Lok Sabha polls | Deep-rooted fault lines set the tone of campaign discourse in western U.P.

The region, which has a sizable Muslim electorate, has been tough terrain for the BJP; candidates of all camps are reaching out to Hindu voters; with eight seats going to polls on April 19, the BJP is banking on religious issues while the Opposition has called the polls a ‘battle to save democracy’

April 14, 2024 09:36 pm | Updated April 15, 2024 02:42 am IST - Lucknow

BJP supporters attend Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s public meeting ahead of Lok Sabha elections, in Pilibhit.

BJP supporters attend Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s public meeting ahead of Lok Sabha elections, in Pilibhit. | Photo Credit: PTI

There is no dearth of contentious and polarising issues in the crucial battlefield of western Uttar Pradesh, which has a sizable Muslim electorate, and the increasingly vehement nature of political discourse here seems to reflect the deep-rooted communal fault lines in the region. However, there is a marked shift on the ground - candidates cutting across party lines are reaching out to Hindu voters unlike ever before.   

With eight constituencies in the region - Saharanpur, Kairana, Muzaffarnagar, Bijnor, Nagina (SC), Moradabad, Rampur and Pilibhit - going to polls in the first phase on April 19, parties have certainly upped the ante, but the divisive rhetoric, especially by the ruling party, has left much to be desired. Many of the seats have Muslim electorate even between 40% and 50% and have remained a rough electoral terrain for the saffron party in the past. The BJP emerged victorious on only three of these seats in 2019 (Muzaffarnagar, Pilibhit and Kairana), with the Samajwadi Party (SP) winning two (Moradabad and Rampur) and the Bahujan Samaj party (BSP) three (Saharanpur, Bijnor and Nagina). The SP and the BSP fought the 2019 election in an alliance. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the BJP won seven - Muzaffarnagar, Pilibhit, Kairana, Nagina, Moradabad, Saharanpur and Bijnor.

Changing times

In Saharanpur Lok Sabha seat, where the BJP has won only once in the past 25 years, Congress’s Imran Masood is locked in a tough battle with the ruling party’s Raghav Lakhanpal. Mr. Masood, who drew criticism in 2014 for his bitter remarks against then BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, is now seen publicly visiting numerous temples and engaging in Hindu rituals, in an outreach aimed at the Hindus, who constitute roughly 58% of the electorate. In 2014, despite polling 4,07,909 votes, the Congress leader lost to the BJP candidate by over 65,000 votes amid a communally charged battle. Muslims constitute roughly 42% of electorate in Saharanpur. Similarly, in seats like Moradabad, Rampur and Kairana, the SP’s choice of candidates and its campaign approach have seen a drastic shift with continuous outreach towards Hindus being the theme. In Moradabad, where Muslims constitute around 48% of the electorate, perhaps for the first time, the SP has fielded a Hindu candidate, Ruchi Veera.

Nagina, a Scheduled Caste-reserved constituency, is becoming a battlefield with contenders trying to project themselves as leaders and campions of the Dalit cause. Chandra Shekhar Azad, the founder of Azad Samaj Party, is aiming to make the contest a four-cornered one amid a pushback from established political forces, including the Dalit-centric BSP. Its president Mayawati’s heir apparent, Akash Anand, kicked off his poll campaign from Nagina parliamentary seat. Nagina has a sizeable number of Dalit voters with a large part of Bijnor district coming under it after delimitation in 2008. Ms. Mayawati, who served as Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister four times, also made her parliamentary debut from here after winning in 1989. This time around, apart from Mr. Azad, the BSP’s Surendra Pal, the BJP’s Om Kumar, and SP candidate Manoj Kumar are in the fray.

In the first phase, other key seats are Muzaffarnagar where Union Minister Sanjeev Balyan is seeking a third term, amid discontent over his candidature among Rajput organisations. State Minister Jitin Prasad is contesting on a BJP ticket from Pilibhit replacing sitting MP Varun Gandhi.

In campaign speeches, top leaders of the BJP, from Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, have touched upon the issue of Ram Temple. Mr. Adityanath, in each of his election rallies, has highlighted the issues of riots, curfews and communal tensions under previous Opposition regimes. During a rally in Saharanpur, he alleged that “chaos and religious extremism” were spread through fatwas from Deoband, a significant Islamic centre in Saharanpur. He accused the Opposition parties of making the region a “hotbed of communal polarisation”. Union Home Minister Amit Shah mentioned the alleged Hindu exodus from Kairana and other areas before 2017, claiming that the BJP government has restored safety for all. Mr. Modi, for his part, targeted the Opposition for disrespecting the faith of India’s voters by obstructing the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya. He sought to position the BJP as the defender of Hindu faith.

Top Opposition leaders have been absent from most of the initial part of campaign. There have been no rallies by top Congress leaders leaders such as Rahul Gandhi or Mallikarjun Kharge or joint rallies with the SP. On the last day of campaigning on April 17, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is slated to hold a roadshow in Saharanpur. SP president Akhilesh Yadav who hit campaign trail on April 13 has predictably dubbed the elections as “a battle to save the values of the Republic” and accused the BJP of toying with democratic values and the Constitution of India. The SP, which is fighting it out in seven out of eight seats in the first phase under INDIA alliance, is banking on its PDA plank - Pichde (backward classes), Dalit and Alpasankhyak (minorities) - with an eye on the numerically significant Muslim votes.

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