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The BJP’s challenge in east Uttar Pradesh

  (News Agencies)- - With the elections entering the final leg, all attention is shifting to eastern Uttar Pradesh.This is where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept the polls last time around. The impact of Narendra Modi’s candidature from Varanasi was felt far and wide across the region. The success was replicated in the 2017 assembly elections.This time, too, Modi remains highly popular, and the BJP’s social coalition remains robust. But the party is confronting a major political-electoral challenge, which stems from both the coming together of the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party (SP-BSP) as well as cracks in its own campaign. HT travelled to three constituencies which voted on Sunday — Bhadohi, Machlishahar, and Jaunpur — and three constituencies which will vote on May 19 — Robertsganj, Chandauli, and Varanasi. Here are four new challenges the BJP confronts in the region:
UP is polarised, with a sharp division between those who want Modi as Prime Minister and those who will vote for the Mahagatbandhan (grand alliance) of the SP-BSP. The surname of a voter is often a clear indicator of who will vote which way, with upper castes, non-Yadav OBCs (other backward classes) and smaller Dalit groups with the BJP and Yadavs, Muslims and Jatavs with the alliance. The division percolates from the bigger cities to the villages.
But in this starkly polarised landscape, there is one common refrain you increasingly hear from both sides of the political spectrum: Yogi Adityanath is not adding votes to the BJP's kitty because those who are attracted to his brand of politics would have anyway voted for BJP; and if at all he has an impact, it is negative because he is helping consolidate Opposition votes and turn away swing voters.
Even a section of BJP supporters - especially from the backward communities - say that while they will vote for Modi this time around, in 2022, they wish to see a change at the state-level. The critique of Adityanath spans from his perceived casteism (he is accused of promoting only Thakurs); his policies born out of ideological rigidity (the emphasis on cow protection and the crackdown on slaughterhouses has led to a stray cattle menace destroying farms and keeping up farmers all night to protect their fields); his perceived inaccessibility; and his lack of attention to daily development and livelihood concerns. Yadavs and Jatavs - the core groups behind the SP-BSP alliance - also claim that but for Yogi government's exclusionary attitude towards them, their alliance would not have had the same kind of synergy on the ground. It is striking that the criticism of Adityanath is so deep in Purvanchal, the region that is his home ground. It could well be the case that the resentment against Adityanath does not get manifested this time around, and Modi is able to offset the local anti incumbency.

But the fact that instead of helping, power at the state level is compounding Modi's challenge, should give the party pause for thought about its CM, who is more a liability than an asset, and the challenge of 2022 when the state holds its next assembly elections.
A key element in Indian election campaigns is to project the inevitability of victory. The logic is that if a party is seen to be winning, it helps veer the swing voters towards the winning side - for Indian voters do not want to waste their vote by backing a candidate who is more than likely to lose. Indeed, the BJP has been very successful in creating a "hawa" (the sense that it is winning) in past elections.
This time around, too, the Modi juggernaut, the high visibility campaigns and media presence, and the slogan "Aayega toh Modi hi" (It's only Modi who will return) has all helped in constructing a perception that Modi will return as PM, come what may.
But for once, this sense of inevitability is also having negative consequences for the party. Across constituencies, we met voters - including BJP supporters - who said that Modi's return to power is certain. But then they added a caveat: in their particular constituency, BJP is on a weak footing.
Take Bhadohi. At the Dhanapur village, Shyam Gupta proudly told us he had voted for Modi. But sitting in a group playing cards, Gupta was quick to add, "But in this seat, the BJP may have a problem. Yadavs, Muslims, Jatavs are together. And BSP has a Brahmin candidate, who could eat into BJP votes. "Dilli main to Modi aayega par ho sakta hai yahan nahin (Modi will come in Delhi but maybe not here.)" This is not an isolated voice. One hears the refrain - Modi in Delhi but not in this seat because of its particular dynamics - across constituencies. And if it all adds up, the BJP could well be looking at unanticipated losses. The "hawa" in a way has introduced a sense of complacency among its voters, who feel their seat is not as critical in the larger national picture since Modi is winning anyway.
In 2014, local candidates did not matter. The BJP was able to weave together the election under the common thread of electing Modi as PM. This time around, while the BJP's campaign pitch remains the same, one hears more of the candidate and his inadequacies from voters.
Take Robertsganj, a reserved constituency, which the BJP has given the seat to its ally, Apna Dal. The Dal has put up Pakaudi Lal Kol as its candidate. Kol had lost the 2014 elections when he fought on an SP ticket - winning around 15% of the votes, while the BJP's Chhotelal won with over 42% of the vote.
Even as Modi was addressing a rally on Saturday, at the Sajour village crossing, BJP supporters expressed their scepticism about the candidate's ability to win the seat. "Who knows the cup-plate [Apna Dal symbol]? In the villages, people know kamal [lotus]. But when our voters do not see the symbol on the machine, they may well vote for someone else," said a BJP worker of the constituency who wanted to remain anonymous.
In addition, Kol was perceived as locally unpopular. He has been with the Apna Dal, BSP, and was a one-term MP from SP before losing the 2014 polls and shifting to Apna Dal. "Aise ke liye kaise vote maange [How should we ask for votes for such a candidate]?" asked the same worker.
The fundamental challenge to the BJP, of course, comes from the demography of the region and the arithmetic of the alliance. Unlike in western UP, where Yadavs are numerically in far fewer numbers, in Purvanchal, the Yadav population is substantial. This is the region which propelled the SP to power in 2012 elections when elections began from the east. Combined with the Jatav and Muslim vote, the opposition alliance begins with a distinct advantage.
This is visible from the 2014 numbers. Take Chandauli, where the BJP's state president, Mahendra Nath Pandey, is seeking re-election. He faces local anti-incumbency, and, on top of that, adverse arithmetic. In 2014, Pandey got 42.2% of the vote and bagged over 414,000 votes; the BSP got 26.2% of the vote and over 257,000 votes and SP got 20.8% of the vote and over 204,000 votes. Add the last two, and Pandey - even if he retains his existing vote share - will be unable to make it. The BJP believes that such neat vote transfers between SP and BSP will not happen and its own vote share will increase. But unless that happens, they are in for a tough time in many seats in the belt.
None of this means that Purvanchal will reject the BJP. It is important to reiterate that there is substantial goodwill for Modi, the faith in him and his perceived integrity and strong leadership is deep, and he is seen as a PM candidate worthy of being re-elected by a large segment of the electorate. But for Modi to repeat the 2014 magic in eastern UP, he will have to overcome the challenge posed by anti-incumbency against Adityanath; the complacency of the BJP voters; the unpopularity of local candidates; and the arithmetic advantage of the opposition alliance. If he is indeed able to do that, 2019 would well be truly Modi's election yet again.




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