The electoral math in Mayawati's home turf of Bundelkhand has been roiled by the popularity of Akhilesh Yadav and Prime Minister Narendra Modi
Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh: Somewhere between Jhansi and Lalitpur, a group of 15 people have gathered near a motorcycle that veered off the road in Mehroni village. A black Bolero, with “UP 100" written across its sides, reaches the spot and two policemen alight from the vehicle to investigate.
“Earlier we would wait for hours for the police to show up. But now their presence on the roads makes us feel safe," says 65-year-old Badri Mohammad, a tailor in Lalitpur. Launched in November 2016 by Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav, the UP 100 Police Emergency Management System is the Samajwadi Party government’s response to the charge of deteriorating law and order across the state.
The big question, however, is whether in Bundelkhand, part of Phase-4 which goes to polls on Thursday, the personal popularity of Akhilesh Yadav will be sufficient to overcome anti-incumbency and the political challenge posed by Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in what is considered her home turf. Further roiling the electoral math is the third political force Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose narrative is spun around the still-popular Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The profile of Bundelkhand, a chronically drought-prone region, has risen since the last assembly poll in 2012 with top leaders from various political parties frequenting the area. In the 2012 polls, the Samajwadi Party, Congress and the BJP had won five, four and three of the 19 seats in this region, while the BSP took seven.
However, the BJP swept the region during the 2014 Lok Sabha election, and continues to be popular. With BSP being the dominant party in the region, Modi has been trying to gain ground in Bundelkhand by reaching out to other backward classes (OBCs).
Reiterating his pro-farmer agenda, Narendra Modi launched his flagship Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojana from Mahoba in October 2016. In response, two months later Akhilesh Yadav inaugurated five solar power projects totalling 105 megawatts (MWs) in Mahoba and Lalitpur. Meanwhile, both the centre and the state have provided monetary relief to Bundelkhand which has suffered from prolonged rural distress.
“It is for the first time that this region has received attention from a chief minister. We were given compensation when the drought hit us and this area will also be made a model city," said 32-year-old Ajay Yadav, a farmer in Mahoba’s Charkhari, who received a compensation of Rs20,000 for his five acre land from the state government.
Similarly, to counter the centre’s “Smart City" plan, the SP government’s “model cities" plan features seven cities, three of which— Mahoba, Chitrakoot and Charkhari—fall in the Bundelkhand region.
It is for the first time that this region (Bundelkhand) has received attention from a chief minister. We were given compensation when the drought hit us and this area will also be made a model city- Ajay Yadav, farmer in Mahoba’s Charkhari village
Akhilesh vs Modi
While Akhilesh Yadav’s success in overcoming political rivals in the family has added to his allure, the CM has been careful to project a development-oriented agenda aimed at youth, women and farmers. His campaign tagline, kaam bolta hai (work speaks for itself) is resonating among sections of the electorate in Bundelkhand.
“We have been BJP supporters but Akhilesh bhaiya ka kaam bolta hai. Had the Election Commission not given him the cycle symbol, we would have still supported him," said Ramesh Kumar Tiwari, a 60-year-old farmer in Lalitpur’s Mehroni.
However, Akhilesh Yadav is finding it difficult to shed the governance baggage associated with the SP.
For 50-year-old Anil Kumar Gill, a rickshaw puller in Babina, Jhansi, the public wants Akhilesh Yadav and not SP “goons."
We have been BJP supporters but Akhilesh bhaiya ka kaam bolta hai. Had the Election Commission not given him the cycle symbol, we would have still supported him- Ramesh Kumar Tiwari, farmer in Lalitpur’s Mehroni village
“Akhilesh acha raja hai, uski praja use badnam kar rahi hai. (Akhilesh is a good king but the people of his party bring him a bad name)," said Gill, who plans to support the BJP this time.
On the other hand, Narendra Modi’s pitch for development for all, his surgical strikes in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and zero tolerance to black money and corruption, especially the high-profile step to demonetize high-value currency in November last year, has people talking about the Prime Minister’s decisiveness. He has also been successful in capturing the youth’s imagination and aspirations with his oratory.
“Modi has things in control. He took a tough stand on demonetisation and the surgical strike and proved himself. He connects with people in his rallies. We were impressed with his development agenda in 2014 and will support him again," said 18-year-old Bhanu Pratap, a first-time voter from Babina in Jhansi. But some differ too. The hardships caused by demonetisation, particularly for farmers in this region, has turned people away from the BJP.
“Last year this area received a good monsoon after years of drought but we could not buy sufficient seeds on time as demonetisation was announced during the sowing period. Gram seeds earlier available for Rs400-500 per quintal went up to Rs1000-1100," complained Rajbir Ahir, a 42-year-old farmer in Charkhari in Mahoba.
He connects with people in his rallies. We were impressed with his development agenda in 2014 and will support him again- Bhanu Pratap, first-time voter from Babina, Jhansi
The Dalit factor
The development agenda aside, one cannot negate the role of religious and caste identities in this election—something that the BSP is banking on. Mayawati’s caste arithmetic to stitch together a combination of her loyal Dalit voter base and Muslims, whose support was key to the BSP’s first majority government in 2007, could roil her rivals’ electoral calculations.
As per the 2011 census, Dalits constitute 20.7% while Muslims account for 18.5% of the state’s population and Mayawati has fielded 99 Muslim (the highest ever by BSP in UP) and 87 scheduled caste candidates to tap this vote bank.
“If the country is free, then shouldn’t all its citizens also be free? We get different services from different parties but only Behenji has been able to give us a life of dignity," said Ram Das Aherwal, a 50-year-old farmer from Lalitpur’s Mehroni.
Despite an intact Dalit vote base and a section of Muslims gravitating towards BSP, the party has not been able to draw new voters. Worse, BJP has begun to gnaw at the party’s vote bank of non-Yadav OBCs.
“While the alliance (SP-Congress) has an edge in this election, BJP is not far behind. Nishads, Pals, Kewats, Rajbhars and other non-Yadav OBCs along with non-Jatav Dalit voters—especially the Pasi community—have turned to the BJP from BSP. Though BSP might bite into the alliance’s share of Muslim votes, it won’t be a significant dent," said Ramesh Dixit, Lucknow-based political analyst.
Mayawati has fielded 99 Muslim (the highest ever by BSP in UP) and 87 scheduled caste candidates to tap this vote bank- Ram Das Aherwal, farmer from Lalitpur’s Mehroni