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PM Modi stays popular in western Uttar Pradesh, but it’s too close

While the SP-BSP-RLD alliance may disrupt the caste math in many pockets, the Congress is relegated to the role of a vote-splitter.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Apr 10, 2019, 08.09 PM IST
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Battle for western UP: It's Modi vs Gathbandhan, Congress splitting votes
Battle for western UP: It's Modi vs Gathbandhan, Congress splitting votes
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity is still high in western UP but will that be adequate to repeat a 2014-like sweep? As eight constituencies go to polls on Thursday, ET takes a closer look into what’s turning into a seat-to-seat battle. While the SP-BSP-RLD alliance may disrupt the caste math in many pockets, the Congress is relegated to the role of a vote-splitter. In the Bundelkand and Yadav belts, the Modi factor appears to matter more. A non-Yadav OBC consolidation is visibly in favour of BJP. Infighting in SP and the diminished role of Congress may be factors aiding the saffron party.

While driving through 20 constituencies in western UP, which go to polls in the first three phases, one thing is clear—the BJP, which won all the seats in 2014, is not out despite the tough caste play put up by the SP-BSP-RLD alliance and the Congress, which is playing the part of a spoiler. With no visible wave, it seems to be a seat-to-seat battle with both sides on a polarisation overdrive given the high Muslim population in the region. The math is in favour of the alliance, especially in the first eight constituencies of phase-1, but the BJP is optimistic of the next two phases given the alliance is publicly unnerved by the damage the Congress may cause in over halfa-dozen seats. “Mayawati’s appeal to Muslims on Sunday has totally polarised west UP, completing our job,” BJP leaders say.

CANE & COW POLITICS
On the road along Khatauli near Muzaffarnagar, Chandrapal Singh, a Jat farmer is taking his sugarcane produce to a nearby sugar mill.

“So, do you get your money?”

“Thodi der se sahi, par milta hai (A bit late, but yes I get it),” Singh says. When asked whom he will vote for, Singh is clear: “Is this a thing to even ask? Of course, Modi.”

In Bamrauli Katara village near Agra, Sultan Singh is, however, not that sure. “Look how I had to spend Rs 15,000 from my own pocket to put barbed wire around my field to protect it from stray cattle. Farmers are angry,” he says.

Across West UP, the stray cattle issue may have subsided now with cattle-shelters coming up but farmers still speak of the money they had to spend to put up barbed wire fences and how crops were damaged. Stray cattle can, in fact, still be found roaming in many villages near Aligarh, Mathura and Moradabad. Alliance leaders like Ajit Singh and Akhilesh Yadav are raising the issue in their speeches, hoping that farmers’ anger get translated into votes in their favour.

Cane farmers, mostly Jats, are more vocal about their support to the BJP, despite cane dues worth Rs 5,000 cr still pending. The government has worked overtime to bring them down from Rs 10,000 cr last week. “The mill is still running,” a group of farmers in Meerut’s Daurala said and they are assured that their produce will be procured. RLD is trying hard to break the Jat votes –– but this may only fructify in Baghpat and to a limited extent in Muzzafarnagar where Jayant Chaudary and Ajit Singh are contesting. The math is simple –– if Jats go along with Dalits and Muslims, the alliance wins. Or, the BJP will get through.

THEM VERSUS US
Yogi Adityanath laid the groundwork for polarising the electorate in west UP by pointing out how those who believed in the Deoband ideology were beginning their campaign from there. The CM openly speaks about the 80-20 equation (20% being Muslims). The BJP’s Saharanpur candidate Raghav Lakhanpal claims that the Congress manifesto appears to have been published in Pakistan. Mayawati’s appeal to Muslims to unite behind the alliance stems out of the equation that many of these 20 West UP seats have 35-40% Muslims. Yogi reacted to this by saying that he has come to seek the votes of the rest of the people and that while other parties “believed in Ali, we believe in Bajrangbali”.

Naushad Siddiqui, who came to the Deoband rally from Bijnore, says he will vote for the alliance though the only Muslim in the fray in Bijnore, which has over 40% Muslims, is Naseemuddin Siddiqui of the Congress. A young student, Falahuddin says the same about Saharanpur where Imram Masood of the Congress is fighting Fazul-Ur-Rehman of the alliance.

UP Congress chief Raj Babbar has been telling Muslims in Fatehpur Sikri and Moradabad that “this is an election for Delhi, not Lucknow”. The extent of Mayawati’s focus on the Congress during the Deoband rally has clearly betrayed nervousness on the part of the alliance for what is, at best, a struggling party.

CONGRESS’ LATE ENTRY
“NYAY? Rs 72,000 in our account? Really?” a group of farmers in Mathura’s Nandgaon reacted when ET asked them about Congress’ promise to put Rs 72,000 in their accounts. The farmers can hardly be blamed. The big promise has not percolated to the ground as the Congress top brass has hardly campaigned much in West UP. The party’s West UP in-charge, Jyotiraditya Scindia, paid his first independent visit to West UP only on Sunday. Rahul Gandhi was to arrive to campaign in Saharanpur, Kairana and Bijnor on Monday but bad weather led to the rallies getting cancelled – Gandhi has not campaigned in the first phase in this region at all. Priyanka Gandhi did hold a road show in Saharanpur on Tuesday.

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This scene explains Congress’ role of being a vote-splitter in West UP –– splitting the Muslim votes of the alliance in seats like Bijnor, Saharanpur and Kairana and the upper-caste votes of the BJP in seats like Ghaziabad, Meerut and Mathura. “We will win Bijnor and Saharanpur. Our Jat candidate in Kairana is giving a tough fight to Tabassum Hassan of the alliance as she shifted from the RLD to the SP and the Jats are no longer with her,” a Congress leader told ET. On the ground, however, winning seems to be a bleak proposition.

MODI MAKES UP FOR UNPOPULAR MPS
Issues like the Balakot strike and nationalism seem to be overshadowing the unpopularity of several BJP MPs. Modi made an appeal in his Meerut and Saharanpur rallies that each vote should be for him –– this seems to have convinced loyal BJP voters who have, otherwise, expressed unhappiness with MPs, especially those in Aligarh, Mathura, Meerut and NOIDA. Rajnath Singh was asked to campaign for Mahesh Sharma in Noida sensing the anger of Thakurs over his repeat candidature and Gujjars consolidating behind the alliance. The PM will hold a rally in Aligarh for BJP MP Satish Gautam who has been apologising to the people at every public meeting for not living up to their expectations. The Modi factor is strong in Ghaziabad and Agra but leaders admit that the fight is tough with no wave in sight.

In 2014, BJP had stormed the Samajwadi Party (SP) bastion, right from Kanpur Dehat t o Agra. Four of the five seats which the SP managed to win in 2014 came from this region while the BSP could not open its account here. SP won Kannauj, Mainpuri, Badaun and Firozabad –– seats represented by the party’s first family. Along with this, the BJP also won all four seats of Bundelkhand region. In 2009, SP had won two seats and the BSP and Congress had won one seat each in Bundelkhand.

As the election tempo rises, the ‘Modi factor’ still matters here. People are largely happy over the central government and are willing to give the BJP another chance. The Opposition’s game would depend on the voter equation on the ground. In regions where Yadavs, Muslims and Dalits form a good part of the electorate, the opposition alliance would be a force to reckon with. However, infighting in the SP has affected the morale of party workers.

While travelling through the region, ET found that voters are still weighing their options.

MODI FACTOR
Modi is still the ‘most talked about person’ in the election debate. There are instances where people are not happy with the government’s performance but are willing to give it a second chance. Government schemes such as Ujjawala, PM Awas, construction of toilets have worked well with voters.

Begari village in Lalitpur, Jhansi, has around 200 households. “Almost everyone has got gas cylinders and toilets in their houses,” says Buddh Prakash. His mother-in-law is the village pradhan. However, despite all these benefits, Prakash would still vote for the Mahagathbandhan as he has been associated with the BSP. But others in the village have a different opinion.

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Pramod Kumar Ahirwar (28), a labourer who earns Rs 400 a day, says: “I have got a cylinder and toilet in my house. The village has also got LED lights on electric poles and the power situation is good.”

Prakash Chandra Ahirwar, a farmer, agrees with Pramod. “I have also got Rs 2,000 in my account, along with a gas cylinder and a toilet. However, some work needs to be done on water availability.”

Ahirwars have been BSP supporters traditionally but many have openly expressed their support for the BJP. “Don’t believe what they are saying. They all will vote for Behen Ji when the time comes,” says Buddh Prakash.

CASTE CONSOLIDATION
Cobbling up caste-based alliances are very crucial in UP. A non-Yadav OBC consolidation is quite visibly in favour of the BJP. Bundelkhand, Jhansi, Banda, Jalaun and Hamirpur have a sizeable number of Lodh voters. Lodh voters are also present in Fatehpur, Ettah, Ettawah and other constituencies. In 2014, BJP had fielded Uma Bharti as the Lok Sabha candidate from Jhansi and the party was able to tap the Lodh votes of the region. However, this time, the party hasn’t fielded any Lodh candidate in Bundelkhand. But that hasn’t changed the equation on the ground.

Manoj Rajput (20), a first-time voter in Lalitpur who left his studies after class X and is now looking for a job, says: “I will vote for Modi as he has brought so much development to our region.”

Rohit Nishad (20), another first time voter from Matatila Bazar in Lalitpur, gives full credit to the BJP government for the air strikes. “Our forces entered 21 km inside Pakistan and their plane could only come 3 km inside our border. The country needs a strong PM like Modi.”

Juglal Razak (42) of Bangawan Kalan village says: “Five years is too short a time and we should give another term to the BJP. Everyone will vote for Modi in our area. There is no local factor as such.”

VOTE CONSOLIDATION
A similar consolidation of Muslim, Yadav and Dalit votes is taking place on the Mahagathbandhan side. In 2014, some Yadav and Dalit voters too voted for the BJP. However, there is very little chance of a division in Yadav and Dalit votes now. “We are Harijans. Even if we vote for the BJP, they say that we must have voted for the elephant,” says Arvind Kumar (23) of Jaspura in Hamirpur. “If this is so, why should I waste my vote for the BJP. I will vote for the Gathbandhan.” Jagvaran Singh Yadav of Bada Nasrathpur in Akbarpur, says: “My village has 1,000 votes and all are Yadavs. In 2014, BJP got 260 votes in my village. But no one came to our village after that. Now, we have realised only SP is our party.”

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There is some anger among the Pal community which has a good presence in Jalaun and nearby areas. “Pal Samaj will vote against the BJP as we have not got any representation in the government,” says Prem Narayan Singh Pal of Amisa village in Jalaun.

PROBLEMS WITHIN SP
Despite the caste consolidation, grassroots-level SP workers are not very enthusiastic, because of problems within the party. The rivalry of several leaders may come in the way of SP. In Jhansi, SP has given the ticket to Shyam Sunder Singh Yadav leaving two big leaders –– Chandrapal Yadav and Deepak Yadav –– sulking. It is not yet clear whether Chandrapal Yadav, known as Netaji in the region, will support the party candidate. “If Netaji doesn’t campaign, the SP candidate will face a problem,” says Navin Yadav of Jhansi.

In the Yadav belt of Etawah, Mainpuri, Firozabad and Agra, there is strong resentment among workers against senior party leader Ram Gopal Yadav. “I was with Shivpal Yadav,” says an SP leader in Etawah. “However, when Shivpal Ji left, I chose to stay with the party. But Ram Gopal Yadav still considers many like us as Shivpal’s man and we are not given any party work.”

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The party looks strong in Badaun, Kannauj, Mainpuri and Firozabad where the Yadav family is in fray. But beyond that, it is working hard to get its act together. “There is no problem as such,” says SP Mainpuri MP Tej Pratap Yadav. “Things will change once the joint rally of Netaji and Mayawati takes place on April 19 in Mainpuri”. Party workers are betting on five rallies by SP president Akhilesh Yadav and BSP supremo Mayawati in the region. The biggest problem with SP is the image it had when it was in power in the state. “When SP was in government, they were into sand mining. They used to run tractors on our village roads all the time,” says Bimla Ahirwar (56) in Thana Gaon panchayat. “If you say something, they will beat you. Under Modi and Yogi, our children can play on the roads without any fear.”

CONG THE THIRD FORCE
Congress has little stake and the best it can do is help the MGB win in certain seats. In Etawah, the party has fielded Ashok Dohre against Kamlesh Katheria of the SP. The BJP has fielded its Agra MP Rama Shankar Katheria. Dohre may help the SP. Similarly, in Jhansi, Congress candidate Shiv Saran Kushwaha would divide a chunk of Kushwaha voters of the BJP. In Banda, Congress candidate Bal Kumar Patel could eat into a good number of Patel votes and put BJP candidate RK Patel’s chances in danger.

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