“Yeh sarkar jane wali hai, log isko badal denge” (This government is about to go, people will change it). Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav does not miss out saying so in every public interaction these days. In Uttar Pradesh, the political refrain on the ground now seems that Yadav will do far better than in 2017, but the jury is still out on whether it will be enough to dislodge the BJP which remains in pole position is far. There seems one consensus though — that the election is essentially bipolar with the BSP and the Congress reduced to rather minor players in UP.
Speaking to nearly three dozen BJP leaders who attended the ‘masterclass’ of Union Home Minister Amit Shah in Varanasi, News18 found the party veering towards the notion that a 325-seat performance as in 2017 was perhaps not possible again and the party could face some losses given UP’s political history of anti-incumbency, but it will not lose power.
“People of UP have high expectations from political leaders and hence invariably vote the ruling party out. But the losses this time will not be enough to keep us out of power. We will still win comfortably. Apart from the Narendra Modi-Yogi Adityanath double appeal, the weak and splintered Opposition is a big asset,” two BJP leaders in charge of key seats in eastern UP told News18 after the Varanasi meeting.
Another leader said an SP-Congress or an SP-BSP alliance may have posed a tougher challenge to the BJP. “With no Opposition alliance, BSP will still get about 20% of the votes, Congress may get between 5-10% and the BJP will get above 40% votes. Hence, the SP won’t be able to defeat the BJP,” another leader argued.
Priyanka Gandhi on Sunday made it clear the Congress will fight the UP election alone. SP and BSP have also ruled out any alliance with each other. In the Samajwadi Party camp, the refrain is that that the cyclic nature of UP politics will bring it back into power. “This is now a bipolar election and voters know there is no point in voting for the BSP or the Congress. The major anti-BJP vote will come to SP. It is a ‘backward versus forward’ election. Besides Yadavs and Muslims, other backward caste votes will flock to SP this time,” a senior Samajwadi Party leader closely involved in the strategy told News18.
He contested the BJP’s belief that Yogi was a trump card for them. “In fact, Yogi as CM choice of the BJP suits us more in the direct contest against Akhilesh. He is a polarising figure among voters and wants to make the election a Hindu-Muslim one,” another senior SP leader who is handling the Purvancal region (eastern UP) argued. Another factor fuelling the SP campaign on the ground is the high inflation, mainly high fuel, cooking gas and ration prices.
A senior Union minister, who has handled UP closely in 2017 elections, told News18 that this election will prove if Akhilesh Yadav could be “another Ajit Singh” in terms of wrecking the political legacy of his father, Mulayam Singh Yadav. “First, Akhilesh tied up with the Congress in 2017 and then with the BSP in 2019. Now, he is tying up with smaller parties. The late Ajit Singh did the same with the legacy of his father by compromising the ideology of his party,” the minister said.
In eastern UP, locals in areas like Azamgarh and Mau say Akhilesh is going for “winnability” and not sticking to his stand like in 2017 to stay away from criminal elements like Mukhtar Ansari or Ateeq Ahmed. Supporters of the BJP in Varanasi region told News18 that such “compromises” by Yadav help the BJP’s main stand in these elections that the Yogi Adityanath government had gone after the mafia in UP that SP had nurtured.
“No one wants the return of the dark days of lawlessness in UP. It is this plank that got the SP voted out of power. Yogi has been a tough administrator on law and order without any doubt,” a BJP leader in Varanasi said.
News18 also found BJP leaders divided over the issue of BJP giving mileage to Priyanka Gandhi, with some saying it may not bring dividends. “The BJP has given Priyanka space to ensure the election is not bi-polar and Congress eats into some Opposition votes. But the fact is that Congress will mainly damage only upper-caste votes which are BJP’s vote-bank. We instead need someone who can dent Backward votes of the SP,” a BJP leader who came to Amit Shah’s masterclass from Saharanpur told News18.
SP’s tie-ups with the RLD and Om Prakash Rajbhar, as well as expected understanding with Shivpal Yadav to end the family strife that plagued it in 2017, are big assets for the party.
Prashant Trivedi, associate professor at the Giri Institute of Development Studies, a Lucknow-based organisation that researches electoral politics, said, “The fight which once looked like a four-cornered contest, was actually never a multi-pronged contest. The BJP may have been attacking the BSP, Congress and Aam Aadmi Party, but the strategy has been changed after Amit Shah’s visit to Lucknow. Now the BJP has started targeting the Samajwadi Party itself. In fact, the party is seeing more of this advantage in a one-on-one confrontation with the SP.”
This was evident at Amit Shah’s rally in Azamgarh where he mainly attacked the Samajwadi Party. Veteran journalist Rajkumar Singh said the Congress was alive only because of Priyanka Gandhi. “There is also a discussion about the Congress in the state, but it is finding it difficult to come into the fight. If there is an alliance between the Congress and the Rashtriya Lok Dal, then the picture may change a bit. On the other hand, Mayawati’s attitude is also not very aggressive. The way she once attacked the SP is not seen anymore. Moreover, almost all the veteran leaders of the BSP have also left,” Singh told News18.
Come November, there is hardly any activity by the Congress, BSP or Aam Aadmi Party in UP. At this time, the only parties that are looking active on the ground are the BJP and the SP.
Yogi Adityanath and Akhilesh Yadav are continuously holding big public meetings across the state. The SP chief started the third leg of his Samajwadi Vijay Yatra on November 13 Yogi’s bastion Gorakhpur, while the CM, along with Amit Shah, was present on the same day in Akhilesh Yadav’s parliamentary constituency Azamgarh. The BJP is now planning to start four big yatras in the state in November.
Though SP and BSP feel the farmers’ agitation in western UP will hurt the BJP, the ruling party feels it is not an electoral issue in UP and “a solution” may emerge before polls.