In UP, the most prominent feature in ongoing elections is silence

It's a puzzling poll; not expected to flummox, but likely to checkmate perceptions

PTI05_13_2024_000467A Double engine: Modi with Yogi Adityanath during a roadshow in Varanasi | PTI

A loud silence is the most deafening noise this election has created in Uttar Pradesh. It is a puzzling poll; not expected to flummox, but likely to checkmate popular perceptions.

The BJP is banking on the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the unapologetically sanatan stance of Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, the vastly improved law and order situation, and women’s security. The Samajwadi Party and the Congress are fighting as part of the INDIA bloc, displaying their pulling power with joint rallies. The Bahujan Samaj Party is locked in a solo battle for survival, and it seems to be frittering away its chance.

There is an absence of the Ram Mandir from issues that the electorate talks about. It is now a given. Just as beneficiary schemes are. The question―what beyond these?―has no clear answers.
‘Akash Anand’s acceptability by the public has been tested. Mayawati gave him the opportunity to gain experience, but also shielded him from any taint.’ ―Ajay Kumar, assistant professor, Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University

But ‘seems’ is as good as a poll prediction gets in Uttar Pradesh. Every question―Why is the BJP fighting so hard if it is assured of a win? Do crowds at rallies really translate into votes? How far would a party go to survive?― holds its own answer, and spawns some more questions.

There is no wave, no rallying slogans. Phase after phase, the message has changed. And in every phase, the silent voter has turned out a tad less than s/he did in 2019.

Of the state’s 80 seats, 62 are with the BJP. The Congress has one; the SP, five; and the BSP, 10. The shadow of these elections will stretch to the state polls that are three years away.

Badri Narayan, director of the Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute in Prayagraj, said this was an election of narrow margins―both in victory and defeat. “There are three broad themes of the election,” he said. “An undercurrent of Modi’s popularity, the crucial role that the BSP will play in deciding margins, and the staunch opposition of Muslims that will benefit the Congress-SP.”

Modi’s popularity is an undercurrent because while one might be unable to say why one likes him, it is just as challenging to say why one should dislike him. This election, despite its monotony, is interesting in parts.

Take the case of Sultanpur, where the BJP’s Maneka Gandhi is fighting for her ninth term as MP. The BSP’s Chandra Bhadra Singh ‘Sonu’ was her closest rival in 2019, polling 4.4 lakh votes to her 4.5 lakh. Singh (not a candidate this time) is close to Adityanath and had not opposed Maneka openly. But a day before campaigning was to end, he joined the SP.

Elsewhere, Anupriya Patel, Union minister of state and president of Apna Dal (S), which is an ally of the BJP, is struggling from her two-time constituency, Mirzapur. Her rival is Daulat Singh Patel of the Apna Dal (K), a party run by her mother, Krishna, and sister Pallavi. In that profusion of same surnames, in a constituency that banks on Kurmi votes, Anupriya’s challenge is her sister, who has declared in election rallies that her party does not look at Muslims as merely a vote bank. This is a sore point for the BJP.

Tariq Shafique, an Azamgarh-based social activist, said the divide between Muslims and the rest ran deep. “Candidates here have not even bothered to go to Muslim-dominated villages,” he said. “People are united in their problems, but politics splits them apart.”

36-Priyanka-Sonia-and-Rahul-Gandhi-with-Akhilesh-Yadav Common goal: (From left) Priyanka, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi with Akhilesh Yadav | Pawan Kumar

In Azamgarh, Dharmendra Yadav―the cousin of SP president Akhilesh Yadav―is challenging the BJP’s incumbent Dinesh Lal Yadav ‘Nirahua’, a Bhojpuri actor and singer. Nirahua, voters said, had not done anything for the constituency (among his many promises was a film city), but is solely banking on Modi’s brand value. As are the 40-odd MPs whom the BJP has retained to fight this election.

The state’s silence has been made deeper by the absence of the Ram Mandir from issues that the electorate talks about. It is now a given. Just as beneficiary schemes are. The question―what beyond these?―has no clear answers.

The joint campaign of the Congress and the SP has been marked by apparent good cheer. The former, however, works with a weak on-ground organisation. In constituencies this correspondent visited, the party’s banners were missing from even its election offices. One candidate’s home-cum-office had a sticker that read, ‘Mera ghar Rahul Gandhi ji ka ghar (My home is Rahul Gandhi’s home)’, but the contestant had no campaign schedule. Uninterested party workers milled over lunch.

Chandra Prakash Rai, head of the state’s Congress media committee, admitted that a certain listlessness and lack of enthusiasm was to be expected in a party that had been out of power in the state for more than three decades. Yet, the party was putting up a good fight, he insisted. “This constant hammering of Modi, Muslim and mandir has bored the voter,” he said. “Does this country have nothing else to talk about?”

Rai, who been a witness to electoral politics since 1977, likened the election to post-Emergency, when people were eager to listen to and debate issues of national significance.

While the mainstream media might not have given space to the INDIA bloc (a charge Akhilesh Yadav made in an earlier interview with THE WEEK), social media, YouTubers and influencers have been talking about the real issues of the youth, of farmers, of the environment and the like; and getting lakhs of views. “They will play a role in this election,” said Rai.

38-Mayawati-has-pulled-her-nephew-Akash-Anand-from-the-campaign Family matters: Mayawati (left) has pulled her nephew Akash Anand from the campaign | PTI

The SP is burdened by its image. When attendees ran amok at Akhilesh’s recent rally in Azamgarh, climbing atop poles and bringing down loudspeakers, it was held as a precursor to what the party’s strengthening could look like. The focus of its election manifesto is the pichda (backward), dalit and adivasi, but the memories of the party opposing the bill for SC/ST reservation at the Centre in 2012 have not been washed away. Former chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav had called it ‘unconstitutional’. The party was also opposed to the initial calls for women’s reservation in electoral politics. However, that does not mean the electorate does not remember the SP government’s schemes, such as pension for women. Kiran Saran, who works as a domestic help in Sitapur, said, “Akhilesh ka vote bahut padega (Akhilesh will get a lot of votes)”. She said the BJP had lured people like her with false promises. “They said we will get free electricity, but are now getting bills that run into thousands of rupees,” she said. “How are we supposed to pay when everything is so expensive?”

The alliance combine has also made smart candidate selections. For the last three phases (41 seats), for example, there was just one Muslim candidate. Where candidates are popular―such as in Unnao where Annu Tandon, a former Congress MP, is fighting (on an SP ticket) the incumbent Sakshi Maharaj of the BJP―a sprinkling of local issues in election speak will sway the floating vote.

Manoj Paswan, the national general secretary of the SP’s student wing, was formerly with the BJP. The framed photos of Bhim Rao Ambedkar―which Akhilesh and Rahul Gandhi held up at a joint rally in Kanpur―were the ones Paswan had gifted Akhilesh in April.

He said that people joining the BJP to seek space and social justice in Indian politics was a ‘momentary’ event. “The BJP’s true face is opposed to women, dalits and backwards,” he said. “Akhilesh Yadav’s politics is new after the BJP came to power. He has made structural changes in the party to show his commitment to social justice and also took a backseat in the party’s earlier alliance with the BSP.”

This is borne out by the appointment of a dalit as the president of the Lohia Vahini, the party wing that propagates the socialist ideas of Ram Manohar Lohia. “This is not just an election for seats, but also about protecting cultural distinctiveness and diversity,” said Paswan.

The appending of ‘Bhagwan’ to the name of tribal leader Birsa Munda is just one example of how the BJP appropriates icons as its own for electoral gains. Unemployment and price rise are two overriding local issues. But voters said these were general worries. More state-specific issues such as sugarcane prices are brushed away as ‘not Modi’s fault’.

One of the most unexpected turnabouts of this election was made by the BSP when Mayawati pulled her nephew Akash Anand off the campaign. Anand, the party’s national coordinator, had been designated by Mayawati as her successor in December 2023. This election was his most public outing before he was officially removed from the campaign on May 7. In a post on X, Mayawati wrote that this was in the larger interest of the party and the movement; and because Anand was yet to attain “maturity”.

This is a crucial election for the BSP. In 2019, the year of a mahagathbandhan with the SP, it polled 19.4 per cent of votes and won 10 seats. In the 2022 assembly elections, it was limited to just one seat.

Anand, in his many caustic speeches, had gone as far as saying that he felt like hitting the BJP with chappals and lathis. With his removal, the most obvious conclusion was that Mayawati was loathe to take on the BJP―an impression she strengthened by saying that the SP was a bigger enemy of the dalits. This, however, is not a new statement. Yadavs are a powerful land-owning caste whom the landless dalits view as their tormentors.

Ajay Kumar, assistant professor in the department of sociology at Lucknow’s Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University, said that Anand’s removal should be viewed as strategy. “He was exposed to the public for a while but was taken back so that the BSP’s loss could not be attributed to him,” he said. “His acceptability by the public has been tested. Mayawati gave him the opportunity to gain experience, but also shielded him from any taint.”

The BSP cannot be written off just yet. Prashant Trivedi, social scientist at the Giri Institute of Development Studies, said, “The party is fighting to maintain its space. Mayawati is still the tallest dalit leader. When the BSP vote shifts, it will do so as a bloc. That is unlikely to happen just yet.” When that happens, it would mark a big change in the state and in national politics.

The BSP has turned the election into a three-way fight in over a dozen constituencies. Where it has changed candidates, it was accused of doing so to help the BJP. But there is perhaps a larger plan to these flip-flops. In Jaunpur, for instance, where local strongman Dhananjay Singh’s wife, Shrikala Reddy, was the party’s initial choice, the BSP replaced her with Shyam Singh Yadav, banking on the constituency’s more than two and a half lakh caste votes. On the face of it, this seems to eat into the SP votes, but locals say that Singh would have joined the BJP after winning the election. Some days after his wife’s ticket was cancelled (and her nomination rejected), he did exactly that. That is the kind of risk that the party―half of whose sitting MPs have joined the BJP―cannot take.

Dharamveer Chaudhary, former BSP spokesperson who joined the BJP, said that Mayawati had erred in not forming an alliance. “Behenji has forgotten that she became chief minister with support from other parties,” he said.

BSP politicians are notoriously difficult to speak to on record. One senior party member said that Mayawati was getting wrong advice from those closest to her. The party’s strength was that, lured by its core Jatav support, other parties asked for alliance; but in this election, the party has found it difficult to pick candidates.

This is also an election which the BJP is fighting with the force of 10 years of accumulated strength. This force matters even in safe seats. In Varanasi, Shyam Sundar, a comic, tried to file his nomination. “Others like me were led astray by the BJP,” he said. “The waiting lines were made longer by those submitting their papers [just for the sake of it]. When we were allowed to file our nomination on May 14 (the last day and when Modi filed his papers) it was after 3pm.”

Sundar, better known by his stage name Rangeela, had his form rejected for being incomplete. Had his papers been accepted earlier, he would have had the opportunity to make corrections, he said. There were 38 others whose papers were not accepted.

Rangeela’s comedy career hit a wall in 2017, when he mimicked Modi on a television show. His content was not political, but just an acting-out of how Modi or Rahul would talk at a chaat stall. His career never recovered, and he is limited only to social media as television channels either do not approach him or stall after initial conversations. “Good or bad, comics just do not want to talk about politics,” he said. “When I pranked some of them through phone calls in the prime minister’s voice, they insisted I delete the recordings.”

In Uttar Pradesh, putting a seat tally against party names is a perilous stance. In a silent election, doubly so. But it is safe to hazard that this election will broadly stick to the state’s current seat distribution pattern. It is only in the finer details of that distribution that this election will make sense.