PM Modi taps even Ukraine conflict as UP enters last leg of poll war
Narendra Modi | File Photo

PM Modi taps even Ukraine conflict as UP enters last leg of poll war

Ukraine may be a far, far way off from UP but clearly, to Modi, the turmoil-hit east European nation serves a political purpose domestically in a high stakes election, particularly when his BJP appears to be sliding.

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Crowds turning up at political rallies in Uttar Pradesh are unlikely to have any real interest in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict. It may, thus, appear peculiar that the subject found a hard-to-miss mention in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s election rally in Bahraich on February 22, a day before 60 assembly seats across nine of the state’s districts voted in the fourth phase of the ongoing UP polls.

Though Modi did not explicitly mention the two nations that are on the brink of war, he told those gathered: “You are seeing the world is in chaos. When such is the global scenario, when such is the turmoil… it’s important for India to remain strong.”

He asserted that these “tough times call for a tough leader”. For good measure, he also invoked Suheldev, an icon for the numerically strong backward community of Rajbhars in UP, who is believed to have defeated Ghaznavid invaders from Turkey in battle in Bahraich over a millennium ago.

“Each vote from the land of Suheldev would make the country stronger,” Modi said.

Ukraine may be a far, far way off from UP but clearly, to Modi, the turmoil-hit east European nation serves a political purpose domestically in a high stakes election, particularly when his BJP appears to be sliding.

Shift in phase

Modi’s concern for a world in chaos and, thus, the need for “tough leader” in India — no points for guessing who he meant — comes at a crucial juncture in the UP polls.

With the fourth phase of polling over, 232 constituencies — or over 50 percent of the state’s 403 assembly seats — have now finished voting.

The first three phases were in constituencies where, for reasons ranging from caste arithmetic and disruption in social cohesion to agrarian distress among sugarcane and potato farmers, the electoral mood was visibly against the ruling BJP and favourable for the multi-party alliance being led by Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav.

The fourth phase shifts focus to constituencies and regions in the state that either have a large concentration of traditional BJP strongholds or those that the saffron party had decisively usurped from the SP, Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party and the Congress in recent years.

Of the 60 seats that went for polls on February 23, the BJP had, in 2017, bagged 53 with a vote share in these nine districts of over 40 percent. In nearly 30 of these seats, the BJP candidates had won against their nearest rival with a margin of over 30.000 votes.

In terms of caste-arithmetic too, the fourth phase of polling appeared to be the best bet for the BJP to make up for the losses it has supposedly faced in the previous three phases.

The districts of Hardoi, Sitapur, Lucknow, Banda, Fatehpur, Pilibhit, Unnao, Kheri and Rae Bareli that saw polling on February 23 have a concentration of upper caste Brahmin votes (over 35 percent) along with a sizeable chunk of non-Yadav backward castes and non-Jatav Dalits — communities that had switched to the BJP decisively from their erstwhile parties of choice, the SP and the BSP, respectively.

Focus on individual

For those who missed, there is another aspect of Modi’s speech at Bahraich and his subsequent poll rhetoric that highlights why the fourth and remaining three phases of the UP battle mark a key turning point for the BJP in the month-long electoral jamboree.

It is in his rally at Bahraich and then subsequent ones elsewhere that Modi, for the first time in the current election, sought votes in his name — “India needs a tough leader”, “Modi gives you his word he will solve the problem of stray cattle (a huge election issue in UP) after March 10”, and so on.

He also set to rest all speculation over the party’s choice for CM if it retains power — “ayega toh Yogi hi” (Yogi Adityanath’s return is obvious), Modi repeated at several rallies over the past two days.

Also read: PM Modi accuses SP of protecting terrorists when in power in UP

Evidently, Modi and the BJP realise that the remaining phases of the UP poll are the ones where they need to maximise their appeal among the voters to offset the presumed losses they have faced in the earlier three phases.

Whether the strategy works or not in a poll that is being fought under a perceptible wave of anti-incumbency and a largely bipolar contest in the state known for its crowded electoral space, will only be known on March 10. However, there are clear indications that the BJP is rattled and why even Modi is putting his personal popularity at stake.

Farmers’ anger

In a region where the BJP was presumed to be stronger that its rivals, the polling on February 23 saw the lowest voter turnout — at 57 percent, as of 5 PM (this may increase by a couple of points after final consolidation of data) — recorded as yet across the four phases where voting has concluded. Although the previous three phases too witnessed moderate polling, each of them had a turnout upwards of 60 percent.

Among the districts that saw the highest polling in the fourth phase were Kheri (at 62 percent) and Pilibhit (61 percent). The party had won four of the seven assembly segments in Pilibhit and all eight constituencies in Kheri in 2017. The current elections had two distinguishing features in both these seats.

Kheri was where four farmers were mowed down by the cavalcade of Ashish Mishra, son of Union minister and Kheri MP Ajay Mishra ‘Teni’ in October last year. In Pilibhit, BJP’s Varun Gandhi — two-term MP from Pilibhit — has been on the warpath against his party while influential farmer leader in the district, VM Singh, has also been working aggressively against the saffron party.

When this reporter travelled to Pilibhit and Kheri in early-February, local BJP leaders had conceded that the party was facing a tough electoral fight against the SP in nearly all assembly seats that fall in these two districts.

“There is immense public anger among farmers over the Teni kaand (the Teni episode – Opposition parties and farmer outfits have been demanding Teni’s sacking from the Union cabinet since his son’s alleged involvement in the accident that killed four farmers and a local journalist but Modi hasn’t yielded)… this district has a substantial population of sugarcane farmers and issues like non-payment of dues by sugar mills and stray cattle are also hurting the party… we had urged the party to drop all sitting MLAs because they are facing strong anti-incumbency but this didn’t happen… now we aren’t even in a position to go out and campaign for fear of being beaten up by the people,” a BJP functionary in Lakhimpur had told The Federal.

Similar views were shared by BJP office bearers in Pilibhit too who also said that Varun Gandhi’s supporters had refused to work for the party while insisting that “they won’t have a huge impact but can damage our candidate in some areas”.

The public anger against the BJP, say party sources, was so high in Kheri that repeated requests from candidates for a rally by Modi, Amit Shah or Adityanath were turned down. “Forget Modi, even Teni could not campaign and was told by the leadership to not be seen in the constituency,” a BJP candidate in the district told The Federal.

Losing bastions?

If the BJP was facing farmers’ wrath in Kheri and Pilibhit, the party was also having a tough time in districts like Unnao and its bastion of Lucknow.

Unnao has a definite significance in this election as the district had, since BJP’s rise to power, become infamous for crimes against women. The party’s former legislator from Bangermau seat in Unnao, Kuldeep Singh Sengar, is currently in jail for his role in the Unnao gang-rape case.

The Congress has fielded Asha Kumari Singh, mother of the Unnao gang-rape victim, as its candidate from the Unnao seat and the SP, in a rare and welcome move of solidarity, has decided to back her candidature.

Veteran journalist Vinod Agnihotri believes that the BJP may also be in for a rude shock in Lucknow, a district that has been a traditional BJP stronghold. It was the Lok Sabha constituency of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, party stalwart Lalji Tandon and is presently represented by Union defence minister Rajnath Singh.

“There are nine assembly segments in Lucknow of which the BJP had won eight in 2017. In this election, the BJP is facing a tough fight on almost all of Lucknow’s seats and may end up losing at least half of their current tally,” Agnihotri said.

Ramesh Dixit, former head of the political science department of Lucknow University, says the BJP “could lose over 50 percent of the seats it had won across the nine districts (that went to poll in the fourth phase) to the SP and a few even to the Congress… if this happens, it will be out of the race for forming a government as ground reports suggest it was also losing a huge chunk of seats to the SP-alliance in the earlier phases… as this narrative of the BJP suffering setbacks spreads, remaining phases will become difficult too. This is why desperation has begun to show in the speeches of Modi and other BJP bigwigs… the only tool they now have is communal polarisation and inciting nationalist sentiments by saying the country is heading for dangerous times but I don’t see the public responding to this rhetoric with the same passion as it did in 2014, 2017 or 2019.”

Also read: India needs a new vision, start from Uttar Pradesh, says Rahul Gandhi

Dixit believes that a primary reason for the BJP consistently losing ground in the current election is the “visible consolidation” of numerically strong Yadav, Muslims, many non-Yadav backward caste communities, some non-Jatav Dalit communities like the Pasis behind the SP-alliance.

In contrast, Dixit says the BJP is finding it hard to mobilise its cadre “as the voter turnout in the fourth phase perhaps shows” since areas with upper caste voters, particularly with Brahmin consolidation, are witnessing very low polling.

Last leg

There are three more phases of the polls left. These are largely on the eastern flank of the state which the BJP had swept in 2017 but where the party has faced attrition of major caste-leaders, like Swami Prasad Maurya in recent months.

How much the narrative of setbacks for the saffron front in the last four phases impacts the polling pattern of the remaining three is difficult to predict.

What is certain, though, is that the BJP’s rhetoric is expected to get shriller in the coming days. Besides calculating how much of BJP’s namak (salt) they have had or brushing up on the merits of cow dung — Modi has urged people to remember who provided them free ration and salt during the Covid pandemic and promised to monetise cow/cattle dung to turn stray-cattle-affected UP wallahs into lakhpatis — the UP electorate may also want to read up on Ukraine as polling progresses; lest the PM’s passionate appeals find no resonance.

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