As people went to polling booths on Saturday morning to exercise their voting rights in the first phase of the Uttar Pradesh elections, BJP president Amit Shah’s chopper landed on the grounds of Drummond college in Pilibhit.
As he waved, the crowd --- a limited one of a few thousand, for over half the ground was empty --- responded with cheer. MP and minister Maneka Gandhi welcomed him to her constituency, which shares a border with both Uttarakhand and Nepal.
If Shah was nervous about the election, he did not show it. He chatted with the party’s four MLA candidates on the stage. He happily allowed Sikhs of the area to tie him a turban --- a concession not given by BJP’s top leaders to the skull cap.
But it was when he spoke that the BJP’s pitch for the 2017 elections became clear. What was said, and what was unsaid, showed the mood of the party chief.
Shah spent almost three-fourths of his speech attacking the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance.
He brought back the term used by PM Narendra Modi for Rahul Gandhi in 2014, and said, “Two Shahazaadas (princes) have come together - Rahul baba and Akhilesh babu. Ek se ma pareshan hai, ek se baap. One’s mother is fed up of him, the other’s father is tired of him. This is an alliance of two families, of two corrupt parties.”
He attacked the SP government for poor law and order, for not providing electricity, for not creating jobs, and questioned Akhilesh’s image transformation. “Where is Shivpal Yadav? Where is Ateeq Ahmed? Where is Azam Khan? Where is Gayatri Prajapati? If they are all in SP, tell me Akhilesh babu, what has changed?”
And then he subtly played the card BJP has been using in west UP. He asked the crowd, “Did you get the laptop Akhilesh promised?” Without waiting for an answer, Shah replied, “You didn’t because your caste is not right. You didn’t because your religion is not right.” The loudest cheer came from a group of young men waving saffron flags in one corner --- who responded with Jai Shri Ram each time Shah turned to them.
But while Shah spoke of corruption and attacked the ruling SP and the Congress, the one issue that did not crop up was demonetisation. Not once did Shah mention it. This is in line with the general perception that BJP candidates are avoiding the topic.
A local journalist offered an explanation, “BJP’s trader supporters here are very upset about demonetisation. SP has been reaching out to them and trying to break them away. Mentioning notebandi would have annoyed them further.”
And Shah, except for an early reference to the Bahujan Samaj Party misrule, also stayed away from attacking Mayawati. One reason, locals speculated, was because in three out of the four seats, the main competition in Pilibhit district was with the BJP. The other was that the BJP wished to make inroads into Dalits - but attacking Mayawati personally alienated them.
Either way, the silence revealed who the BJP saw as its main rival in the second phase of the UP elections.