Deoband/Hapur/Aligarh: “Even if there is only an empty chair as a representative of (Narendra) Modi, we will vote for that chair. Modi is the most popular leader, people voted for him in 2014 and the support has not vanished. The rise in crime and the inability of police to control it has angered people even more against Akhilesh Yadav,” said Rajbir Singh, a 35-year-old from Gangoh constituency in Uttar Pradesh.
This is the sentiment—towards Modi—that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is looking to harness in the upcoming polls in the state. But there is a hitch: Akhilesh Yadav, the incumbent chief minister, who too is popular among sections of the electorate and is pumped up after having upstaged the rival faction in the Samajwadi Party (SP).
The sub-text of this Modi-Akhilesh Yadav face-off is development. For Modi, it has been his calling card and something he employed brilliantly to tap into the aspirations of a restless electorate in 2014. To his credit, he has continued to back an agenda of development in his two-and-a-half years at the helm.
On the other hand, for Akhilesh Yadav, it has emerged as his signature claim to complement his image as the youngest chief minister of the state and shake off the popular perception of belonging to a party considered soft on lawlessness.
But no electoral story in Uttar Pradesh is complete without the complex play of religious and caste configurations. While development (and more recently demonetization) may be top of the mind, ethnic and religious influences on voters cannot be underestimated. This is apparent in western Uttar Pradesh, going to polls in the first two phases of the elections on 11 and 15 February.
Western Uttar Pradesh
This region is crucial to BJP in its play for power in the state. The party is hoping to repeat its performance in the 16th general election—when it won all the Lok Sabha seats from the region. In fact, party president Amit Shah said in a recent interview that he expects to win at least 90 seats in the first two phases of the assembly elections.
That Modi had gone to Mathura and Saharanpur to celebrate the first and second anniversaries of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government is an indicator of the importance the party is giving to western Uttar Pradesh and Rohilkhand regions.
Apart from Modi’s popularity, another big reason for the BJP’s confidence is the support from Jats. The community, which has traditionally backed Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), plays a decisive role in this region. It had swung BJP’s way after the communal riots in Muzaffarnagar in 2013.
Of the 140 seats going to polls in the first two phases of polls in Uttar Pradesh, BJP has given 56 tickets to Other Backward Class (OBC) candidates, including 15 tickets to Jats and four to Gurjar community members. Similarly, out of the total 370 candidates announced by the BJP, it has given 31 tickets to Kurmis, 25 to Koeris and 20 tickets to Lodhs, all of whom are OBCs.
“It is operationalization of BJP’s social engineering strategy at the grassroots level. Earlier, during the 2014 elections, BJP looked at OBC leaders like Anupriya Patel, but this time the strategy of giving tickets to OBC candidates has trickled down to the grassroots level,” said A.K. Verma, a political science professor at Christ Church College in Kanpur.
Modi’s appeal continues to be strong in the region.
“Akhilesh Yadav is a good leader but he didn’t do much for more than three years. It is only in the last two years of the government that he started working. Development is the main issue before the people. While notebandi (note ban) can work against BJP, crime and the prevailing law and order situation are major problems in the state because of political patronage. Lack of employment remains a major issue against the SP government,” said 50-year-old Surender Singh, a dairy owner from Shahpur village in Garhmukteshwar constituency.
The Muslim factor
“Politicians are doing politics but Muslims are making strategy. Most people think that Muslim votes will get divided which will benefit BJP, but the community has decided to vote for that candidate or party who would defeat BJP. Muslims will vote tactically against the BJP,” said Mohammed Habib, a 47-year-old soft drink dealer in Sikandara Rao constituency, close to Etah.
Constituting 18.5% population, Muslims play a decisive role in electing a government in Lucknow. Although the community is spread across the state, it has a decisive voice in at least 122 of the 403 constituencies where it accounts for a fifth of the population and in some constituencies accounts for as much as 50%. At the moment there are 63 MLAs—all of whom, barring two, belong to the SP—in the assembly.
“The Muslim vote is getting divided mainly between Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) because people want security. People are angry with Samajwadi Party because it has not selected good Muslim candidates to contest this time. People feel that their representation in the assembly could get affected. Muslims are also upset with SP because of the riots in Muzaffarnagar and the inability of the state government to either control the situation or bring relief to the victims,” said Mohammed Imran Ghazi, a 25-year-old master’s student of philosophy at Aligarh Muslim University.
The importance of the community can be gauged from the fact that BSP chief Mayawati, has fielded 97 Muslim candidates this time, the highest ever by the party. During the previous election in 2012, Mayawati had given tickets to 85 Muslim candidates.
“If Muslim votes are getting divided between SP and BSP at the constituency level then it will benefit BJP,” said Sanjay Kumar, a political analyst and director at the New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.