With just 29 days to go before the Uttar Pradesh electorate begins casting ballots for the seven-phase polls, scheduled between February 10 and March 7, to elect a new government, Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (SP) has ample reasons to be optimistic of dislodging the ruling BJP.
So far, Yadav has emerged as the main challenger to chief minister Yogi Adityanath in the key state that has traditionally witnessed multi-cornered electoral contests. A string of notable defections from other parties to the SP, most recently of BJP minister and five-term MLA Swami Prasad Maurya and four other BJP lawmakers, and an endorsement from the wily Sharad Pawar, who now wants his NCP to join the SP’s pre-poll coalition, has further buttressed the perception that Yadav’s party is steadily gaining political ground across Uttar Pradesh. Pawar even boasted of Maurya’s surprise defection paving way for at least a dozen more BJP lawmakers for a ride on the SP’s bicycle (the party’s poll symbol).
COVID curbs and campaign’s return to drawing board
Yet, in a state where electoral fortunes of any party or individual famously change overnight, the two-month long wait before the final outcome of the impending polls is known, on March 10, should make the SP infuse massive doses of caution to its presently surging optimism for imminent victory.
Yadav’s immediate challenge is to navigate hurdles posed by unprecedented restrictions on campaigning that the Election Commission imposed while announcing the poll schedule, on January 8, and a COVID-influenced model code of conduct. The poll panel has imposed a complete ban on election rallies and road-shows till January 15 and warned that the moratorium may be extended if COVID cases surge in the five poll-bound states. This restriction, a lesson the poll panel learnt the hard way after drawing flak for not curbing massive poll rallies in the midst of last year’s second COVID wave, has come in at a time when Yadav’s Samajwadi Vijay Yatra was drawing massive crowds across Uttar Pradesh.
SP insiders told The Federal that the ban on rallies till January 15 – and the possibility of it being extended further – coupled with the poll panel’s advice to political parties to consciously opt for ‘digital/virtual campaigning’ over actual rallies has forced the party to return to the drawing board for reworking its campaign plans. Sources said Yadav will also make a lot more televised appearances through interviews and sound bites to maximize his visibility and concentrate on highlighting the failures of the Adityanath regime while also “calling out a prominent section of the media for its pro-BJP propaganda.”
A senior SP functionary told The Federal, “The BJP has a formidable and notorious social media team backed by massive financial resources. Our digital wing is still at a formative stage and the SP can’t boast of the kind of money power backing the BJP. Although we have tried to build our digital wing, it is a fact that we are still far behind the BJP because our leadership believes in direct people connect through traditional campaigning methods. We are working on innovative campaigning tools like circulating effective video and audio messages of our leaders through social media platforms but we know that our reach may not be as widespread as the BJP’s.”
BJP’s advantage, SP’s handicap
The SP leadership is also acutely aware that while its options for staying in the media limelight – and by extension a point of public discussion – are limited, the BJP practically has unlimited ways of garnering headlines. “Media bias is a reality. Akhilesh has been travelling across the state for months and drawing huge crowds but this is rarely shown by most media outlets. On the contrary, the BJP gets unlimited positive coverage. Now, due to poll code, there are various restrictions on all parties but Narendra Modi, as prime minister and the face that the BJP seeks votes on, can travel anywhere in the country and campaign by proxy. The media will give breathless coverage to Modi and he will use it to the BJP’s advantage in Uttar Pradesh and other poll-bound states,” adds the SP functionary.
SP sources also claim that a major blow to their campaign may come on February 1 when Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman presents the Union budget, days before the polling process kicks off. Given the history of successive governments using budgetary announcements to influence voters in poll-bound states, the eventuality of massive sops tailor-made for the electorate in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur being announced by Sitharaman is predictable. The SP will need a counter-strategy, but party sources admit that this can only be chalked out once the budget is presented. The seven phases of polling across Uttar Pradesh are scheduled for February 10, 14, 20, 23, 27, and March 3 and 7. The BJP’s top leadership of Modi and Shah has the advantage of knowing budgetary announcements beforehand and customising poll campaigns accordingly. The SP will be forced to play catch-up.
Minority appeasement: Not his father’s son?
Yadav also has his task cut out for addressing more complicated political, social and ideological dilemmas. First among these is recasting his vote bank in a manner that maximises the SP’s appeal among communities that had either deserted the party for the BJP in recent years or were never its traditional voters due to past conflicts with the formidable MY (Muslim-Yadav) coalition that Yadav’s father and SP founder Mulayam Singh Yadav, a three-term former chief minister, had crafted. In doing so, Yadav needs to hold on to the SP’s traditional MY vote while expanding its base among other communities (Brahmins, non-Yadav backward castes, Dalits) and yet not appearing like a regurgitated version of the BJP’s viciously divisive Hindutva consolidation.
This social engineering, SP sources admit, is the trickiest component of Yadav’s poll strategy. A yet unresolved aspect of it is Muslim representation in the SP’s list of candidates and how Yadav addresses the issues of the minority community. The SP is confident that the state’s nearly 20 per cent Muslim population will vote en bloc for its candidates and not split its vote between parties like the Congress, BSP or Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM, which has been invoking ‘betrayal of Muslims by secular parties’ as a plank to draw the community’s voters. However, a dominant section of the SP leadership has also been impressing upon Yadav to reduce Muslim representation in its candidate list.
In past Uttar Pradesh elections, particularly when Mulayam called the shots on the party’s electoral strategy, the SP invariably fielded the largest chunk of Muslim candidates among other secular parties. Mulayam’s unapologetic embrace of Uttar Pradesh’s Muslims had earned him the snide moniker of ‘Mulla Mulayam’ from the BJP. With Modi, Amit Shah and Adityanath ushering in an era of aggressively vitriolic Hindutva, SP sources say Yadav has been counselled by his strategists to dump his father’s public patronage of the Muslims. The changed stance is already apparent in Yadav’s deafening silence on rising instances of hate crimes and genocide calls by the Hindutva brigade against Muslims or the recent revolting incidents of Muslim women being put up for ‘auction’ through apps like Sulli Deals and Bulli Bai.
“Counter-polarisation among Muslims in favour of the SP has the potential of damaging our prospects but how can we completely abandon the Muslims? There are many party members who want Yadav to drastically reduce Muslim candidates because they feel the Muslims will anyway vote for us. I feel this is a bad move and will alienate Muslims in the near future, forcing them to either return to the Congress fold or explore AIMIM as an option,” says a Muslim MP from the SP, requesting anonymity.
The MP adds that this election season the party may not have its most prominent Muslim face – controversial MP Azam Khan – available for campaigning. Khan, a founding member of the SP and the Lok Sabha MP from Rampur, along with his son Abdullah Khan, is presently jailed in connection with various cases. In Khan’s absence, the SP has been relying on other Muslim leaders like Lok Sabha MPs Shafiqur Rahman Barq and ST Hassan to draw in Muslim voters while also poaching influential community leaders from other parties. Unlike Khan, neither Barq nor Hassan are mass leaders.
Others that Yadav has inducted into his party recently include jailed gangster and former BSP lawmaker Mukhtar Ansari and his brother Sibghatullah Ansari, who have significant electoral clout in eastern Uttar Pradesh’s Ghazipur-Mau region, and former Congress leader Imran Masood, a prominent leader from western Uttar Pradesh’s Saharanpur. While Ansari has been projected by the BJP as a symbol of ‘Muslim mafia’, Imran is portrayed as an aggressive hardliner who once used allegedly threatening and derogatory language for Modi, the BJP’s ‘Hindu Hriday Samrat’.
The section within the SP that wants Yadav to steer clear from aggressively courting the Muslim vote bank, more so in wake of Adityanath’s recent declaration of the polls being a 80 per cent vs. 20 per cent fight (a scarcely-veiled reference to Uttar Pradesh’s Hindu and Muslim electorate respectively), believes the party’s Muslim faces will give the BJP a ready excuse for communal polarisation. “Azam Khan, Mukhtar Ansari and Imran Masood bring a certain baggage that is best avoided in an election where we know the BJP’s only chance at winning is communal polarisation. Already the BJP is spreading rumours that if Akhilesh wins he will stop construction of Ayodhya’s Ram Mandir and the Kashi Vishwanath Dham corridor to please the Muslims. Amit Shah had said SP stands with JAM (Jinnah, Azam and Mukhtar). The only way to avoid communal polarisation is if we focus on a broader Hindu consolidation. We can work for the Muslims once we come to power but right now we have to be pragmatic,” an Akhilesh-confidante told The Federal.
Keeping Hindu voters close
However, the broad Hindu consolidation that Yadav has been advised to string together isn’t free of its own traps. The SP chief has been stitching an umbrella coalition of caste-identity regional parties while simultaneously opening the party’s doors to prominent Hindu sub-castes and their leaders. Principal among these have been non-Yadav OBCs and the Brahmins. Among Yadav’s allies are Jayant Chaudhary’s RLD with its base among Jats and Muslims of west Uttar Pradesh, Keshav Dev Maurya’s Mahan Dal that finds resonance among backward caste Keoris in pockets of western and central Uttar Pradesh, Om Prakash Rajbhar’s Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (backward caste Rajbhars of eastern Uttar Pradesh), Sanjay Singh Chouhan’s Janwadi Socialist Party (backward caste Nonias in east Uttar Pradesh) and Krishna Patel’s Apna Dal (backward caste Kurmis in east Uttar Pradesh), among several others. These alliances have ostensibly been stitched (a final announcement on the seat-sharing formula is awaited) keeping in mind Uttar Pradesh’s complex caste equations and the SP’s limited appeal among these communities.
Yadav’s social engineering looks formidable on paper as it caters to the aspirations of Uttar Pradesh’s nearly 45 per cent backward caste vote bank that is crucial for any party to wrest power. The alliances aside, Yadav is aggressively wooing the 11 percent Brahmin voters of Uttar Pradesh while hoping that the nearly 20 per cent Muslim electorate will continue to back his party. The Brahmins have reportedly been upset with the BJP over consistent targeting of prominent members of their community under the Adityanath regime and their declining political clout in Uttar Pradesh politics against the rising influence of Thakurs (Adityanath’s community). A large number of Brahmin lawmakers from various parties have, in recent months, joined the SP bandwagon.
The problem for Yadav now is to cater to the electoral aspirations of each of these communities while ensuring that the SP’s traditional support base doesn’t become a jilted casualty in the process. “It is obvious that each of our allies will want a fair share of seats while the leaders and communities we have tried to bring into our fold will expect tickets too. It will require some dispassionate poll arithmetic… tickets given to Yadavs and Muslims in the past will have to be brought down to accommodate other castes. It is a risk because while we can count on unstinted support of the MY combination, we don’t know how much of the non-Yadav OBC vote or Brahmin vote will actually convert in our favour. In a majority of the constituencies, the anti-incumbency mood we are seeing at the moment may change substantially once candidate names are announced. It won’t be easy; nothing is done and dusted,” another SP office bearer told The Federal.
The office bearer also said that Yadav will have to be “mindful of the opportunistic nature of some of our allies” given that there is still “no evidence of a pro-SP or anti-BJP wave” in the state and that “there may not be a huge difference in the seats won by SP and BJP” when the results are declared on March 10. “If the BJP and our coalition win a similar number of seats, it is expected that the BJP will lure or intimidate our allies… if we give away too many seats to alliance partners only to keep up the impression of being equitable towards and respectful of our allies, we may be playing into a BJP trap.”
Yadav’s stock may thus be climbing at the moment but so are the challenges that lie ahead of him. The SP chief still has many, many miles to go on the newly inaugurated and promised expressways of Uttar Pradesh before he can taste that sweet victory he so desperately aspires for.