Updated: June 28, 2022 9:33:09 am
Without Akhilesh Yadav at the helm of its campaign and facing an aggressive campaign by the BJP, the Samajwadi Party (SP) lost the Lok Sabha by-elections in Rampur and Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh that were once considered its strongholds. The Bahujan Samaj Party’s (BSP) strong performance in Azamgarh heavily damaged the SP.
By winning both the bypolls, the BJP on Sunday strengthened its already-dominant position in the state ahead of the urban local body elections that are due later this year and the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. The ruling party also dealt a crippling blow to the Opposition party whose tally in the Lok Sabha is now down to three. These losses will not only be a blow to the morale of the workers of the Akhilesh Yadav-led party but also weaken it ahead of next month’s presidential elections in which the party is backing the Opposition’s consensus candidate.
The elections are also likely to raise questions about Akhilesh Yadav’s absence from campaigning in both Azamgarh, where his cousin Dharmendra Yadav was the contestant, and in Rampur the once bastion of senior SP leader Azam Khan now in the hands of the BJP. The veteran leader is also likely to face questions about his position in the party following this defeat as he had to negotiate hard with Akhilesh to give the candidature to his longtime associate Asim Raja.
Though the BSP could not win Azamgarh — it did not contest Rampur — its candidate Shah Alam, popularly known as Guddu Jamali, got 2.66 lakh votes and effectively ended Dharmendra Yadav’s chances. Jamali is a two-time MLA from the constituency’s Mubarakpur Assembly segment. Reacting to the results, BSP president Mayawati said they had “shown that only the BSP has theoretical and ground strength to defeat the BJP”. She added the party would keep reaching out to Muslims “for a much-awaited political change in the state”.
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Like Akhilesh, Mayawati too stayed away from the campaign. For the BJP, putting its entire might into the campaign paid off as Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and almost his entire Cabinet canvassed for the party’s candidates in both seats on the plank of development and welfare benefits.
The SP won the constituency in the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections despite a wave of support across the country for the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Even in the state elections earlier this year, it won all the five Assembly segments in Azamgarh. But this time, the parliamentary constituency fell to the BJP as its candidate Dinesh Lal Yadav “Nirahua”, who lost to Akhilesh in 2019, ended up being second-time lucky.
Given the dominance of Dalits, Muslims, and Yadavs in the 18-lakh-strong electorate of Azamgarh, the SP and the BSP were considered to be the main contenders in Azamgarh. But Nirahua, who drew large crowds of youth during campaigning, managed to take advantage of the Mayawati-led party eroding away the SP’s support base. The popular Bhojpuri actor-singer defeated Dharmendra Yadav by 8,679 votes and with a vote share of 34.39 per cent, slightly lower than the 35.1 per cent he had polled last time. The SP’s vote share slid from 60.36 per cent to 33.44 per cent, illustrating the damage caused by the BSP.
Even though Azamgarh was an important seat for the party and it was crucial for it to give the impression of turning things around after the Assembly elections setback earlier this year, the SP leadership did not seem to make any concerted effort to consolidate Muslim and Yadav votes. Akhilesh also not turning up for the campaign did not help matters. The SP president had faced criticism during the initial period of the Covid-19 pandemic for not visiting the constituency.
The party deployed its Muslim MLAs from other districts such as Ghazipur, Rampur, and even Maharashtra to campaign in the constituency. But a local like Jamali gained more traction with the locals, fuelling an insider versus outsider talk in the run-up to election day. The SP’s alleged silence on Muslim issues also seemed to not go down well with Muslim voters.
Considered the citadel of Azam Khan, the SP left campaigning in Rampur to the veteran leader and his supporters, hoping they would ensure the party’s victory. But the BJP, which won two of the five Assembly segments in the state polls earlier this year, did not throw in the towel and mobilised its entire top leadership to storm Azam’s bastion.
At least 16 state ministers reached out to voters in Rampur, where almost 52 per cent of voters are Muslims. But a low turnout of 41.39 per cent (63.19 per cent had voted in the 2019 polls when Azam was elected) aided the ruling party as it managed to increase its vote share from 42.33 per cent in 2019 to 51.96 per cent. The SP’s vote share meanwhile declined from 52.69 per cent to 46 per cent. After polling on Thursday, Azam and other leaders accused the police of intimidating voters and not allowing Muslim voters to move out to cast their votes.
Some locals claimed that a section of Muslim voters also did not show interest in the bypoll as the candidate was not from Azam’s family. The veteran leader campaigned for Raja and tried to garner sympathy by narrating the hardships he and his family faced in prison. But the strategy failed in front of the BJP juggernaut and the SP leader could not benefit from the decision of the BSP and the Congress to not contest the election. With the BSP not in the fray, political observers said several Dalit voters chose the BJP. This helped the ruling party wrest control of the constituency.
Commenting on the loss, an SP leader said, “The leadership now needs to review its political strategy of reaching out to different sections of voters and it also needs to revamp its team of counsellors.”
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