on the ground — is so far not a talking point. Neither, insists the BJP, is Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. Since the Congress announced her formal entry into politics, from an area in which falls Modi’s constituency, the party has made no bones about the fact that it hopes to pit its debatable trump card against the BJP’s. “Priyanka Gandhi’s one speech in Rae Bareli had made Arun Nehru lose his election in 1999. Her campaign in Bellary got Sushma Swaraj packing.
That is why there is panic among other parties,” says UP Congress spokesperson Akhilesh Pratap Singh. Playing down Priyanka’s effect, Shrikant Sharma says, “She has been in politics for long. Yuvraj (Rahul Gandhi) has failed, that is why they had to get Priyanka.” Many believe, and the BJP asserts, that Priyanka would end up hurting the SP-BSP. The Congress won 21 Lok Sabha seats in the state in
2009, and Priyanka’s presence could bolster the Congress as a serious contender here — cutting into the BSP-SP numbers. Among those debating between the SP-BSP and Congress now are the Muslims. In Ganj-Muradabad town in Unnao Lok Sabha constituency, Karimullah, who is in his 60s, asserts, “We want the Congress at the Centre. If the Congress looks in contest, we will vote for the Congress.”
Ruling out that Priyanka’s entry will hurt them, SP MLC Udaiveer Singh says, “She was in politics earlier too. Our social base, organisation and agenda are committed and clear.”
He also insists that the BSP and SP deliberately kept the Congress out of the alliance. “Our agenda is to ensure justice for Dalits, backwards, oppressed…,” says Udaiveer Singh. “Our alliance is sufficient to champion this.”
But, maybe not. Where the BSP-SP is coming up short is making that crossover from its own support base of Yadavs, Dalits and Muslims to attracting votes from other groups.
In the caste-determined electoral loyalties of UP, the 2014 Modi wave was as much about the votes the BJP mopped up among communities outside the politically dominant Brahmins, Rajputs, Yadavs, Jats and Jatavs — most crucially the Extremely Backward Castes (EBCs). While their euphoria for the BJP appears to have waned, it hasn’t shifted to the SP-BSP over Modi either.
During a discussion in Mohammdi Assembly segment of Dhaurahra constituency, as voices are raised for and against Modi, Shyamu Prajapati, Sushil Sharma and Rakesh Pal, belonging to EBC groups, are muted in their support for the BJP. At Moharkalan village in
Mohanlalganj Lok Sabha constituency, Maykhulal Pal and Mahesh Kumar Parajapati don’t denounce the BJP either, despite being troubled by the stray cattle menace. They may still be watching how the politically better organised communities shape the poll battle-field in coming days.
The BSP-SP is counting on the fact that it is early days yet, with just 15 days since the alliance was announced, and hope that EBCs would be among the undecided voters who will move towards them eventually. Claiming to have crossed the hump of ticket distribution already — announcing the alliance, Akhilesh and Maya said they would contest 38 seats each — one of the ways the BSP and SP hope to woo EBCs is by offering them seats.
The leaderships of both the parties are believed to have already identified the seats each would contest, and the prominent leaders who could pose a problem. The SP leadership, in particular, has begun patient talks to keep them from rocking the boat.
Meanwhile, one issue that SP, BSP supporters have caught onto is the stray cattle problem — several districts have been seeing protests by farmers. However, while this has given SP-BSP workers a talking point, BJP supporters are not entirely convinced. Jitendra Singh, a Rajput in his 30s at Shivrajpur village in Misrikh Lok Sabha seat, says “After all, these animals have not been let loose by the government. We have left our own cattle.” Others point out that, even if late, the Yogi government has realised the need for more cattle shelters.
It also remains to be seen whether the cattle issue will remain relevant come polls. By then, the Rabi crop would have been harvested.