Uttar Pradesh: BJP on a sticky wicket, Congress-SP confident of gains

There is simmering anger among people over unemployment, inflation and sitting MPs re-contesting, some for the third time

From left: Priyanka Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, and Akhilesh Yadav at a rally in Raebareli on 17 May
From left: Priyanka Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, and Akhilesh Yadav at a rally in Raebareli on 17 May

AJ Prabal

Polling in 53 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in Uttar Pradesh is over. The last two phases on 25 May and 1 June cover as many as 27 constituencies. With closer contests than in 2019, the BJP leaders’ confidence in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘election management’, popular appeal and the Ram temple effect remains unimpaired.

The Opposition is equally confident that the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance is working much better than in 2017 (when they allied for the Assembly election). In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the SP-BSP alliance bagged 15 seats and the Congress just one. This time, both parties are hoping for a very different outcome.

Their hopes are not entirely misplaced. There is simmering anger among people over unemployment, inflation and sitting MPs re-contesting, some for the third time. The BJP’s spin on labharthis (beneficiaries of government welfare schemes) has been neutralised by the PM’s failure to sort out the menace of chhutta pashu (stray cattle). Marauding hordes of cattle have been destroying standing crops and seriously injuring farmers who guard their fields even at night.

Modi had announced during the Assembly election in 2022 that he had the perfect solution to the problem but was unable to announce or implement it because the Model Code of Conduct was in force! Apparently, it would be implemented immediately after the election and farmers would find it so attractive that they would vie with each other to keep and feed the stray cattle at home.

While free rations are working in the BJP’s favour, the issue of reservations for OBCs, Dalits and tribals is working against it. Several BJP leaders, including the party’s sitting MP from Ayodhya, Lallu Singh, have publicly spoken about changing the Constitution and putting an end to reservations. Accusations and denials are rife. The Dalit vote in Purvanchal is decisive and can tilt the outcome, agree observers.

The BJP had banked upon the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Instead, anecdotal evidence from several constituencies suggests that Dalits have opted to vote for the INDIA bloc. If the trend continues in the remaining rounds of polling, the BJP has reason to worry. Akhilesh Yadav’s call to rally the PDA (Pichhda-Dalits-Aadhi Abaadi) has had less traction in the media, but results will show if it has worked.

At the start of the elections in mid-April, the most optimistic assessment was that the Opposition would do well to restrict the BJP to its previous tally of 62 seats won in 2019. By the end of the fifth phase, the consensus is that the Opposition appeared poised to improve its tally from six last time (10 were won by the BSP, five by the SP and one by the Congress) to anywhere between 15 and 25, excluding seats won by the BSP.

Women voters remain the X factor. While most observers seem to believe that being devout, they would vote for the BJP on the Ram temple issue, naysayers argue that women who have been bearing the brunt of inflation and lack of sustainable jobs for their children in villages are more likely to vote on bread-and-butter issues.

Promises made by UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath and visiting campaigners like Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma of wresting Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and building another temple in Mathura are cutting little ice, claim SP-Congress alliance leaders. Ajay Rai, the Congress candidate from Varanasi, also appears to be pinning his hopes on the direct contests this time as opposed to the triangular contests of 2019.

Has RSS withdrawn its support?

The RSS has reportedly been inactive on the ground. While both RSS and BJP leaders have explained the absence of RSS volunteers by claiming that they were needed elsewhere as UP is already ‘secure’, BJP president J.P. Nadda’s statement in an interview to the Indian Express suggests other-wise: “Shuru mein hum aksham honge, thoda kum honge, RSS ki zaroorat padtithiAaj hum badh gaye hain, saksham hain… toh BJP apne aap ko chalati hai (In the beginning, we were less capable and needed the RSS. Today, we have grown, we are capable… so the BJP runs itself).”

Writing in the Print, Nagpur-based journalist Vivek Deshpande pointed out that Nadda could not have made such a statement without approval from the prime minister and the home minister. It was, he wrote, the BJP’s declaration of independence from the Sangh. Irked at being sidelined, the Sangh had decided to leave the BJP to its own devices in this election and were thus conspicuous by their absence.

Rumours about the rift between the RSS and the BJP have been circulating for several months and are now in the open. RSS watcher Rakesh Pathak from Gwalior pointed out that Modi has not visited the RSS headquarters even once after becoming prime minister in 2014.

The strains in the relationship were evident when Modi downgraded the importance of the party’s organising secretary, traditionally lent by the RSS to coordinate between the Sangh and the government. Earlier, the organising secretary interacted directly with PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee but Modi insisted that he report to Union home minister Amit Shah instead.

Pathak had also emphasised RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s statement earlier this year that the RSS would not celebrate its centenary in 2025. He also claimed that since 2015, when PM Modi and his cabinet ministers called on Bhagwat at Haryana Bhavan in Delhi, the two had never met except at public functions like the consecration of the Ram temple.

The confidence, or rather over-confidence of the BJP, rests on last time’s massive margins. However, it discounts core voters’ relative indifference at its own peril. There is also anti-incumbency against several sitting MPs, while several BJP candidates have gone on record to complain about internal sabotage.

Wild speculation abounds regarding the role of the Election Commission and its returning officers. The rejection of as many as 33 nomination papers in Modi's constituency Varanasi on somewhat flimsy grounds has drawn criticism.

This election promises to be historic in more ways than one. The results will be crucial for the political future of Yogi Adityanath as well as Mayawati and the BSP.

While Ajay Rai’s claim that the SP-Congress alliance is all set to spring a surprise by winning over 50 seats and Akhilesh Yadav’s statement that the alliance could win all but one of the 80 seats (that of the pradhan sevak’s in Varanasi) are obviously being dismissed as hyperbolic, the PM’s post after the fifth phase that the NDA is now certain of a landslide victory, especially in Uttar Pradesh, may have been necessary simply to boost the workers’ morale and steady the shaky stock market.

With inputs from K. Santosh

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