Electoral battle intensifies as Hindi heartland goes to polls today

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There is no scientific basis to this but historical data shows that bellwether constituencies usually act as a marker for the final results. File photo/PTI

The battle for the Hindi heartland intensifies with the fourth phase of polling on Monday — April 29. Voters from 71 constituencies spread over nine states will exercise their franchise.

The states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Jharkhand enter the polling process. The two national parties, the BJP and the Congress, are head-to-head in MP and Rajasthan. The polling will test the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the party has entered the fray by projecting him as their USP.

For the Congress, which wrested the two states from the BJP only five months ago, it would be a test to see if they can hold on to their gains. While local issues dominated the Assembly polls, the BJP is trying to change the narrative to ‘larger national issues’ such as nationalism.

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The BJP is seeking to sharpen its ‘Hindutva’ plank by fielding the controversial Sadhvi Pragya Thakur as its candidate from Bhopal constituency. Though the capital city goes to polls on May 12, the heat generated over Sadhvi’s candidature indicate how BJP seeks to polarise the voters ahead of various polling phases in the region.

In Jharkhand, the Congress and its allies have put up a formidable alliance, a mahagatbandhan of sorts which could become a template for Opposition unity.

Out of the 71 seats at stake in the 4th round, the BJP had won 45 seats in the 2014 elections. The party is likely to lose ground in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh as it had reached optimum performance in 2014 and scored near 100%.

In the run up to the 4th round of polling, regional parties such as the SP, the BSP, the BJD and the Trinamool too have put up a spirited fight to ward off the BJP’s challenge. With the completion of the 4th phase, all the 42 seats of Maharashtra would have polled. Maharashtra has the second largest number of 42 seats after Uttar Pradesh. All the southern states have already voted with the end of third phase.

Uttar Pradesh

Congress president Rahul Gandhi and his sister Priyanka are trying to turn the heat on Prime Minister Narendra Modi by holding a series of rallies for 13 seats that go to polls in the 4th phase. Of these 12 were comprehensively won by the BJP in 2014. This time with the mahagatbandhan, it would be difficult for the saffron party to repeat the feat.

The Congress has fielded former MP Annu Tandon from Unnao which has turned it into a three-way contest. She is taking on sitting BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj. A SP-BSP candidate too is in the fray representing the mahagatbandhan. Tandon is popular in the region and she is ahead of her rivals. The Congress is hopeful of winning this seat.

If the SP-BSP vote shares were added as per 2014 data, the BJP falls short of numbers in Shahjahanpur, Kheri, Hardoi, Misrikh, Etawah and Jhansi  – the constituencies that go to polls in the current round. In other seats, the saffron party is relatively better off, but in some places the contest has become multi-cornered with Congress and Shiv Pal Singh’s party in fray. Shiv Pal had broken away from his nephew Akhilesh Yadav, the leader of Samajwadi Party, to launch his own outfit.

West Bengal

With eight parliamentary seats going to polls on April 29, election campaigning has now entered south Bengal. In the first three phases, polling got over in 10 seats, but 32 seats still remain to be decided. For Trinamool, the contest in the first 10 seats was largely with the Congress and the Left parties. The fight is likely to get more acrimonious as the TMC would be facing the BJP as its principal opponent.

The saffron party is trying hard to spread its appeal in the state following its successful gains in the panchayat polls. The BJP that started with a 6% vote share in 2009 managed to increase it to 16% during the 2014 parliamentary polls winning 2 seats. For 2019, party president Amit Shah has set a target of winning 50% seats.

Rajasthan

The 25 parliamentary seats of the state go to polls in two phases. In the first leg beginning April 29, 13 seats go to polls. The contest is largely bipolar where the Congress and the BJP are face-to-face. In the recent assembly elections, the Congress had managed to win the state by defeating Vasundhara Raje Scindia who has become extremely unpopular as Chief Minister. According to pollsters, since the parliamentary elections are being held within six months of Assembly polls, the trend is unlikely to change. But some political observers have added a note of caution saying that due to intense internal squabble among the supporters of Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and his deputy Sachin Pilot the state is slipping away from the party fold.

In Rajasthan, despite decades of democratic exercise, the feudal past of the state still remains intact. Latest to join politics is Diya Kumari, former princess of Jaipur who has joined the BJP to take on a 75-years-old Congress veteran. In 2014, the BJP had won all the 25 seats.

Madhya Pradesh

The state goes to polls in four phases beginning April 29. Two reserved SC seats are included in the first lot of six seats. A high-profile contest is likely in Chhindwara – the pocket borough of Kamal Nath, the Chief Minister of the state. The parliamentary seat vacated by Kamal Nath has gone to his son Nakul. In the neighbouring Sidhi constituency, Ajay Singh, son of former chief minister Arjun Singh, is trying his luck against the BJP candidate.

The state, considered to be a BJP citadel, was swept by the party in 2014 elections. Riding the Modi wave, the party won 27 of 29 seats, leaving a seat each for Kamal Nath and Jyotiraditya Scindia. In the November 2018 Assembly elections, the Congress managed to wrest the state from BJP’s clutches. Since the parliamentary elections are being held within six months, Congress hopes to gain substantially.

Jharkhand

Spread over four phases, the first phase of polling in the state begins on April 29. The state has for long been a bastion of the BJP, but is now facing a renewed challenge from a united Opposition.

A four-party alliance led by the Congress is threatening the ruling party. In 2004, a similar alliance had swept the state winning 13 seats leaving the BJP with one seat. The BJP is completely dependent on Modi’s charm to win seats from the state.

Maharashtra

Of the total 48 parliamentary seats in the state, 31 have already polled in the first three phases. The remaining 17 seats go to polls on April 29. This phase is crucial for the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance as all the 17 seats were swept by the alliance in 2014. The Congress-NCP alliance is attempting a breakthrough in Mumbai seats. It has fielded Milind Deora from Mumbai South and actor Urmila Matondkar from Mumbai North. Recently, eyebrows were raised when business tycoon Mukesh Ambani endorsed Milind’s candidature.

Maharashtra Navanirman Sena (MNS) chief Raj Thackeray is causing severe headache to the BJP-Shiv Sena combine by drawing huge crowds where he hits out at Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Interestingly, MNS has fielded no candidates in the elections.

Bihar

With polling completed in 14 of the 40 seats in the state, elections have become extremely intense. The BJP has high stakes as it had won 18 seats of the remaining 26 seats in 2014. Five seats are going to the polls in the fourth phase. With a new alliance equation this year, the RJD is contesting on 13 seats, the Congress in five, Upendra Kushwaha’s RLSP in four seats while VIP and HAM(S) have candidates on two seats and one seat respectively. The Arah seat has gone to CPI(ML) from RJD share.

The Darbanga seat was won thrice by cricketer Kirti Azad on a BJP ticket. Azad has since quit the saffron party and joined the Congress. The RJD has fielded Abdul Bari Siddiqui this time. The BJP is trying to polarise the electorate by targeting Siddiqui who in an interview refused to sing Vande Mataram.

One of the most interesting contests is being fought in Begusarai, once known as the Leningrad of Bihar. Long ago, the communists had a sizeable presence in the region. Kanhaiya Kumar, former JNU president, faces BJP’s Giriraj Singh, a Union minister who is known for his controversial statements such as asking Hindus to produce more children. While Kanhaiya is contesting on a CPI ticket, the RJD has fielded Tanveer Hassan, making it a triangular fight. The CPI has requested RJD to withdraw its candidate so that it could become a straight fight between Kanhiya and Singh.

Odisha

Simultaneous elections to Assembly and Parliament gets over in the state on April 29. In the last phase, six parliamentary seats and the remaining 41 Assembly seats go to polls. Odisha for long had the BJD at   the helm with the Congress as its main rival, but the BJP has been trying to make inroads in the state and has emerged as principal challenger to the BJD. The Congress party has been in disarray for a while and has failed to take advantage of the prevailing political situation in the state. Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik is expected to retain the state assembly and is campaigning hard to keep BJP out in as many parliamentary seats as possible.

In the past Naveen Patnaik has proven to be a stable partner for BJP in the Parliament. But at the same time, the saffron party must win a few seats on its own to make up for the possible losses in Hindi heartland including Uttar Pradesh.

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