Though Mulayam continues to hold sway, the party is under fire for Muzaffarnagar riots

“Here, it’s Netaji (as Mulayam Singh Yadav is popularly known) all the way,” says Ansar Singh Yadav, pradhan of Dowai, standing at a street corner in Mainpuri’s Karail kasba. Retired schoolteacher Man Singh Shakya says he prefers the Bahujan Samaj Party but agrees that it is advantage Samajwadi Party in these parts.

As dusk falls, the two men are joined in a heated discussion on the state of political play in Uttar Pradesh: the fresh entrants, too, claim that this belt — Mainpuri, Firozabad, Etawah, Kannauj, and Badaun — will withstand the winds of change powered by the BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi’s high octane campaign.

Indeed, in this swathe of U.P., the SP chief continues to hold sway: party workers say he will not just win Mainpuri, but his influence will ensure victory in the adjoining constituencies where family members are trying their luck; nephew Akshay Yadav (son of party general secretary Ram Gopal Yadav) from Firozabad, daughter-in-law Dimple Yadav from Kannauj, and nephew Dharmendra Yadav from Badaun. Etawah is now a reserved constituency.

In the last six Lok Sabha elections in these five constituencies, the SP has won Mainpuri, Kannauj and Badaun five times, Etawah four times and Firozabad thrice. And in the 2009 general elections, the BSP stood second in all five seats. But that could change this time, with the BJP now being the SP’s closest rival.

At the Etawah district court, Brahmin lawyers declare their support for Narendra Modi but acknowledge that, in this area, the personal goodwill that Mulayam Singh enjoys places his candidates in a position of advantage.

In fact, if in the communally ravaged Jaat belt of west U.P., one sees Jaatavs — BSP chief Mayawati’s core constituents — gravitating to the BJP, especially if they live in Jaat-dominated villages, in Firozabad and Mainpuri, oddly enough, some Jaatavs have joined the SP. In Firozabad, Veer Bhan Singh, Raj Kumar and Sandeep Kumar — Jaatav BSP workers for over 20 years — are now in the SP. Their complaints against the BSP include lack of access to Ms. Mayawati and being deprived of “a share” in the party that tends to promote wealthy candidates for elections.

“Politically,” says Ramashanker Chowdhury, a Brahmin advocate, “this area is for Mulayam Singh. But currently, there’s a wave in favour of change. So, it’s SP vs BJP in Etawah and Mainpuri, though undoubtedly, the BJP will have to work hard to wrest these seats from the SP.” In Kannauj, Firozabad and Badaun, too, the BSP appears to have been pushed to third place.

Possibly, just as Jaatavs — after last year’s communal riots in Muzaffarnagar — living in Jaat-dominated villages are seeking protection in the BJP, here, they are looking for similar shelter in the SP in Mulayam Singh’s citadel: son Akhilesh Yadav is Chief Minister, and will be for another three years.

If the citizenry in this region takes a certain pride in its association with Mulayam Singh, SP workers dodge questions on accusations about the party’s many centres of power since Akhilesh Yadav became CM. But they share their views on the father and son — if somewhat diplomatically.

At Saifai, Mulayam Singh’s village — transformed into a bustling township with a range of modern amenities, and an annual cultural festival — I stop at the party office. “Netaji”, says Lal Singh Yadav, “is a grassroots leader, experienced, practical and a quick decision-maker, a do-or-die sort of person. Akhilesh is forward-looking, linked to the modern world through the internet, and studies issues in detail before taking a decision. The two men have different ways of working. That’s all.”

For the Yadavs, this could be a make-or-break election: under fire for Muzaffarnagar, a good electoral showing by the BJP could see the SP government under fire unless it wins at least as many seats as it did last time: holding on to the fiefdom will not suffice.

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