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In final lap of UP polls, BJP surges ahead; SP-Congress alliance fights back

The UP polls is now turning into a larger battle driven by the Modi factor. Upper castes, particularly Brahmins, are playing a key role in constructing the Modi ‘hawa’.

india Updated: Feb 27, 2017 08:00 IST
Prashant Jha
Prashant Jha
Hindustan Times, Sultanpur/Bahraich/Gonda/Lucknow
Uttar Pradesh,Assembly elections,BJP
The UP polls is now turning into a larger battle driven by the Modi factor even as Congress-SP alliance is fighting to hold on to the edge they had been having.(Reuters Photo)

Rama Shankar Tiwari is chewing paan in the Kanhaipur kasba of Lambuha assembly constituency in Sultanpur.

He does not hesitate to offer an opinion about the elections, as Sultanpur prepares to vote on Monday. “There is no alternative to Modiji. The country is secure. We are all getting food. He has sent cylinders to villages. What else do we want?”

Lalit Mishra, a driver who works in Delhi but has returned home to his village, nods. “The central and state government should be the same. And so we need BJP in Lucknow also.”

Hundreds of kilometres away, in the Khatena bazaar of Bahraich district, Mahesh Kumar Dubey runs a small electronics shop, where he repairs laptops and downloads videos and songs on phones.

“Modiji is committed to equality. He treats all of us alike. Look at Akhilesh. He abused such an international leader like Modiji and called him “gadhe” (donkey). Is this the way to talk?”

Prabhat Awasthi, standing by the side, jumps in to say he was a part of a survey team for a Hindi news channel and travelled to 25 districts. “Modiji ka chunaav hai. (This is Modiji’s election.) He is sweeping.”

If the initial phases the UP assembly election were a completely seat-by-seat contest driven by local arithmetic so far, it is now turning into a larger competition driven by the Modi factor. Upper castes, particularly Brahmins, are playing a key role in constructing the Modi ‘hawa’.

But is this enough?

The SP-Congress alliance acknowledges the shift in dynamics, has a counter-strategy for the next three phases, and believes its advantage in the first two phases will still make it the single largest formation.

The Surge

The fact that upper castes would be BJP’s core constituency in this election was well known.

But as we have moved eastwards, and as the election has progressed, they have become far more vocal in articulating this support. This is important because Brahmins in particular wield influence disproportionate to their numbers—they control the public square, and can shape opinion and media narratives.

Besides them, BJP also has the support of a multitude of non-Yadav OBC groups, making it a formidable bloc.

The BJP’s own calculation, a top strategist says, is that 83% upper castes are voting for the party, and there is “unprecedented consolidation”.

A Brahmin journalist in Allahabad explains the surge. “The natural preference of the Brahmin voter is BJP. It is only when the BJP does not have a winning combination that they look elsewhere. In this election, BJP is in the race. They seem to be winning, and so the Brahmin consolidation is behind it.”

Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi and Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav pass under foliage as they take part in a joint roadshow in Allahabad last week. ( AFP )

Acknowledgment of Shift

Top strategists of the SP-Congress alliance led by Prashant Kishor have closely been monitoring the shifts in preferences on a daily basis, and acknowledge there is indeed an increase in support.

But their figures are different.

A top strategist closely involved in the alliance campaign, drawing out data on his smartphone, says, “The BJP had the support of about 65% upper castes on February 11. This shot up to about 73% by February 25. What you are catching on the ground is this spike. The BJP has also increased its support among non-Yadav OBCs by a couple of percentage points, from 56 to 58% or so.”

The reasons for this shift are not very clear, though one explanation offered by the alliance camp is that it could be due to an anti-Yadav polarisation, more than any anti-Muslim polarisation.

But this, the alliance believes, is manageable. And for that, they have deployed all their resources in the next three phases.

The Counter

For one, in the next three phases, the alliance is putting up 45 upper caste candidates in 141 seats.

“33 of these candidates are from the SP, 12 from Congress. Add another 5 Bania candidates, 4 from SP, one from Congress. So, over one-third of our candidates in the next three phases are upper caste. This cohort will play a major role in stopping the upper caste consolidation behind BJP. In those seats, the vote is sure to fragment,” reveals the strategist.

He points out that as long as the upper caste vote for BJP remains around 65-70%, the alliance is still comfortable because this means it is getting one third of the upper caste votes, which added with Muslims and Yadavs is enough to see them through. It is when the consolidation increases beyond 70-72% that BJP ends up getting a decisive edge. The alliance upper caste candidates are meant to stop this.

Second, the alliance has deployed 300 non-Yadav OBC leaders of the SP and Congress in Purvanchal, for door-to-door campaigning in their caste pockets.

“Kurmi, Kashyap, Rajbhar, Saini, Shakya leaders of both our parties are on the ground in the villages trying to stop the shift to BJP. We know a dominant share is with them. We have to ensure it does not increase,” the strategist says. 22 of the 141 candidates from the alliance are non-Yadav OBCs.

The Early Edge

But even if the BJP does very well in the next three phases, alliance strategists claim it will still not be enough for them to make up for their losses in the initial phases.

For one, they say that Muslims and Yadavs have consolidated— and this means that the alliance has close to 110 seats.

“They live in concentrated areas. Don’t underestimate this formidable combination. Without doing anything, over a hundred seats are in the bag,” the strategist says.

In the next three phases, the alliance has put up 24 Yadav and 25 Muslim candidates.

But their other reason for confidence is the belief that they have a cushion, while the BJP does not.

“They did very poorly in the first phase because of Jats, and in the second phase where polarisation benefited us in Muslim-concentrated areas. They are not sweeping any district with a large number of seats. Our performance in the third phase has also been underestimated,” he said.

And so, the argument offered by the alliance is that even with a surge, BJP will get stuck at 120 seats or so, leaving the SP-Congress alliance close to the majority mark.

As the minds behind the campaign grapple with the maths in Lucknow, the ground is churning, ready for the final lap of UP elections.

First Published: Feb 26, 2017 12:32 IST