Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath. (PTI) PREMIUM
Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath. (PTI)

The battle for UP: Assertive Yogi vs a fragmented Opposition

Though politics is all about imponderables, it’s getting clearer by the day that the Opposition space is becoming overcrowded with political parties making the electoral battle easier for the ruling BJP and allies, which swept the state by winning 325 of the 403 seats in 2017
By Sunita Aron
UPDATED ON JUL 29, 2021 01:57 PM IST

The battle lines for the 2022 Uttar Pradesh assembly polls have been clearly drawn and defined: It’s an assertive chief minister (CM) Yogi Adityanath versus a divided Opposition.

And while the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), after months of dissent and disagreement, has closed ranks, the Opposition remains fragmented, damaging each other’s electoral prospects rather than defeating the mighty BJP.

Though politics is all about imponderables, it’s getting clearer by the day that the Opposition space is becoming overcrowded with political parties making the electoral battle easier for the ruling BJP and allies, which swept the state by winning 325 of the 403 seats in 2017. The BJP had then independently polled 39.67% of votes and won 312 seats.

The trust deficit in the Opposition

The three prominent Opposition parties – the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Congress — partly share a common vote base. For instance, minorities and Dalits have been supporters of the Congress in the past and are now divided between the SP and the BSP.

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As of now, the SP, along with the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), is the front-runner in the Opposition camp, followed by the BSP and the Congress, somewhat a repeat of the 2017 tally, albeit with a difference. The SP had an ally in Congress then. The asap had contested 298 seats and the Congress, 105, of which they won 47 (21.82% votes) and seven (6.25%) seats, respectively. The BSP had won 19 of the 403 seats contested.

Although the Congress has started making some feeble noises about its search for a poll partner, severe mistrust prevails between the three prominent groups and it stems from their bitter experience of recent alliances.

In the 2017 elections, the SP and the Congress’s tie-up was touted as the coming together of two young leaders – Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi. The alliance miserably failed as their camaraderie before the camera did not reflect in the field.

Similarly, in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati’s decision to sink their decades-old differences to form a mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) took the political world by storm. But it did not translate into votes with SP leaders accusing the BSP of betraying their trust. While the BSP gained, the SP felt it had suffered huge losses. For its part, the BSP felt that the alliance had electorally helped the SP but SP’s votes didn’t transfer to BSP candidates.

Besides, there are smaller parties, with pockets of caste or regional influence, threatening to taking away a chunk of Opposition votes if there is no deal with either the SP or the BSP.

Bhagidari Sankalp Morcha includes nine smaller parties. These are the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) led by Asaduddin Owaisi, Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP) of Om Prakash Rajbhar, Jan Adhikar Party led by Babu Singh Kushwaha, Rashtriya Uday Party of Babu Rampal, Rashtriya Upekshit Samaj Party of Premchanda Prajapati and Janata Kranti Party of Anil Singh Chauhan. Om Prakash Rajbhar, chief of SBSP, made an effort to rope in the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) also, but was rebuffed.

Opposition’s base, on the ground

Maulana Zulfiqar Ali of All India Imam Association, Muzaffarnagar, is a worried man because of the religious divide. He contends that though Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra fought for the minorities, who were allegedly subjected to atrocities during the five-year BJP rule, the Congress remains a weak party.

According to him, the fight will narrow down between the BJP and the SP, as the Muslims have seen Owaisi’s role in Bihar and West Bengal. His statement comes in the background of the speculations about Owaisi’s growing influence over younger Muslims.

Also Read | Success of Brahmin conferences has left oppn worried: Maya

Ali says Tejashwi Yadav lost Bihar because of Owaisi, who — Ali claims — defeated Yadav in 25 seats and won five. But in West Bengal, Trinamool Congress president Mamata Banerjee formed the government as Muslims, according to Ali, could see through Owaisi’s game.

Om Prakash Rajbhar twice met Akhilesh Yadav for an alliance for the 2017 polls. However, the talks ran into trouble because of Owaisi, who is also a member of their front. He said the Bhagidari Sankalp Morcha is open to an alliance with SP or BSP. But Mayawati has already ruled out an alliance with smaller parties, though she also faces challenges from Bhim Army in West UP.

SK Dwivedi, former head of the political science department at Lucknow University, told HT that the major political parties cannot ignore the role of smaller parties in garnering votes.

Rajesh Singh from Gorakhpur feels that people are on the lookout for a viable political alternative, the question is the presence of the Opposition. According to him, a divided Opposition is not a matter of concern as people do pick their best option. Akhilesh Yadav will have to assert himself and be that alternative.

Nonetheless, the battle will be ugly, with mudslinging campaigns from both sides, much of which will be fought on social media and have a communal and political subtext. SP workers in Agra were booked for allegedly raising Pakistan Zindabad slogans during their statewide protest against the misuse of official machinery in the block pramukh elections. And a day after Priyanka Gandhi Vadra arrived in the state capital and staged a dharna, Lucknow police lodged cases against state Congress chief Ajay Kumar Lallu and 600 workers for violating Covid-19 protocols and police restrictions.

State Congress President Lallu told HT that as many as 100 cases have been slapped against him in the last year and a half. Besides about 20,000 party workers have been jailed for three months in this short period. But, he said, “We will continue to strengthen our organisation and raise voice against oppression of any kind.”

The BJP’s script

The electoral battle has already started with Prime Minister Narendra Modi blowing the bugle from his constituency of Varanasi, where he also gave a clear message by endorsing the CM’s performance and governance of the state. A few days later, the BJP’s national president JP Nadda did the same, in a way silencing the CM’s detractors within the party who, till then, were insisting that, like the 2017 assembly polls, Modi will be the face of the party in the elections.

It may be recalled here that barring Modi, the BJP hoardings did not carry any other face – in some constituencies, not even of the candidate. It was the party symbol and Modi. Thus, the election was fought without a CM face.

June 2021 saw a lot of drama with senior BJP-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) leaders holding brainstorming sessions in the party office amid rising voices against the government’s handling of the Covid-19 second wave. Many lawmakers also protested against the CM’s purported style of functioning.

But those who were hoping for a change of leadership were snubbed by the prime minister, who while condemning “mafia raj” and “bhai bhatija vaad” of earlier regimes, lauded the CM for following the policy of vikasvaad (development), changing the political discourse in his party from the change of leadership to certifying Adityanath and his performance.

Till the PM-CM meeting in Delhi on July 9, speculation was rife about Delhi’s plan to clip the CM’s wings by inducting Modi’s close aide AK Sharma, former bureaucrat-turned-politician, in the state cabinet or moving the CM to the Centre as then the Union Cabinet expansion exercise was on.

What transpired between the PM and the CM is not known, but many feel that the CM might have presented his report card and asserted his ability to win UP for the party or could have even offered to resign instead of shifting his base from Lucknow to Delhi.

The fact remains that the BJP cannot afford to have a sulking Adityanath who has not only emerged as an icon of Hindutva, but has cultivated a strong base amongst Rajputs and Hindu hardliners. And now he is the party’s face in the elections.

However, the party high command is concerned about the caste calculus which they tried to set right by inducting backward castes in the Cabinet. Yet, some castes such as Brahmins and Nishads are still feeling neglected. Adityanath may go for a Cabinet expansion even though the new ministers will get the position for a few months with the huge responsibility of mobilising their respective castes in the polls than governing the state.

As political analyst SK Srivastava told HT, the BJP won the 2017 assembly elections with the support of the non-Yadav backward castes, non-Jatav Dalits, as well as upper-caste Brahmins and Rajputs. The BJP leaders were now working to retain the support of these caste groups by wooing their leaders, he said.

As the UP battle intensifies, the current landscape is marked by this contest between an emboldened Yogi Adityanath and a fragmented Opposition.

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