In Lucknow, two Muslim clerics with considerable influence — one among the Sunnis and the other among the Shias — unanimously tell me how Narendra Modi’s relentless media blitz, particularly on TV channels, will strengthen the resolve of Muslim voters in Uttar Pradesh to vote against the BJP. It’s a constant reminder to the people about who not to vote for, they say.
A few hours later, Lucknow’s sitting BJP MP and septuagenarian leader, Lalji Tandon, who has had to step aside, not happily, from re-contesting his seat in favour of his party’s president, Rajnath Singh, says just the opposite. Modi’s ubiquitous media appearances are what, in part, power the wave that he says is sweeping through UP.
Some kilometres away, at his plush official residence, the state’s Samajwadi Party government’s young chief minister Akhilesh Yadav laughs off talk of the “wave”. He’s sanguine that his party will fare “much better” than it did in the last Lok Sabha polls when the SP had won 22 of the 80 seats in a state where elections can be a notoriously complex affair.
Uttar Pradesh is a state that can confound psephologists: Its 134 million voters are fragmented into communities and castes and sometimes factors that are a permutation of both. Muslim voters are a significant force in as many as 55 of the 80 seats and in 22 of those they account for more than a fifth of the electorate. Many of these are in the western part of UP, where, in Muzaffarnagar, bloody communal riots took place last September.
The impact of those riots will be felt in the elections: Polarising not just the Muslim votes but also those of the Hindus. It is here that a fourth contender, former chief minister Mayawati’s BSP, which represents the backward castes and minorities, hopes to gain the most seats and offer big resistance to the Modi wave. It is here too that the state’s ruling party, the SP, has lost the faith of Muslims because of what is perceived as its slow and inept response during the riots.
BJP leaders say their main fight in western UP is against the BSP, while in central and eastern parts of the state, where Modi himself is contesting from Varanasi, it is the SP that is its main rival. Its own forecasts, ostensibly fuelled by the oft-mentioned wave, suggests that it could get 50 seats or even more in a state where the number of seats it gets will substantially impact its efforts to get a tidy tally out of all 543 Lok Sabha seats if it has to realise its dreams of forming the next government.
But UP is not an open and shut case during elections. Not for the BJP, nor for the SP or the BSP or even the Congress. On Friday, the religious leader of Delhi’s Jama Masjid, Syed Ahmed Bukhari, called upon Muslims to vote for the Congress and not the SP or BSP, both of which, he said, had let the community down during the Muzaffarnagar riots.
If UP’s Muslim voters follow his writ, things could change — for all the contesting parties, particularly in constituencies where the Muslim vote matters. Voters in Western UP will poll in the first of the six phases that UP’s lengthy elections are divided into and many believe that what happens in the first phase, just as in a game of dominoes, can affect the other phases.
Also on Friday, two big opinion polls forecast big numbers for the BJP and its ally, Apna Dal, in UP: One gave it 42-50 seats; and the other, 53. Not surprisingly, that translated into big overall numbers for the BJP-led alliance in the same polls: 234-246 in the first; and 259 in the second.
Opinion polls sometimes go horribly wrong but there’s no disputing the fact that how it does in UP will crucially determine whether the BJP gets to win the right to form the next government. Of course, its tally in other big-seats states such as Bihar (40) and Maharashtra (48), and the outcome of its talks with new potential allies will matter too, but UP, a state from where both its prime ministerial candidate and its president are contesting, will hold the key.
Full coverage: Lok Sabha Elections 2014