As campaigning gets brisk for the first phase of polls in Uttar Pradesh on February 10, the die has been cast for the six phases to follow too. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is on the defensive in 58 seats in western Uttar Pradesh; 11 districts vote in the first phase. In 2017, the party had won 51 of these seats (later 52). The challenge to the BJP’s dominance comes primarily from the Samajwadi Party-Rashtriya Lok Dal (SP-RLD) alliance in this potato and sugarcane belt but also in the fray are the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Congress alongside recent entrants, the Aam Aadmi Party and the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen. The region, abutting the national capital of Delhi, was a hotspot of the farmers’ agitation against the Central government last year. The SP-RLD alliance draws its evident energy from the resentment against the BJP among Jats, a farming community that had aligned with the party’s Hindutva agenda in recent years. The BJP has put forth a plank of suraksha (security) and samman (dignity). Taken aback by the momentum of the SP-RLD alliance, it is trying to polarise the elections so that Jat farmers who constitute an estimated 17% of the population in the region and who voted overwhelmingly for the party in the last elections do not unite with Muslims who constitute 26% of the population (in the region). The BJP’s behaviour signals that it will leave no stone unturned to consolidate the Hindu votes and override caste tensions, across the State.
The BJP is also trying to create a narrative that the SP scores poorly on law and order, and the Yogi Adityanath government has been tough on crime in the last five years. The law and order pitch of the party is communally tinged, however. The party is highlighting government investment in highways, airports and medical colleges; and free vaccine and ration during the pandemic. The SP-RLD alliance is targeting the ruling government on the farm crisis in light of the farmers’ agitation and is trying to build on the brotherhood among farmers across caste and religious barriers. Apart from Jats and Yadavs, it is expected to wean a chunk of Gurjars, another agrarian community, away from the BJP. It is raising issues of inflation, particularly high electricity tariffs, unemployment and stray cattle, an outcome of the emotive cow protection drive. Consolidating its vote bank in the name of Hindutva, cultural nationalism, the Ram temple and Article 370, the BJP is also keen to make a dent in the BSP’s Dalit vote bank to get over the losses made because of farmers’ agitation. Dalit leader and former Chief Minister Mayawati (BSP) has made a strong comeback with a rally in Agra, and hopes to win enough seats in the region to influence government formation.