UP polls: The many labours facing Akhilesh

UP polls: The many labours facing Akhilesh

He has successfully projected himself as BJP's main rival, but can he convince people his govt would offer a better deal than BJP's

Samajwadi Party (SP) president Akhilesh Yadav. Credit: PTI Photo

Samajwadi Party (SP) president Akhilesh Yadav has travelled across Uttar Pradesh, appealing for another chance to govern the state. His tours have thus far been mainly confined to central and eastern UP.

An alliance with the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) has been sewn up, and Akhilesh Yadav and RLD chief Jayant Chaudhary are expected to hit the road together next month. With the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) re-calibrating its strategy on west UP by shelving the farm laws, the RLD and SP may want to prepare suitably for the death overs.

Also Read | Akhilesh seals deal with RLD, electoral equations to change in 'Jatland'

But will all these adjustments be enough to challenge the BJP in a state where the ruling party has consistently polled more than 40 per cent of votes in the last three elections - one assembly and two Lok Sabha polls?

Numbers speak for themselves. 

Consider the 2017 Assembly polls when the BJP won 64 out of 71 seats it contested in the first phase of the elections in western UP. With a strike rate of over 85 per cent, the BJP registered this stellar performance despite discernible undertones of farm unrest in the districts bordering Delhi. Only in Saharanpur, the SP-Congress alliance click to damage the BJP. The Congress picked two seats out of seven in the district while the SP snatched the city seat from the BJP, and the BJP bagged the remaining four seats. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which went solo, failed to open its account. 

Also Read | Uttar Pradesh Assembly Polls: The Pasmanda factor

Two years later, in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the SP, BSP and RLD forged a pre-poll grand alliance or mahagathbandhan. This three-party alliance that looked formidable on the paper could win just seven of the 19 Lok Sabha seats in the region extending from Ghaziabad to Fatehpur Sikri near Agra. The grand alliance won its seats where the Dalit plus Muslim population is more than 60 per cent, so we saw the BSP win Saharanpur, Bijnor, Nagina, Amroha. At the same time, the SP romped home in Sambhal, Rampur and Moradabad.

In constituencies where the Muslim and Dalit population is between 50 to 60 per cent, the grand alliance put up a strong fight, but the BJP still managed to scrape through by a thin margin. Both Ajit Singh and Jayant Chaudhary lost from their pocket boroughs in Muzaffarnagar and Baghpat, respectively, and the BJP managed to retain even Meerut. 

The BJP won seats where the Dalit-Muslim combine was less than 45 per cent comfortably. In terms of votes and seats, the BJP improved its performance considerably compared to the 2009 Lok Sabha polls when the party could win only in three out of 19 seats in west UP, and this number shot up to 18 in 2014. Effectively, the party lost a mere six seats against the combined strength of the SP, BSP and RLD in 2019 over the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.

The difference between 2019 and 2022 polls

However, between the 2019 and 2022 polls, three independent variables have crept in, which may influence the polling preference of some communities in west UP.

The BSP is going solo these elections. If Mayawati's grip over the Jatav votes remains intact, and so it seems, the quotient of opposition unity against the BJP then comes down by more than a few points. 

Also Read | BJP takes aim at SP's 'farmer aid' announcement ahead of 2022 Assembly polls

Secondly, despite Asaduddin Owasi making a strong pitch to attract young Muslim voters, minorities are silent yet consolidated and see the SP-led alliance as the primary challenger to the BJP. Jayant Chaudhary stands to gain among Muslim voters if the RLD is to align with the SP. However, whether he would succeed in transferring his votes to the SP candidates in the same measure remains unclear. The Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) and RLD have both tried to paper over the communal cracks.

The third variable, which in popular perception may impact polls, is the protracted farm protests anchored by the BKU. The RLD attempts to ride piggyback the sentiment on the electoral battlefield. The three central farm laws all but stand withdrawn, and the BJP is trying to reach out to the agrarian communities again.

Suppose one were to presume that voting preferences of the two large social blocks, the upper castes for the BJP and the minorities for the opposition, remain intact. Where will the SP-RLD combine then fill in the deficit created by the BSP's withdrawal from the grand alliance?

Will the BKU mobilisation on the farm laws generate enough attrition to make seats change hands? Is price rise pinching the common person enough to create substantial away drift from the BJP? Will the farmer identity overwhelm or trump caste or religious identity when voters queue up at the polling booths? All these issues appear far from settled as a large section of the voters remains undecided.

The undecided voter

A large percentage of these undecided voters belongs to the unmarked social blocks, especially among the backward communities that are numerically small but constitute 20 per cent or more of UP's electorate. For instance, of the seven seats in Saharanpur, it is more or less clear how the upper castes, minorities and Dalits will vote. What could tilt the scales would be the voting pattern among the backward classes, particularly Gujjars and Sainis. Similarly, Gujjars and Kashyap may together decide the outcome is some seats in Muzaffarnagar and Kairana.

In his campaign thus far, Akhilesh Yadav has sought to project himself as the leader of the backward classes. In west UP, too, his party held backward sammelan, or meeting, earlier this month. It was organised by the Kashyap community in Budhana near Muzaffarnagar.

The template for gaining the confidence of this section was evident when Akhilesh Yadav addressed a public meeting at the DAV College, Budhana. Skirting any issue that may flare up the memory of the 2013 communal violence, the SP chief kept it straight and simple, focusing instead on unemployment, inflation and caste census. But will all this be enough to wrest the intermediary section of voters which has taken turns to test all three parties - the BSP, SP and BJP in the last 15 years? These communities have for long competed with numerically dominant Yadavs for their political pie within the OBC block.

The BJP, in its five-year tenure, has gone hyper-local by doling out targeted welfare schemes. Does the SP in 2022 have something more to offer than mere assurance on a caste census? Will Akhilesh Yadav spell out a credible, more participatory and equitable mode for backward classes that are over and above the SP's base support base among the Yadav community? There will also be obvious comparisons between the law and order situation in the state during Adityanath and Akhilesh Yadav's tenures as chief ministers. People would want to know how the SP of 2022 would differ from the one that ruled for five years with a majority between 2012 and 2017?

The Samajwadi Party has thus far been able to attract many influential district-level leaders from both the BSP and Congress. In Ambedkarnagar, for instance, the most prominent BSP faces and OBC leaders Ram Achal Rajbhar and Lalji Verma have joined the SP. Interestingly though, despite murmurs in the political corridors of Lucknow, the SP has not been able to wean away leaders of equivalent stature from the ruling party. 

In 2012, Akhilesh Yadav projected the SP as the "new SP", akin to Tony Blair's New Labour. He started with a clean slate and denied tickets to dons turned politicians, like DP Yadav, to convince voters that the SP had more to offer than its usual Mandal rhetoric. He projected IIM graduates, like Abhishek Mishra, as part of his inner circle. It was all part of the messaging that the party offered a new deal for communities outside its traditional Muslim-Yadav vote base.

In the run-up to the 2022 polls, the SP chief has successfully projected himself as the primary challenger to the ruling party in Lucknow. He will now be tested on his ability to sell a deal to the electorate better than what is already available on the table by the BJP.

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox

Check out all newsletters

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox