Uttar Pradesh: INDIA bloc both confident and hopeful, but why?

Even a modest gain by the Opposition in the state with the most Lok Sabha seats could mean a big blow to the BJP

Priests in Ayodhya, UP, after casting their votes on 20 May (photo: PTI)
Priests in Ayodhya, UP, after casting their votes on 20 May (photo: PTI)

Zaigham Murtaza

The expression ‘kaante ka takkar (neck-and-neck contest)' can be heard all over eastern Uttar Pradesh these days. This, despite the overwhelming presence of the BJP in the public space. Flex banners and posters, vehicles with BJP flags, buntings and loudspeakers blaring Modi’s guarantees are everywhere. The Opposition is practically invisible.

Yet, even diehard BJP supporters who were boasting a month ago that they would win 70 of the state's 80 Lok Sabha seats, are not so sure now, conceding that the contest is getting closer and tougher.

An early indication of this rising concern came when Union home minister Amit Shah camped in the state after the first two rounds of polling in April. He reportedly met a large number of strongmen like Rakesh Pratap Singh, Raghuraj Singh, Dhananjay Singh and Manoj Pandey. He also met officials, says the grapevine. The counting day on 4 June will show how successful he was.

However, concerns within the BJP have not abated, and almost everywhere, local leaders concede that Dalit voters who voted for the BJP in large numbers in the last two elections have shifted away from it this time. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) does not seem to have succeeded in making it a triangular fight, with most seats witnessing direct contests between the BJP and the INDIA bloc.

The BSP, which won 10 Lok Sabha seats of the 16 secured by the opposition in the state in 2019, seems unlikely to repeat the feat, and will be lucky to retain a few of them.

Dalit voters, who are clear that they will vote for the BSP in Assembly elections, are equally clear that this time, the greater urgency is to stop the BJP from securing numbers that would allow it to change the Constitution and put an end to affirmative action. BJP ghatao (reduce the BJP) is a slogan that one hears at times, but not BJP hatao (out with the BJP).

Before being relieved of all responsibilities in the party, BSP’s national coordinator and party supremo Mayawati’s nephew Akash Anand was successful in conveying the message in his election rallies that if the BJP returned to power, it would change the Constitution, and the BSP was contesting to win as many seats as possible to reduce the BJP’s numbers.

Mayawati’s curious decision to sack her nephew in the middle of the election and ordering him to stay away from campaigning, apparently at the bidding of the BJP, turned out to be counterproductive. Dalits were convinced that she was under compulsion to help the BJP by turning the election into triangular contests in UP. The suspicion appears to have driven a large number of voters in Kanpur, Kannauj, Sitapur, Shahjahanpur, Dhaurahra, and several other places to opt for INDIA bloc candidates.

Mohammad Zeeshan of Jamia Hamdard University admits to being surprised at villagers in UP talking about the threat to the Constitution. He also feels that the Opposition appears to have raised the hope that there are solutions to problems like unemployment and inflation. Many, he says, are also buying the argument that the BJP does not know how to govern or run a government.

Shriram Maurya, a Dalit ideologue from Amroha, also believes that people do find Rahul Gandhi’s claims of saving the Constitution credible. Mohammad Hussain of Jaunpur concedes that neither the Samajwadi Party nor the Congress seem to have the resources to match the BJP but that is turning out to be an advantage, he thinks.

People who see the vast mismatch in resources have started questioning the PM’s narrative that Congress is a party of corrupt people and the BJP alone is clean. In UP, he says, it is a David vs Goliath battle, with people instinctively supporting the underdog.

Rallies of both the BJP and INDIA bloc are well attended; but people have noticed the difference in the level of enthusiasm. More people seem to be voluntarily attending the rallies of the opposition, while it is evident that a large number of people at BJP rallies are bussed in from adjoining areas.

There is marked enthusiasm at Opposition rallies, prompting some BJP leaders to complain of unruly behaviour by Opposition supporters. The crowds at these rallies are certainly more boisterous and the large youth presence is also noticeable. If people choose to reach the booths, says Ramchandra Nishad of Gorakhpur, nothing can stop the Opposition in this election, not even EVM manipulation.

Others are not so certain. Allegations of names missing from the electoral rolls are as rampant in this election as ever. There are complaints of polling personnel themselves indulging in bogus voting and bullying voters who favour the Opposition.

Allegations that despite the handful of voters at the close of polling, the final numbers of polled votes have mysteriously swelled are also heard. From Sambhal to Kannauj, videos of police checking voters’ identity, entering polling booths, and assaulting voters have surfaced on social media.

The mood among Opposition leaders, however, appears upbeat. Despite the bullying, voter suppression, and alleged stuffing of votes by polling personnel, they exude confidence that they are all set to spring a surprise and are confident that they will do much better than 2019, when BSP won 10 seats, SP just five and Congress only one, that of Rae Bareli.

Ziaur Rehman Barq, Samajwadi Party candidate from Sambhal, claims that his voters were beaten up and chased away from booths and harassed; a large number were unnecessarily challenged, which slowed down voting. “I will still win by a comfortable margin,” he says.

Rasulabad-based INDIA bloc worker Tiran Singh is also confident that "despite all the rigging, booth capturing, and excesses of the administration, BJP candidate Subrat Pathak in Kannuaj is heading to lose the election by a huge margin”.

Brave words? They do seem to have a ring of truth when political pundits in the state are heard debating if the NDA’s tally in the state, 64 in 2019, can come down to 50 or below. That would mean a modest gain of just 14 seats for the Opposition, in the state with the most number of seats, but that will be enough to deal the BJP a big blow.

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