After close to six weeks of electioneering, 13 parliamentary constituencies in eastern Uttar Pradesh will vote in the seventh and final phase on 19 May. It’s a three-corner contest with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) going head to head with the newly formed alliance between arch rivals Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), and the Congress bringing up the rear.
In terms of arithmetic based on the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, votes could go towards the grand alliance, but the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is likely to counter this. In fact, going by what voters say, Modi’s popularity could even override caste considerations, which usually sway votes in the state.
“There is no doubt that it is a tough election for the BJP, but Narendra Modi should not worry. He will be the prime minister. The influence of the SP-BSP alliance is limited," said Abhay Kushwaha, 26, who lives in Maudhiyan village in Ghazipur, and is looking for a job.
For the youth, jobs and nationalism are key issues. “I am rather confused. Rising unemployment is a problem that the current government seems to be ignoring, but national security is another issue and the BJP has acted on that. I support demonetization, but don’t think it ended corruption or hoarding of black money," said Lal Bahadur, 26, a resident of Chandauli, pursuing a postgraduate degree in economics at Varanasi’s Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapith.
In 2014, the combined vote share of SP and BSP was more than the BJP’s vote share in most seats in east UP, excluding Varanasi where Modi won. Five years later, Modi’s popularity remains high in the region.
The challenge for the SP-BSP combine is to ensure its supporters on the ground are able to join hands as the party leadership has and, once again, overcome the electoral might of the BJP. They managed it in the bypolls in Gorakhpur and Phulpur, but doing it statewide in a national election could be a challenge for the alliance.
For the Congress, the appointment of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra as general secretary in-charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh has galvanized the cadres. Varanasi Congress candidate Ajay Rai admitted that there was some disappointment that she decided not to contest, but says her entry has “strengthened the organization and enthused Congress not just in Benaras, but also in other parts of the state".
He said that the lack of an alliance could split votes. “Congress is fighting against the BJP at the national level and UP is no different. It is true that the gathbandhan is damaging the Congress, but we are trying to perform well in the election," he added.
In 2014, BJP had won 71 of the 80 seats in UP, while Congress was reduced to just two. In eastern UP, the BJP had won all 13 seats that will go to the polls on Sunday. The party is trying to retain these seats while repeating its 2014 performance, which was its best-ever in the state. NDA ally Apna Dal won two seats in 2014. Last time, voters were divided between SP, BSP and Congress, and all three parties fared poorly.
Among the heavyweights in the fray are Union minister Manoj Sinha from Ghazipur constituency, BJP’s state president Mahendra Nath Pandey from Chandauli constituency, and Union minister Anupriya Patel of Apna Dal from Mirzapur.
But it’s clear that the individual candidates don’t count. “This election is about PM Narendra Modi versus all other political parties," said Pandey. “The ground situation is that the alliance between SP and BSP has weakened. There is conflict between the alliance partners; there is no national agenda for the alliance. We are going to retain all seats we won in 2014, and we will defeat Akhilesh Yadav in Azamgarh."
The BJP’s question about who the opposition’s prime ministerial candidate does rile up some voters. “Why can’t Mayawati become PM? Did BJP announce its chief ministerial candidate during the Uttar Pradesh election? Yogi Adityanath became CM after the elections. If Mayawati cannot be PM, why is there a grand alliance?" said Mohammed Shakir, an automobile shop owner from Bhitri village in Ghazipur.
CASTE AND CHOICE
Both the BJP and the SP-BSP combine are trying to woo the weaker sections of the society, but caste affiliations influence the way people vote. “Uttar Pradesh is all about caste, it is sad but caste matters a lot to people," said Kushwaha from Ghazipur constituency. Loknath Patel, a 42-year-old farmer from Bajahan village in Mirzapur constituency, said: “Caste is a major problem, but people know that Modi can work and deliver."
For those who support Modi, questions about his performance are countered with more questions. “Unemployment is a problem, but it did not start in the last five years. It was a problem earlier also. Why do people expect one leader to solve all problems in just five years?" said A.K. Pathak, a doctor who lives in Mirzapur.
BJP is banking on the NDA government’s flagship programmes, such as Ujjwala for subsidized cooking gas, Subhagaya for electricity connections, Swachh Bharat for sanitation and PM-Kisan, which gives ₹6,000 to small and marginal farmers, to increase its voter base. But some voters believe delivery of schemes should have been better.
“The Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) groups benefitted the most from this government. They got everything from gas to electricity. The PM is working for them. In time, they will also get houses from the government," said Pathak from Mirzapur.
Then there are those who are disillusioned by the difference between promises and reality. “We have got toilets and gas cylinders, but what is the use? There is no water for the toilet and gas is so expensive," said Dina Nath, 50, who lives in Jaunsra village in Mirzapur constituency.
“People are not looking at the candidate, there is only one person who will get votes. People are looking at Narendra Modi. No BJP leader can contest against the grand alliance; they are all dependent on Modi," said Loknath from Bajahan village in Mirzapur.
Get latest election news and live updates on Elections 2019 here