UP: The tide has collapsed
In Ghaziabad’s five constituencies, the overwhelming support for the BJP of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections seems to be waning, giving way to a free-for-all
Ramadin, a carpenter in Sahibabad’s Khoda Colony, hammers nails into a new wooden stand in his dimly lit workshop. The loud thump of his tools punctuates his speech as he talks about the direction the Muslim community will take in the upcoming Uttar Pradesh Legislative Assembly elections beginning February 11. “In this area the entire Muslim population will go with the Samajwadi Party (SP)-Congress alliance, while the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will get a few votes from other communities in the name of Narendra Modi,” he says. With a sizeable population, the minority community holds the key to winning five seats in the region: Ghaziabad, Muradnagar, Sahibabad, Loni and Dhaulana. While the BJP won the Ghaziabad Lok Sabha seat, the marshalling of the Muslims behind either the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) or the alliance will hammer away the vote of the party this time, signalling a return to a trend similar to the one witnessed in the previous Assembly elections.
As the curtains fell on the feud between the patriarch and scion within the SP, a new alliance was forged between the now Akhilesh Yadav-led SP and the Congress to counter the BJP. In the first phase of polling, on February 11, in which 73 seats will go to vote, the contest is likely to be a neck-and-neck fight between the BSP and the alliance which relegates the BJP to the third position.
This will be worrisome for the BJP as in the Lok Sabha election, riding on the Modi wave, the party had swept UP, garnering 71 seats out of 80 even in areas which were historically the preserves of the BSP and SP. Now, the wave seems to have subsided and there is no indication of such a tsunami in favour of a single party. In 2014, General VK Singh won the Ghaziabad Lok Sabha seat – a combination of the five Assembly seats – with an overwhelming 42 percent vote. The coming together of the various other castes and groups had made the Muslim vote impotent, and it fell apart in the face of the wave. Now, in the upcoming Assembly elections, the minority community seeks to assert its numerical preponderance to furnish a different outcome.
However, this strategic consolidation becomes trickier as both the BSP and SP are seeking to woo the Muslim and Dalit votes in Ghaziabad, Sahibabad and Loni to create a counter to the BJP, which is attempting to string together a backwards mobilisation that is based on a non-Muslim, non-Jatav vote. In response, both the state parties have fielded several Muslim candidates: the BSP has 50 Muslim candidates and the alliance has a little over 40 in the first two phases.
In the 2012 Assembly elections, Loni voted for BSP’s Zakir Ali who, along with Muslims, straddled the Gurjar, Jatav and Valmiki vote as well. This time around, Ali is facing stiff competition from the alliance’s candidate, Rashid Malik, who belongs to the same community. This creates tension amongst the electorate. Now their vote would be divided between the two parties and this could lead to an advantage for the BJP candidate, Nand Kishore. Many of the locals who spoke to Hardnews said, “Had Ali been the only Muslim candidate for the Loni seat, the BSP would have been a clear favourite.” The general feeling about Ali has been one of an efficient man who is believed to have achieved the impossible: crime rates have dropped to a record low and tehbazari (a non-legal tax paid to local strongmen), which was one of the biggest grievances of the working class, has been controlled.
What is evident is that the alliance is gaining ground in the region. According to local leaders, in the past Muslims have not favoured the Congress, considering it equally culpable for the Babri Masjid demolition as the BJP. If the grand old party had chosen to go it alone, then its chances of winning would have been low. A senior SP leader said, on condition of anonymity, “The Muslims hate the Congress in the same way as they hate the BJP for their involvement in the Babri demolition. We have no bone to pick with Hindus, there are people with agendas who create this divide. We did vote for Hindu candidates in West Bengal and Bihar. The younger generation is favouring the Akhilesh-Rahul jodi and is therefore supporting this alliance. But, one thing needs to be clarified: the Muslim community might vote for the Congress not because of Rahul Gandhi but because of Akhilesh Yadav and his work.”
The Congress which once ran a negative campaign against the SP with the slogan “27 saal UP behaal”, after the alliance is no longer bothered by the many years of misrule. The INC is now running a campaign alongside Akhilesh, extolling the virtues of his regime. The campaign is built on the back of the development projects worth Rs 9,000 crore launched in the area, which include the construction of a bridge over the Hindon river to ease vehicular congestion along NH-58, widening of roads from four lanes to six lanes in Raj Nagar, distribution of over 500 laptops to students, and inauguration of the Allah Hazrat Hajj House in Ghaziabad.
Not everyone is upset with the BJP government and its policies at the centre. Some policies have benefitted the lives of many, but they aren’t many in number. Dinesh Singh, 48, who works at a multinational company in Delhi and commutes from Sahibabad daily, says, “In the past two years, the government’s Ujjwala Scheme has benefitted us the most. We don’t have to stand in long queues or purchase LPG cylinders in black at higher rates. The BJP can seek votes from us in the name of this scheme but, apart from it, they haven’t really done much work for us.” The BJP has been promoting demonetisation as one of their biggest economic reforms on the campaign trail, but has time and again faced flak from the opposition parties who are rallying against the move. However, the narrative against demonetisation might not have many takers in the region anymore. Anil Kumar, who runs a public help centre in Dadri, says, “We faced immense problems in villages and small cities but it is a thing of the past. Had the election been in December or January, the BJP would have encountered serious damage in their vote share as a direct result of demonetisation.”
While the alliance, the BSP and BJP are involved in a triangular fight in parts of western UP, another regional party is quietly working and is all geared to take advantage of the stalemate that persists: the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD). The party’s traditional voter base consists of Jats who account for 17 percent of the population in western UP. It won nine seats in the 2012 Assembly elections. However, this time around its fortunes are seen to be rising. Left out of the SP-Congress alliance, the RLD is vying for a post-poll understanding with either the BJP or SP. Rumours floating among SP cadre suggest that if the RLD is able to gain a substantial number of seats, the position of the deputy Chief Minister (CM) will be offered to Jayant Chaudhary, the national general secretary of the RLD and son of Chaudhary Ajit Singh, to prevent the party securing an alliance with the BJP.
The systematic breakdown of law and order in western UP is one of the most pressing issues in the region as it has been overrun by hundreds of riots, communal tension and hate crimes in the five years of SP rule. Both the administration and local leaders remember the efficiency of the police under Mayawati. In a candid conversation with Hardnews, a police officer posted in Ghaziabad said, “The law and order situation has deteriorated under the current regime. This breakdown can be attributed to the ambiguity in the directives being issued. The SP government doesn’t speak in one voice. Conflicting orders made policing difficult for us. When Mayawati was the CM, the instructions were iron-clad. Now that Akhilesh has emerged as the leader of the party, the police is expecting to see a change in attitude if he is elected again.” Recalling the 2010 Ayodhya verdict by the Allahabad High Court, Lalit Sharma, a member of Ghaziabad Municipal Corporation said, “Tension had gripped the city, people were frightened and worried that the situation might get worse, but nothing happened and UP did not burn. The credit goes to Mayawati and the strictness with which she controlled the communally charged environment at the time.”
Unlike 2014, the 2017 electoral battle is not a one-sided fight and each seat is set to witness a fair fight between the four parties.