Battling a Mahagathbandhan onslaught in Uttar Pradesh, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is banking on disunity among the Opposition and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s appeal to repeat its stellar performance in the 13 eastern UP seats that poll on May 19. In 2014, riding high on the Modi wave, the BJP had won all these seats. In Phase VII of polling, 59 seats across India are at stake — besides the 13 in UP, this includes all 13 in Punjab; all four constituencies in Himachal Pradesh; nine in West Bengal; eight each in Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, three in Jharkhand, and the lone seat in Chandigarh.
Varanasi, from where Modi is contesting for the second time, is among the 13 UP seats. Gorakhpur, considered UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s bastion, is another high-profile that will vote on May 19. Interestingly, it was in Gorakhpur where the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)-Samajwadi Party (SP) alliance or the Mahagathbandhan came together in March 2018 and defeated the BJP with a huge margin. The victory in this BJP stronghold as well is in one seat in western UP, and another in Phulpur (Allahabad) certified the Opposition’s caste-arithmetic based alliance.
In all the six phases held so far, the general sense on the ground in Uttar Pradesh is that the BJP is going to hold at least 25 of the 71 seats it won in the 2014 elections. Even BJP leaders admit that the party has struggled against the steely caste coalition of SP’s Yadavs and BSP’s Jatavs. However, in remaining 13 seats, it is the opposition alliance that looks uncertain.
In part this is because the Congress has either fielded rebels from SP and BSP or has put up candidates who are strong enough to play spoilsport for the Mahagathbandhan. In Deoria, Ghosi, and Ghazipur, Congress candidates are likely to chip into the votes of their former parties, whether it is the BSP or the SP. In Robertsganj, a reserved seat, BJP’s ally, Apna Dal has fielded Pakauri Lal who had contested on a SP ticket in 2014 from this seat.
However, it is not just the Congress that has fielded defectors from other parties. In Gorakhpur, BJP candidate Ravi Kishan (a Bhojpuri film star) had contested the 2014 elections on a Congress ticket from Jaunpur.
In Varanasi, the Congress walked away from a straight battle with Modi when it chose not to field Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi. Perhaps if the Mahagathbandhan and the Congress has put up a united candidate even if it was not a Gandhi, the message of unity would have helped in seats across UP and beyond. Instead, the SP candidate is a former mayoral candidate who was selected at the last minute, after the candidature of sacked CRPF jawan Tej Bahadur Yadav was rejected by the Election Commission of India.
Although it has become a sad truism that ‘vikas’ is not an issue in this election as much as is ‘Hindu religion is in danger’, nationalism and its corollary, Pakistan, the fact is that large parts of eastern UP remain areas of socio-economic darkness. Even within UP, which itself carries the highest burden of poverty, poor health and education indices, the 25-odd districts that make up eastern UP or Purvanchal, are some of the worst performers on human development indices.
In 2018, a study titled The State of Nutrition Among Children in Parliamentary Constituencies of India found that several districts in eastern UP contain the highest proportion of malnourished children in India — in fact, Varanasi was among the worst performers.
Though resource-rich, entrenched feudalism and lack of development has led to mass migration from these areas; the extent of poverty is palpable and yet it is not on the agenda for any political party. Needless to say it is those considered belonging to lower castes who bear the brunt of this socio-economic deprivation. It is also these sections that voted for the BJP enamoured as they were with its promise of ‘vikas’.
Politics in UP, especially in eastern UP, has always been about caste. Lately the BJP has used religion to ensnare Hindu voters through a systematic campaign of polarisation using the tropes of ‘Ali-Bajrangbali’, and charging opposition parties with Muslim appeasement and Pakistan-philia.
In 2014, the Modi wave wiped away caste differences and got the BJP votes from virtually the entire caste spectrum that makes up Hindu society. Even Yadavs and Jatavs who traditionally vote for the SP and BSP respectively, were carried away by Modi’s promise of development and jobs. However, as a local proverb goes, “kath ki handi chadhe na duji bar” (a wooden pot cannot be used twice’ — the party will have to convince the voter once again that it deserves a chance.
This time around, Modi and his party are contending with a consolidated Yadav-Jatav-Muslim unity, which is arithmetically stronger than the BJP’s traditional vote-bank of upper-castes and traders. However, the X-factor remains the numerous non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav Dalit SCs along with the Congress’ capacity to damage the BJP’s traditional upper-caste support.
Valay Singh is a Delhi-based journalist and author of Ayodhya: City of Faith, City of Discord. Views are personal.For more Opinion pieces, click here.