Between speeches and brainstorming sessions at the gathbandhan election office in Muzaffarnagar, a Samajwadi Party leader addresses a batch of women, the fourth for the day. The leader delivers the same, short five-minute speech focussing solely on one issue: the election symbol.
In his speech, Israr Alvi, the SP district president of the minorities cell, says: “Please remember. The candidate here is Ajit Singh of the RLD. To vote for him, you must press the handpump button (RLD’s symbol). Think like this, the handpump gives water and that water will wash away the BJP. There will be no haathi (BSP’s symbol) or cycle (SP’s symbol). Please remember.”
Three days before polling across eight western Uttar Pradesh constituencies on April 11, gathbandhan workers are hard at work, primarily in villages, to underline that their candidates are from different parties. Such “workshops”, as Alvi termed it, now dot the western UP landscape with instructions from the top to take no chances. Sources said teams of BSP, SP and RLD workers have been tasked solely to deal with the election symbol dilemma.
“The SP, BSP and RLD have a core support base who only know the party symbol. But this time, they have to vote for parties that have for decades campaigned against each other. There are training sessions like this all across western UP,” said Alvi.
And the importance of such “workshops” was evident after his speech, where he addressed women from the Kashyap community from Chandpur village. “But I don’t understand. My sister in Kairana said we should press the cycle symbol and now you tell us handpump. Which is it,” asked a woman.
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Even aboard buses ferrying people to and from the gathbandhan’s first rally in Deoband on Sunday, the symbol dominated conversations. On a bus from Purbaliyan village in Muzaffarnagar to the venue, a local BSP worker told a group of Dalit women: “I know you have been told to only press the haathi button. But this time, on the EVM, there will be no haathi, only handpump. For this election, just remember handpump means haathi.
BSP chief Mayawati even mentioned it in her speech on Sunday. “In UP, there is a gathbandhan of SP, BSP and RLD. There are separate candidates in each of your constituencies… Look for the haathi, cycle or handpump in your constituency and press the button for your candidate,” she said.
The problem is starker in Kairana, where the gathbandhan first tasted success after winning the 2018 bypolls. Then, Tabassum Hasan won the election on an RLD ticket, but a year later, has been nominated to Kairana on an SP ticket.
Hasan’s senior campaign functionary is RLD district chief Yogendra Singh. “Even last year, it took a lot of effort to convince people to press the handpump button. Now, our work has doubled because we have to convince the same voters to press the cycle button. It is easier this time because the candidate’s picture is on the EVM. But the core voters have had the election symbol drilled into their heads,” he said.
According to Singh, party workers have been directed to intensify this drive across the region with polling day approaching. “This is a problem. But a small one. We managed it in 2018 and we will manage it again this time,” he said.
In Kairana constituency’s Kudana village, Indu, a resident, said she has always looked for the haathi symbol. When her neighbour reminded her that she has to vote for the SP’s Tabassum, she replied, “Cycle? I have to choose the cycle? But they have always put down behenji. I will look for haathi. If there is no haathi, I’m not sure what I will do.”