Lucknow: As the intense electoral battle of 2019 enters the last leg, it’s a war of nerves and perception that is being fiercely fought between the BJP and the SP-BSP gathbandhan in eastern UP.
At stake are 27 seats, out of which the first 14 go to polls in Phase-6 on May 12. Although the BJP and its ally Apna Dal had won all but the one seat of Azamgarh out of these 14 in 2014, it doesn’t stand up to the combined vote share of the SP-BSP on most of these seats.
So while in 2014, the area was painted saffron, except Azmagarh that was won by Mulayam Singh Yadav, SP and BSP had together polled more votes than the BJP.
Analysis of these 14 seats shows that barring Pratapgarh, in all other 13 constituencies BJP's vote share was less than that of the Gathbandhan. Pratapgarh seat was contested by BJP ally Apna Dal.
Here, Apna Dal had got 42.01 per cent against SP-BSP's combined vote share of 36.63. This time around BJP is contesting the seat. However, BJP has never won it in the past.
The other seats going to polls on May 12 are Sultanpur, Jaunpur, Domariyaganj, Shrawasti, Allahabad, Phulpur, Sant Kabirnagar, Bhadohi, Ambedkar Nagar and reserved constituencies of Lalganj and Machlishahar. BJP had won in Phulpur in 2014, but lost it to SP-BSP coalition in 2018 bypolls.
In 2014, the combined vote share of SP-BSP was 47.56 per cent in Sultanpur as compared to 42.51 per cent of BJP’s Varun Gandhi.
This time, his mother, union minister Maneka Gandhi is the BJP candidate from the seat. She is facing Chandra Bhan Singh of the BSP and Sanjay Singh of the Congress. BJP’s hopes here rest on division of Congress and gathbandhan votes and the maximum possible counter polarisation of non-Yadav and non-jatav OBC and Dalit castes against the alliance.
The prestige seat of Phulpur, won by incumbent deputy UP CM Keshav Maurya in 2014, was snatched away by the grand alliance in 2018.
In the bypolls, BJP had got 38.81 per cent, while SP got 46.95 per cent votes. The result was alarming for the BJP, because the party’s vote share here in 2014 was 52.43 per cent, far higher than the SP-BSP’s combined vote share of 37.38 per cent.
These seats suggest that when SP-BSP come together, their combined vote share increases significantly as compared to when they both contest the polls.
The increase in combined vote share from 37.38 per cent in 2014 to 46.95 per cent in 2018 indicates that when the parties are united, a strong section of new voting segments got attracted towards the alliance.
If this happens, as both Akhilesh and Mayawati so desperately want, it can well mean a weakening counter polarization. In constituencies where alliance looks numerically well placed, this could be a further danger for the BJP.
It’s because of these high odds that BJP seems to have shifted its campaign strategy to a single agenda of trying to break the perception about the strength of the gathbandhan.
The first major glimpse of this strategy was witnessed when last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed an election rally in Pratapgarh. He accused Samajwadi Party of keeping BSP chief Mayawati in dark and taking her for a ride.
Prime Minister tried to drive a wedge between the two alliance parties by saying, “While Maywati ji had been very strong in her attack against the Congress party, SP chief Akhilesh had been silent on the Congress question.” He further alleged that BSP chief was not aware of the SP-Congress conspiracy against her.
The statement sent ripples across the political spectrum. It clearly was an attempt to reach out to crucial Dalits and OBC voters by raising questions about the gathbandhan’s future and longevity. Since then, it has become the campaign line for the BJP in the region.
UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath was next to pick up the attack. During the course of his election rallies in the east, he called the gathbandhan a ‘mahamilawati’ one and claimed that it will disintegrate post May 23.
In response, both Mayawati and Akhilesh were quick to react by strongly emphasizing about the strength, harmony and long term vision of this alliance.
In his zeal to dispel any doubts, Akhilesh also for the first time endorsed Mayawati as the PM face of the opposition. “I will be happy to see a woman as the next Prime Minister,” he said, sending a signal to alliance voters, especially Dalits, about how close they are to achieving political power and that Mayawati as next PM could be a strong possibility.
Similarly, Mayawati also laid out the long-term vision of the alliance as she campaigned for Akhilesh in Azamgarh. “The alliance will not just stop at keeping Modi out of power, but will also ensure Yogi Adityanath’s defeat in 2022 UP assembly polls,” she said.
Sources said the alliance leaders want to play on this captivating idea of Mayawati as PM and Akhilesh as future CM.
Political analyst and Professor Prashant Trivedi of Giri Institute of Development Studies said that at this moment, the battle of perception is between two equally strong opponents who are trying to overtake the middle ground of overlapping voting blocs”.
“These overlapping voting blocs are not just the floating voters but more about those many numerically small backward, most backward and Dalit castes which collectively become a sizeable segment of voters in eastern UP belt,” he said. These are the castes that don’t have a fixed commitment for either the gathbandhan or the BJP.
Perceptions of strength and possibilities about being a partner in political power can decide the voting choices of these overlapping voting blocs.
While many of these smaller non-Yadav backward castes and non -jatav Dalit castes had gone with the BJP in 2014 and 2017 elections, the SP-BSP alliance has caught their imagination this time around.
For BJP to keep its prospects bright, it therefore needs to keep these “castes in the middle ground” on its side. For the alliance too, these small but collectively significant castes are much needed to get the desired edge. Phulpur and Gorakhpur bypolls showed they could be won over.
It is these political realities on the ground that has led BJP to try and break perceptions about the SP-BSP and gatbandhan in reply vigorously fighting it out. A lot will depend on who wins this perception battle.