Issues from communal polarisation to development and demonetisation will be put to test as 73 of Uttar Pradesh’s 403 assembly seats go to the polls on Saturday in the first of seven-phase elections.
The principal protagonists – from the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) – are hoping for a strong performance in the communally-charged western UP region, infamous for the murderous riots in 2013, so as to gather enough impetus for the later phases.
The UP elections are crucial for the BJP as they are being viewed as a mini-referendum on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s major decisions like demonetisation and the surgical strikes across the border in Pakistan. Incumbent chief minister Akhilesh Yadav’s future is at stake as he eyes re-election after a bitter family feud. The Congress would hope for a good showing as it would help in arresting its shrinking footprint across the country.
Viewed by many as a semi-final to the 2019 general elections, UP is an acid test for all the principal players.
Electioneering in western UP has been divisive and often laced with communal overtones. In the fray are controversial BJP candidates such as Sangeet Som and Suresh Rana, both accused of involvement in the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots.
The BJP had swept the state in 2014 Lok Sabha polls with its allies, winning 73 of the 80 seats. Prime Minister Narendra Modi flew into the region several times, canvassing for votes promising development and a continuing crackdown on corruption. On the ground, many party leaders are banking on the communal divide and aggressively pushing for polarisation of votes. Leaders such as Som have been campaigning on the plank of “Hindu pride”.
With voters reticent and no clear trends, the elections this time are expected to be close.
“Bahut phansa hua chunaav hai bhaijaan” (It is a very complex election, brother),” says Khalid Chaudhury, a political activist.
As the BJP eyes the majority vote, the SP-Congress alliance is courting the minority vote to top up its traditional vote bank. The alliance is also banking on Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi – marketed as ‘UP ke ladke’ – to connect with the young voters.
BSP’s Mayawati has also spared no efforts in staking claim over the Muslim vote in addition to her traditional Dalit vote bank. Most of her 100 Muslim candidates will compete in the first two phases.
Political pundits were unanimous that with issues such as alleged Hindu exodus from UP towns, riots and triple talaq on the menu, there will be a strong element of polarisation. But the divide may not be as bad as in the aftermath of the 2013 riots.
That is holding out hope to smaller parties such as Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RLD), which were swept aside in 2014. The party is hoping to stage a comeback, helped by the Jats’ disillusionment with the BJP, a party the community had overwhelmingly backed then.