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UP Election 2017: Why The BJP Should Worry About SP-Cong-RLD Alliance

AS the BJP pads up for the all-crucial Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls, there is a sense of déjà vu gripping its HQ at 11, Ashoka Road, New Delhi.

Marya Shakil, Uday Singh Ranamaryashakil

Updated:January 18, 2017, 6:19 PM IST
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UP Election 2017: Why The BJP Should Worry About SP-Cong-RLD Alliance
An infographic showing how the polls are scheduled in Uttar Pradesh.
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New Delhi: As the BJP pads up for the all-crucial Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls, there is a sense of déjà vu gripping its HQ at 11, Ashoka Road, New Delhi.

Bitter memories of the trouncing at the hands of a last-minute grand alliance in Bihar in 2015 that saw rivals Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar joining hands is back haunting the BJP strategists as Akhilesh Yadav puts final touches to another Mahagathbandhan in Uttar Pradesh.

For one, Akhilesh Yadav is reborn politically after the Election Commission decisively ruled in favour of his claims over party symbol Cycle.

Akhilesh has now put all the ills plaguing his five-year-rule, including deteriorating law and order – the main campaign plank of BJP – behind him, blaming it all on Shivpal Yadav, Amar Singh & Co, who breathed down his neck early on in his stint as chief minister.

Akhilesh can now easily claim his “hands were tied” for five years and ask voters to focus on the development work he has done.

In one sweep, he has banished the anti-incumbency that plagues every government.

In private, BJP leaders admit that having won the cycle race, Akhilesh is starting with a “clean slate”.

It is too late in the campaign for BJP to announce a chief ministerial candidate and the only option – acceptable to all in the party – would be to throw their lot behind Home Minister Rajnath.

But that option is off the table now and Singh himself has clarified multiple times he is not interested.

Strategy-wise, what disturbs BJP vis-à-vis the SP-Congress-RLD Mahagathbandhan is the urban vote and the caste vs class divide.

SP sources say that when Akhilesh announced candidates for 235 seats on December 29 he had ensured that many urban constituencies are left for Congress.

During the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, when the BJP swept the state with 71 seats, the Congress had stood second in several urban constituencies.

While Rajnath Singh won the Lucknow Lok Sabha Constituency, Congress’s Rita Bahuguna Joshi (now with BJP) polled over 27 percent votes to come in second.

In Kanpur, Congress’s Shri Prakash Jaiswal polled 2.51 lakh votes and came second to Murli Manohar Joshi.

In Ghaziabad current UPCC president Raj Babbar stood second while in Saharanpur, Imran Masood lost to BJP’s Raghav Lakhanpal for a slim margin.

While the Congress did not contest the Lok Sabha election in Mathura, its ally, Jayant Chaudhary of the RLD, was second to BJP’s actor-turned-politician Hema Malini. Besides, Congress’s Pradeep Mathur currently holds the Mathura assembly seat.

In Barabanki, Congress veteran PL Punia came in second and Kushi Nagar, RPN Singh was the runner up with 30% of the vote share.

The Grand Old Party won only 28 seats in the 2012 assembly elections but 13 of these seats came from urban centers.

These were key seats such as Shamli, Hapur, Khurja, Mathura, Lucknow Cantt and Allahabad North, many of which have a large concentration of minority voters.

In the 2016 assembly bypolls, the Congress added one more urban center to the list when Maviya Ali won the Deoband seat.
Interestingly, the SP’s Meena Rana was second in the seat and the BJP candidate finished a distant third.

BJP sources said the party was concerned about the Congress, SP and BSP putting up Muslim candidates in cities where Muslims are dominant.

In the absence of an alliance, BJP was hopeful of a split in Muslim votes.

In Saharanpur city, for instance, the BJP managed to win in 2012 despite the city’s 46% Muslim population. This time, the BJP is concerned that a ‘grand alliance’ may unify minority votes against it.

Urban centers have traditionally been the BJP’s strongholds owing to the party’s support among trading communities who form one-third of the population of most major cities in UP.

In the wake of demonetisation, the BJP is worried about the Baniya vote swinging towards the alliance. While traders have been bitter critics of the SP, for its failure to control the law and order situation in the state, the community may not be averse to voting Congress.

Caste, of course, is a decisive factor in the rural areas of Hindi heartland.

At BJP’s national executive in New Delhi on January 7, the first one after demonetisation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi projected his move as a “pro-poor” and “welfarist”.

He struck an emotional note and said he, too, was “born into poverty”. He then went on to claim that the poor of the country had “accepted” demonetisation as a means to combat all social ills, including corruption.

That has also been a constant refrain of the PM in his several rallies across Uttar Pradesh. The BJP was hoping that post the move, they will be able to create a new constituency and move away from the image of being a Brahmin-Baniya party.

But now the fear is that in its effort to create a new constituency - ‘the poor’ - the PM’s populist schemes may end up alienating the party’s core voter base of traders.

This, many feel, is reminiscent of Indira Gandhi’s ‘Garibi Hatao’ campaign, under which she unleashed a slew of populist, anti-poverty policy measures. However, the India of 1970s was perhaps not so sharply divided along caste lines as it is today.

And Indira Gandhi’s clarion call was seen as a fight for socialism against capitalism. After Mandal politics gained steam in the late 1980s, the political landscape of India in general and UP in particular changed forever.

Elections became less about socialist messaging and more about managing caste combinations.

In 1985 Assembly elections, the Congress finished at the top with 269 Assembly seats but four years later in 1989 after Mandal politics took centrestage the Congress tally was down to 94.
Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Janta Dal emerged victorious with 208 seats.

A top source in the BJP says that the party’s main talking points for UP polls will be surgical strikes and Pakistan, and pro-poor policies aligned with demonetisation.

What bothers the strategists at 11, Ashoka Road, is if the poor of Uttar Pradesh rise above their caste allegiances and think about themselves as poor first. Also, moderates in the saffron camp fear that Muslims will get goaded to vote en masse for the Mahagathbandhan when party’s motor mouths cross the line between “anti-Pakistan” and “anti-Muslim”.

Many recall this happening in Bihar during the heat of the campaign leading to a consolidation of Muslim votes in favour of the Lalu-Nitish combine.

| Edited by: Ashutosh Tripathi
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