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Elections Phase Seven: The UP End Game...

In phase seven of the elections, there are many challenges for the BJP: farmer unrest, youth unemployment, shifting alliances, local sentiments, and the Agniveer controversy.

By Prem Panicker
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Phase Seven

Elections Phase Seven: The UP End Game... | Photo courtesy: https://www.narendramodi.in/

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Elections Phase Seven: The UP End Game...

"Democracy ki baat karo to banda zinda hai."

A close friend relayed the quote to me, from an influential person in Uttar Pradesh.

So true. If, back in January when the country was collectively marinating in the imminence of Ram Rajya, someone had told me that the Constitution would become an issue in the 2024 elections, I’d have taken good care to put distance between me and him. Or her.

And yet here we are — in a world where samvidhaan ko bachana hai has moved from the “wooly-headed Khan Market Le-Li” circles into the political mainstream, and is applause-bait when an Opposition leader invokes it from the stump.

I’m not complaining — I’m cheering.

For now, focus is on phase seven - finally the final phase of these elections, the campaigning for which will end later this evening. (Side note: Today, Narendra Modi campaigns in Punjab and Rahul Gandhi in Odisha. I have a sneaking feeling that both sides would have been better off doing it the other way around — a thought I’ll come back to in a subsequent post).

IN Uttar Pradesh, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the mukya yajaman led the pran prathishta of the under-construction Ram Temple on January 22 and ushered in Ram Rajya, who would have thought rampant unemployment would be the hidden tripwire lying in wait for the BJP?

Ground reports, local journalists and vox populi gathered by journalists of all stripes dovetail into one conclusion: There is a perfect storm hitting the ruling party where it hurts the most – in the state where they expected to make the most gains by riding the Hindutva wave in the wake of the Ayodhya event, and where the party’s campaigner-in-chief fashioned his message around the temple:

The Congress will put Ram Lalla back in a tent… Congress will put a Babri lock on the Ram temple… Congress plans to bulldoze Ram temple…

In this final phase - phase seven - the last 13 seats in the state, all in the Purvanchal region in eastern UP that includes the Prime Minister’s constituency, will vote.

In 2019, the BJP won 10 of those constituencies. Its sleeping partner the BSP won one, and NDA ally Apna Dal won two (including Anupriya Singh Patel, who became MoS for Commerce and Industry in the Modi cabinet).

The Samajwadi Party was a distant runner up in six seats and lost closely fought elections in two others; the BSP placed second in three; the BJP in two (behind the BSP both times); and the Congress struck out.

The only competitive seats in 2019 were Chandauli, where the BJP defeated the SP by a margin of 1.29% of the votes, and Ballia where the BJP won by 1.57% of the votes (with SP again on the losing side). Every other seat saw winning margins in excess of 10%.

On paper, no contest. On the ground the reverse is true, and the reasons for the turnaround are many. There is, obviously, the SP/Congress alliance which has been working surprisingly smoothly, not just at the leadership level but also on the ground. The Congress, junior partner in the alliance, has been given two seats in this phase. The benefits are not arithmetical, though — the Congress does not have a big enough voting base in this region for vote transfer to make a significant impact.

What the Alliance has going in its favour is that the voter seems increasingly taken with the obvious chemistry between Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi (with a nod to Priyanka Gandhi, who has been campaigning vigorously across the state and drawing large crowds of women). Gandhi’s presence has also helped swing the Muslim community, which had otherwise deserted the Samajwadi Party, back onto the side of the Alliance, linking up with the Yadavs, disaffected OBCs and EBCs, and Dalits.

The real problem for the BJP however comes from elsewhere: palpable farmer unrest coupled with youth anger over chronic, and rising, unemployment; women upset with rising poverty and seduced by the Congress promise of Rs 8,500 per month; the drift away from the BSP, with the Dalit community increasingly seeing Mayawati as a proxy for the BJP and not the defender of Dalit interests she positions herself as being; and surprisingly, the relentless barrage of hate speech from Modi, Amit Shah, Yogi Adityanath and others that appears to have jarred on an electorate with more visceral concerns on their minds.

Then there is the Agniveer issue. Of all the states in the Union, UP sends the most number of young men and women to the Indian armed forces, and the BJP’s “masterstroke” has gone down badly with this constituency.

Side note: Agniveer is not merely a political hot potato, but increasingly a national security issue as well. A recent Indian Express news report said the army is increasingly worried by the shortfall in recruitment, which is exacerbating an existing shortage of personnel. Against 71,804 soldiers recruited in the 2015-16 period, the numbers slipped to around the 50,000 mark in the next three years. Recruitment rallied briefly in 2019-20 with 80,572 soldiers joining the army, but there was no recruitment in the following three years owing to Covid and related issues. In 2023-24, a merely 13,000 soldiers were recruited and, in this connection, note that the Agniveer scheme was launched on 14 June 2022.

The army, worried that it is falling well below operational strength, is reported to be “taking stock” of feedback from serving Agniveers and, simultaneously, announcing plans to hold 96 recruitment rallies around the country. The groundswell of discontent forced even Defence Minister Rajnath Singh to say, in March this year, that the government is open to making changes in the scheme if required.

For analysts, the Agniveer scheme is a national security issue — and so it should be. But policy makers and stroke-the-masters types forget that policy is, ultimately, for and about people. A journalist from the heartland who I work with at IndiaSpend briefed me on the societal side of the issue.

Young men who were preparing for the army recruitment exams decided, when the scheme was launched and its implications became widely known, that they would rather try out for other jobs. “I don’t want to join the army and clean toilets there,” was and remains a common refrain.

In the heartland, there is a huge cachet to being a soldier, or being a family with a soldier son. There is no social cachet, however, to having an Agniveer son — in fact, the reverse is true. Families refuse to give their daughters in marriage to Agniveers, arguing that after four years he will be jobless, with no benefits, and therefore in no position to look after a wife. The young men know this, and it gives them yet another reason to steer well clear of that form of soldiering.

It is not national security considerations that is moving the voter in the heartland — it is this very real societal issue that speaks to their sense of self-worth, and equally to their prospects. That is why Gandhi, who likely picked up on this during his foot-slog across the country, has been hammering away — to the accompaniment of prolonged cheers — at the promise to tear up the scheme and chuck it in the dustbin if and when the Alliance assumes power at the Centre.

Yadav and Gandhi have in their campaigns focussed almost manically on these three faultlines: farmers, women, and unemployment/Agniveer. Yadav has been particularly shrewd in linking two discrete faultlines into one.

Thus, he picked on the anger over the leak earlier this year of question papers for the constable recruitment and promotion exam in UP and linked it to growing unemployment, flogging the line that the papers were leaked deliberately in order to get the exams cancelled and thus avoid having to provide jobs.

Note that after the army, joining the police is the biggest aspiration for young men in the region, as evidenced by the fact that for the exams in February, approximately 48.2 lakh aspirants appeared for just 60,244 posts.

In an election that is being fought on local issues, all of these coalesce into a huge headache for the BJP — and then there are the hyper-local ones that may not ramify across the whole region, but can impact outcomes in individual seats.

One such is centred in Ghazipur, home base of the gangster/politician Mukhtar Ansari who died in late March this year. Fifteen days before his death, Ansari had been given a life sentence in connection with a fake arms licence case.

UP CM Adityanath made political capital out of the case, pointing to it as an example of his government’s zero-tolerance policy towards crime. On the day Ansari was produced in court to hear his sentence, Adityanath spoke of how Ansari had “wet his pants” when he was “dragged to court”. And when the don died, Adityanath gave his base some nod-and-wink red meat with the statement that “unko marna hi tha”.

Ansari’s family believes he was murdered, and large segments of the local populace share that belief. They point to the fact that 10 days before his death, Ansari had told a court in Barabanki that he was experiencing continuous pain in his limbs, and that he suspected that some poison was being introduced into his food. In the wake of his death, the UP government ordered a magisterial inquiry, of which nothing has been heard since; Akhilesh Yadav had at the time demanded that a judge of the Supreme Court should conduct an inquiry.

In Ghazipur and surrounding areas, none of this has gone down well — Ansari was by repute an old-fashioned don in the Varadaraja Mudaliar/Don Corleone mould, involved in every criminal enterprise going but equally, taking care of the needs of the ordinary citizen who sought his help, irrespective of their religion or caste. Thus, it is not just the Muslims who,  as per the 2011 census, comprise 10.17% of the population but equally the Hindus (89.32% of the population) who are incensed with the government over what they see as the deliberate killing of someone who was one of their own.

Mukhtar’s brother Afzal Ansari had won the Ghazipur constituency in 2019 on a BSP ticket, defeating the BJP candidate by a 10.8% margin. (which, by the way, points to the Hindu community’s support for the brother of the Muslim don). This time, Ansari is contesting on an SP ticket against the BJP’s Paras Nath Rai, and ground reports say the result is a foregone conclusion.

Another seat with local interest is Mirzapur, where Union minister Anupriya Singh Patel of the Apna Dal (S), a BJP ally, is seeking a third term. The seat should have been a stroll in the park for Patel, who in 2019 retained it with a margin of 2.32 lakh votes — but it isn’t. And the reason is the entry of an influential spoiler.

Raghuraj Pratap Singh aka Raja Bhaiyya wields significant influence over the Rajput community, which is openly incensed with the BJP and which, along with Brahmins and Vaishyas, forms the core of Patel’s vote base. And late into this election cycle Singh, the MLA from Kunda, decided to take a hand and has, since then, been campaigning in the constituency against Patel and on behalf of the SP candidate.

Whether Raja Bhaiyya will be able to swing sufficient numbers to help the SP snatch the seat out from under the two-time MP is hard to tell — ground reports suggest that Patel will hold. But the development has tightened the race, and forced the BJP to pump resources into a seat the party had imagined was theirs for the taking.

(Side note: Raja Bhaiyya is one of those fascinating characters that Indian — particularly heartland — politics is full of. Back in 2002, my editor at Rediff Nikhil Lakshman sent my colleague Uttam Ghosh and I to Kunda to report on the man’s iron grip on his fief. Here are three stories from that time: The first, on a typical Raja Bhaiyya rally; another on the constituency under the giant shadow of its representative; and an interview with the man.)

But as I was saying before I interrupted myself, elections in the Purvanchal region that goes to polls on June 1 are a mix of the local and the hyper-local. Add to this a subcutaneous and sustained unrest among RSS cadres fuelled by the fear – assiduously fanned at the ground level by the Opposition – that Adityanath will be sidelined if the BJP wins a majority, and it all adds up to a situation where almost every seat of the 13 going to the polls in phase seven is seriously in play.

A conservative estimate based on available feedback suggests that the BJP will not be able to defend all ten of its seats in this phase; that the best-case scenario is that it will retain half (5) and that cumulatively, the party will top out at around 50 seats in UP – a drop of 12 from the 62 it had won in 2019. Taken in tandem with Maharashtra and Karnataka, this is what is likely to put paid to the BJP’s ambitions of a third term for Modi.

A side note on Maharashtra (which I had earlier discussed in a post on the fifth phase): This week, the allies who were supposed to help the BJP win big in the key state gave the clearest indication yet of the BJP-led alliance’s prospects.

Chhagan Bhujbal of the Ajit Pawar faction of the NCP was the first to sound the alarm. The BJP’s char sau paar slogan has adversely affected the Mahayuti’s chances, the NCP minister said. Bhujbal also critiqued the state government’s – his government’s – attempt to pander to the Hindutva base by sneaking the Manusmriti, the Gita etc into the draft State Curriculum Framework for School Education:

“When the Abki baar 400 par slogan was about to go backstage, another decision of the Maharashtra government preaching Manusmruti in schools arrived to inflict further damage. Why do we need to rake up such controversial issues when all they do is shoo away many voters?": Bhujbal

Elsewhere, Ajit Pawar pointed to the “surprising trend” of minority voters aligning with Uddhav Thackeray – though why that was a surprise considering the high-decibel hate that was dished out by the BJP during its campaign in the state, he did not explain. He did, however, echo Bhujbal on the Manusmriti issue. (Remember that Pawar had earlier expressed his discontent over the BJP’s slighting comments aimed at Sharad Pawar.)

What you can infer is (a) that Maharashtra has proved more disastrous than even the Mahayuti anticipated and (b) that Pawar, whose faction is widely expected to end up with a blank slate, is pre-emptively blaming the BJP for the outcome he expects on 4 June.

Agniveer, and the serial splits engineered in Maharashtra, will go down in the tier of any list of the BJP’s “masterstrokes” turned boomerangs — but that is for another day.

Besides UP, eight seats in Bihar, 13 in Punjab, 9 in West Bengal and six in Odisha that go to polls on 1 June are crucial to the fortunes of both sides. (There is also one seat in Chandigarh, four in Himachal Pradesh and three in Jharkhand.) I’ll discuss those in a subsequent post, likely on 1 June.

Meanwhile, for data junkies, here is an excel sheet of all seats polling in phase seven.

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This article first appeared on Prem Panicker's Substack. Here is the original link to the source. To follow Prem Panicker on Substack, click here.

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