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Lok Sabha elections 2019: Opposition gains ground but battles leadership, narrative issues

If there is one seat the SP-BSP is confident about in the west UP belt, it is Budayun. Represented by Dharmendra Yadav, a member of the SP’s ruling family, the party was able to withstand the Modi wave here in 2014.

lok sabha elections Updated: Mar 14, 2019 12:24 IST
Prashant Jha
Prashant Jha
Hindustan Times, Deoband/Shamli/Moradabad/Budayun/Etah
Opposition,Narendra Modi,Congress
In Saharanpur’s Nanauta, a group of men from Jatav community calls the Centre anti-Dalit and voices support for the BSP.(HT Photo)

Outside the iconic Darul-Uloom Deoband in Saharanpur district is a small shop selling shawls and scents. Mohammad Talha, who is in his late 50s, has been running it for close to a decade and speaks of the limited returns the shop gets, even as his living costs have kept increasing.

Talha is following the electoral process closely. He believes that Narendra Modi must lose. “It is about livelihood. Dangon ka dar nahin hai (We are not scared of riots). But his government’s policies like demonetisation broke our back. For weeks, there was no sale.”

But he is not too hopeful, for there are two candidates challenging the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) here: Imran Masood of the Congress; and Haji Fazlur Rahman of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) representing the alliance of BSP-Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD). “Muslim votes will split between the Congress and the BSP, and the BJP could make it.”

A little further up the road, Amrez Alam, another shopkeeper in his 40s, agrees that there is a possibility of some split in the community’s votes. But he believes that the BSP candidate is way ahead. “Masood is a strong leader but he won’t get much Hindu votes. The BSP candidate will get Dalit votes also. I think the alliance will win.” Will the Balakot air strikes change things? Alam does not think so. “The BJP’s own supporters have become vocal but those who were against them remain against them.” Mohammad Azim, a bystander, argues that people are educated now, and livelihood concerns will matter most. But he has a piece of advice. “The Congress should ally with the alliance in the state. The SP-BSP is much stronger. Here, SP-BSP should back Masood.”

Less than half-an-hour from the Deoband Madrasa is the Shabirpur village. In 2017, tensions had broken out here between Thakurs and Dalits, posing a serious political and law and order challenge for the Yogi Adityanath government. The polarisation between the communities remains pronounced.

Out of approximately 2,400 voters in the village, one-third are from the Jatav community (the Dalit sub-caste which is perceived to be most loyal to Mayawati), says a local Dalit leader, sitting below a picture of Babasaheb Ambedkar. He did not wish to be identified. Even as the Thakurs of the village continue to support the BJP, the Dalits are firmly with the BSP. The leader says, “Behenji has done the right thing by allying with SP. The BJP’s loss here will be justice for us.”

In Nanauta, a bazaar on the state highway in Saharanpur, similar voices of support for the BSP can be heard. Shyam Singh, in his 40s, is sharply critical of the Narendra Modi government and mocks its claims. “They said open bank account. But there is nothing in the bank account. The government said we are giving gas cylinders but we don’t get subsidy. Under the BJP, Thakurs of Shabirpur can celebrate Maharana Pratap, burn Dalit homes, but will not allow Dalits to celebrate Babasaheb. This government is anti-Dalit.”

It is in these voices that both the strength and the potential vulnerabilities of the Opposition can be discerned in Uttar Pradesh (UP). With a substantial Jatav and Muslim population, which is wedded to voting out the BJP, Saharanpur should have represented an easy seat for the opposition. Take the arithmetic of 2014. The BJP won the seat with 4,72,999 votes (39.59% vote share); the Congress’ Masood came a close second with 4.07,909 votes (34.14% vote share); and the BSP’s Jagdish Singh Rana got 2,35,033 (19.67%) votes and the SP candidate got 52,765 votes.

But here is the rub. The Congress’s candidate has a strong electoral background, but he missed the bus last time and now faces a stronger BSP. Unlike last time, the BSP has put up a Muslim candidate this time who could eat into Masood’s votes. The BSP continues to enjoy tremendous support among Jatavs of the area, but it is difficult to spot support among other communities. In this fragmented non-BJP landscape, the saffron outfit could well pull through.

And this is the story across many districts HT travelled to in west UP. The Opposition has strong, but limited, pockets of support. Where it has influential local leaders, the BJP has a challenge. But the split between the SP-BSP and the Congress is harming both. In addition, besides the advantage of arithmetic, the Opposition is lacking in key respects. It does not have a strong overarching narrative, strong national leadership and needs wider social coalitions beyond its caste and religious vote base.

The strengths

If there is one seat the SP-BSP is confident about in the west UP belt, it is Budayun. Represented by Dharmendra Yadav, a member of the SP’s ruling family, the party was able to withstand the Modi wave here in 2014.

The support persists and spreads across caste. On the Manikapur road in Ujhani, Rohitash Kumar Prajapati, a B.Tech student, says he would like Modi to return as PM. But in this constituency, he would vote for Yadav. “He has worked hard here. He recently brought a medical college to the area.”

Indeed, Yadav got 48.5% of the vote, followed by the BJP which got 32.3% vote share. The BSP came third with 15% vote share. With the BSP supporting the SP in this election, their combined vote share — extrapolated from the 2014 election — is close to 65%.

There is, however, one challenge for Yadav. As in Saharanpur, here, too, the Congress has put up a Muslim candidate: Saleem Iqbal Shervani, who has been a four-time MP from the constituency between 1996 and 2009 from the SP. Will Shervani cut Muslim votes? Locals do not think so. A group of Muslim men — Liaqat, Rashid, and Ali Mohammed — in Ujhani blame the Congress. “Shervani is ruining his reputation. They should just back Yadav.”

The model Yadav represents — of a strong local face — is what the alliance will seek to play on in another seat, Muzaffarnagar. RLD supremo, Ajit Singh, is contesting here; the BJP’s most likely candidate will be the incumbent, Sanjeev Baliyan. The stark communal polarisation in the wake of the riots last time had given the BJP a comfortable win here. Baliyan won close to 59% of the vote alone across Hindu communities.

This time around, a local Muzaffarnagar journalist, who did not wish to be identified, points out the challenge is severe. “Ajit Singh is telling people this is his last election. Jats feel nostalgic about the RLD as their own party. There is also resentment because of pending sugarcane dues. We will have to see if Muslim voters of the SP-BSP and Dalit voters of the BSP also support Singh because of the alliance. If the communal divide is actually bridged, then this Jat-Muslim-Dalit coalition is unbeatable.”

But he adds that the situation is fluid. “On the other hand, Jats could still go with the BJP or split; Muslims may not be as enthusiastic about a Jat candidate. And Baliyan’s margin of victory was huge last time around.” It is also unclear yet what the Congress, admittedly a marginal player in the seat, will do. If it puts up a Muslim candidate, it could suit the BJP.

This combination of strong local leaders, and a committed support base of Muslims and Jatavs in particular, is what the Opposition is banking on most in these parts of the state.

What’s not working

But while local permutations in select seats may give non-BJP forces more seats this time around in UP, the Opposition’s campaign is marked by several key gaps.

The single biggest issue is leadership. Voters are making a distinction between a national election and state election. And across constituencies, even those who were willing to entertain other options, argued that there was little point in voting for the SP-BSP or the Congress in a general election.

Sahib Singh belongs to the Dhobi sub-caste. In Kasganj’s Manpur Nagariya, which falls under the Etah Lok Sabha constituency, Singh has a litany of complaints against the state BJP government of Yogi Adityanath. But he says he will back Modi for PM. “The Congress is not a factor here and Rahul Gandhi cannot be PM. Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav are UP parties and won’t win enough seats. For the big [national] election, I will vote for Modi. For the small [state] election, I will vote for Akhilesh.”

This is coupled with the absolute narrative dominance of the BJP.

A drive through Budayun, Etah and Hathras — with a dozen stops across bazaars and villages — threw up the same story last week. At each stop, across castes, the political conversation revolved around the Pulwama attack and the government’s response; the central government’s welfare schemes in rural areas; the farm income support initiative and how many had begun getting the first instalment of ?2,000 in their accounts while others were waiting in the queue; and how India needed five more years of Narendra Modi. This is exactly the messaging that has emanated from the BJP. Issues the Opposition would have liked to push — from the difficulties posed by stray cattle to the agrarian distress, from the impact of demonetisation to the lack of jobs — barely figured.

And finally, the Opposition, especially the SP-BSP alliance, may appear strong because of its existing support groups of Yadavs, Jatavs and Muslims. But the absence of support from other groups will hurt its prospects.

Back in Kairana, a seat RLD won in a bypoll last year, a local SP leader explains, “Muslims will vote for us anyway. If we give a ticket to a Muslim, though, Jats will shift to the BJP. If we want to retain the seat, we must give a ticket to a Jat. In fact, across constituencies, our strategy must be to give tickets to non-Yadav, non-Muslim, non-Jatav candidates to expand our social base.”

Non-BJP parties may do better in 2019 than they did in 2014 in UP, but if they want to stop the saffron juggernaut, they have a lot of ground to cover in quick time.

First Published: Mar 14, 2019 07:31 IST