Uttar Pradesh: No cakewalk for the BJP

Chances are that even in its traditional stronghold, the party will be hard-pressed to repeat its 2019 performance

Is BJP's claim to popular support in UP going to prove so much hot air? (photo: Nur Photo)
Is BJP's claim to popular support in UP going to prove so much hot air? (photo: Nur Photo)

Saiyed Zegham Murtaza

To say that Uttar Pradesh with 80 Lok Sabha seats is crucial for both the NDA (National Democratic Alliance) and the I.N.D.I.A. (Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance) is a no-brainer.

In the last general election in 2019, the NDA bagged 64 seats (the BJP alone had won 62). The BSP–SP (Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party) alliance 15 and Congress just one.

Five years later, the BJP and the NDA hope to do better, riding on the Ram Mandir and the Prime Minister’s ‘rizz’. Indications, however, are that it is not going to be a cakewalk.

With barely a month to the polls, the BJP’s boast of sweeping all 80 Lok Sabha seats in the state is beginning to ring hollow. The Ram Mandir no longer appears the trump card it seemed in January. Anti-incumbency on the ground is evident and issues raised by the Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra are hitting home.

Another indication is that the BJP itself is dragging its feet—having confidently renominated 47 of its 62 sitting MPs in its first list of 51 candidates, it is yet to announce the remaining seats.

Meanwhile, the Bahujan Samaj Party, after announcing it would go it alone, had uncharacteristically withheld its list of candidates at the time, finally announcing its list just two days ago. Poll analysts recall that despite the nationalistic frenzy whipped up post-Pulwama and the prime minister violating the model code of conduct by seeking votes in the name of ‘martyrs’, the BJP’s seats declined from 71 in 2014 to 62 in 2019.

Within the BJP echo chamber, the buzz remains that it will win at least 50 seats. Outside, it’s a different story.

Uttar Pradesh does not epitomise the ‘Ram Rajya’ projected in hoardings and full-page newspaper advertisements.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), the per capita crime rate in UP is 7.4, the highest in the country. Also as per NCRB data, the highest number of custodial rapes happen in UP.

As for the economy, UP recorded a per capita income of Rs 70,792 for the fiscal year 2021–22. This is lower than Pakistan’s US $1,588.9 (Rs 1.31 lakh) and sub-Saharan Africa’s per capita income, which was US $1,700 (Rs 1.4 lakh) in 2022, as per World Bank Open Data. Nearly 23 per cent of the state’s population is multidimensionally poor, while life expectancy, at 66 years, parallels that of nations like Ethiopia and Gabon.

Tamil Nadu minister P. Thiaga Rajan cited data to assert that UP would take another 64 years to catch up with TN. He rubbed it in by pointing out that UP received Rs 2.73 for every rupee it contributed to the Union of India, while Tamil Nadu received only 29 paisa for every rupee since 2020. Ergo, UP is being subsidised by TN and other southern states.

No longer a one-sided match?

The impression of a one-sided election, with an opposition helpless before the BJP’s money and muscle power, central agencies and social engineering, is no longer the only narrative on the ground.

“We are financially and organisationally weak and not as visible as the BJP,” conceded a local Congress leader, “which is why selection of the right candidates and extensive campaigns and media interactions by leaders are key.

"We need to forcefully communicate what many people already acknowledge: while the BJP knows how to win elections, the Congress knows how to govern.”

Voters’ concerns are the same everywhere, from Meerut, Moradabad, Sambhal, Amroha, Badaun and Aligarh to Agra, Kanpur, Jaunpur and even Gorakhpur.

The youth are restive and seeking reassurance. It is common knowledge that major employers like the railways, the Indian army, paramilitary and police forces, the education and revenue departments have been recruiting fewer people.

While crowds flocked to hear Rahul Gandhi, Om Pal Singh Rana of Bijnore felt earlier this month that it was not enough. Everyone is aware of the problems, he said. Rahul Gandhi and the I.N.D.I.A. bloc should start speaking about the solutions. “He should assure us that the economy will be revived, employment will be generated, and distress removed from all sectors if the alliance comes to power,” Rana said forcefully.

This, Gandhi went on to do.

However, Rana's sentiment is shared by many. The alliance must do more than make promises, they say. People need to believe that voting out the incumbent government will result in positive, time-bound changes. This hope must to be transmitted to the people.

A veteran journalist who covered Maharashtra in the 2004 elections agrees. “In Maharashtra, I saw every Congress leader out on the street addressing people, sometimes only 50 people. Why do we see only Rahul Gandhi on a yatra? Why can’t (other) Congress leaders go out and communicate directly?” he wondered aloud.

Adil, who has been looking for a job, concurs. “What is the point in voting when the BJP creates hype, parrots jumlas and then does nothing, while the Opposition talks only about what is wrong with the economy and the government?”

Sumit from Balia says one reason for indifference among the youth is that they have ceased to expect any change through elections.

However, there are others like Faiyaz from Barabanki who believe “the BJP can be defeated as there is a huge anti-incumbency”.

Especially, says Dharmendra Singh from Aligarh, among small traders, peasants and students who are frustrated by the rising costs of living, education, health and falling family incomes.

Tilting the balance

Could Mayawati still spring a last-minute surprise by joining the I.N.D.I.A. alliance?

Pointing out that BSP voters have been steadily swallowed up by the BJP, some observers believe that aligning with the NDA would be fatal. With the BSP facing an existential crisis in the state, Mayawati may rather be able to revive the party’s fortune by bargaining with the Opposition.

Such optimism is contested by cynics. Why would Mayawati risk alienating the BJP, particularly if she believes it has a better chance of returning to power. And if, as word has it, the BSP distributes ticket to the highest bidder, the resource-rich BJP is in a better position to ‘buy’ her support, if necessary.

Dalits, it is estimated, constitute 22 per cent of UP’s population. There are around 66 sub-castes within the Dalit community. Nearly 50 per of Dalits are Jatavs, the sub-caste to which Mayawati also belongs. Among the rest, the more prominent ones are the Valmikis, Pasis, Koeris and Khatiks.

A study by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) estimated that 87 per cent of the Jatavs in the state voted for the BSP in the 2017 assembly election and 65 per cent in 2022. BSP’s overall vote percentage also went down from 22.23 per cent in 2017 to 12.8 per cent in 2022.

The BSP had garnered an impressive 19.43 per cent of votes in the 2019 Lok Sabha election in UP, winning 10 Lok Sabha seats in alliance with the SP—an improvement from 2014, when it had polled approximately 4 per cent of the votes but failed to win a single seat.

The BJP has been wooing the Dalit voter by appropriating Ambedkar’s legacy—the state government held grand celebrations on Ambedkar Jayanti. Eight Dalits were inducted in the Yogi Adityanath ministry after the 2022 assembly elections, as well as two prominent Jatavs: Baby Rani Maurya, who was Uttarakhand governor until she was given a ticket to contest from Agra; and senior IPS officer Asim Arun, who was inducted into the state cabinet after being made to seek premature retirement as Kanpur’s police commissioner.

Mayawati may not win a single seat on her own, but her selection of candidates can tilt the balance either way. In 2022, she fielded over 100 Yadav and Muslim candidates against the Yadav and Muslim candidates of the Samajwadi Party–RLD combine. The coalition lost 67 of them. Here is another lesson that shouldn’t be forgotten. If the I.N.D.I.A. alliance wants to win a respectable number of seats in UP, an understanding with Mayawati is crucial.

Barring Muzaffarnagar, Kairana and Baghpat, where Muslims have traditionally aligned with Jats, Dalits have been a decisive factor in western UP. In 2009, the BSP won 21 Lok Sabha seats but in 2014, it drew a blank. In 2019, it won 10 seats, largely because of the support of Muslims and the alliance with Samajwadi Party–RLD.

Farmers feel betrayed by RLD

Most Jat voters are with BJP since the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013; but that is not the only reason the RLD exited the I.N.D.I.A. bloc. Insiders maintain that Jayant Chaudhary left because party leader Amir Alam Khan wanted to contest from Kairana but the SP was adamant on fielding Iqra Hasan, daughter of late Munawwar Hasan.

Moreover, Jayant wanted to contest from Muzaffarnagar but SP wanted the seat for Harendra Malik. This divorce may impact results in Saharanpur, Muzaffarnagar, Kairana and Baghpat.

The farmers are certainly feeling betrayed by Jayant. “He lives in Delhi, disconnected from local sen- timents,” says Satbir Singh of Shamli. “He failed us in 2013 when the riots were at its peak, now he is failing us again when the farmers are in distress.”

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