In a mega poll battle, minor sideshows often reflect the shape of things to come. After the BJP declared that Narendra Modi will contest the General Election from the temple town of Varanasi, Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav decided to fight from nearby Azamgarh in a bid to counter Modi. And another member joined the political pilgrimage when Arvind Kejriwal announced his plan to challenge “Mukesh Ambani’s crony” after a referendum in the town.
Ironically, each player vowing to trip Modi has ended up increasing the multiple split-lines in Uttar Pradesh. The fight has thus boiled down to Narendra Modi vs multiple players. It’s not difficult to guess who has the advantage.
By announcing his decision to contest from Mainpuri in west UP and Azamgarh in the east, Mulayam has virtually conceded that a Modi wave is blowing across the state. The BSP is busy negotiating deals with Muslim organisations. The common thread running across all the party strategies is simple: counter Modi.
Congress leader Anil Shastri has floated the idea of fielding a joint candidate against Modi in Varanasi. The SP seems to be in favour and is looking to bring the BSP on board. The Congress has kept the hope alive by not announcing its candidate from the town so far.
“By contesting from Azamgarh, located just 100 km from Varanasi, Mulayam is attempting to send a message to his social constituency, particularly the Muslims, that he is the only one who can take the bull by its horns and stop the Modi in his tracks,” says a senior SP leader.
Azamgarh had been the epicentre of politics of social engineering from the days of Congress leader Chandrajit Yadav in the late 1960s.
“With Mulayam deciding to take the plunge from Azamgarh, besides his home turf of Manipuri, it appears that the mother of all political battles will be fought in eastern UP,” says political analyst Pramod Kumar. “Mulayam’s decision conveys a clear sense of unease within the SP over Modi’s candidature from Varanasi, which seems to have altered the electoral game in UP, particularly in the 32 Lok Sabha seats from eastern UP.”
Most of the seats in eastern UP, including Varanasi and Azamgarh, will go to polls on 12 May, the last phase in the state.
In Varanasi, locals take umbrage if Modi’s candidature is discussed in the terms of the secular-communal divide. “The people are sick of the secular-communal debate,” says former Central Information Commissioner OP Kejrival, who is a resident of Varanasi. “Our only wish is that Varanasi should be made suitable for living. If you come and stay here for a few days, you will see that there is no alternative to Modi. Murli Manohar Joshi is reportedly sulking after being denied the ticket, but he is ignorant of the fact that he would have lost his deposit had he dared to contest from Varanasi again. There is dust all around, potholed roads, garbage piled up along the roads and overflowing sewers… yet he did nothing.”
With Modi gate-crashing the UP battleground, Muslim anger against the SP over the Muzaffarnagar riots is no longer as intense as it used to two months ago.
“It does no matter which party is in power, bearing the brunt of communal riots is in the destiny of Muslims,” says Istiyaq Ahmed, a Professor of Law at Shibli College in Azamgarh. “I am sure that barring a few places, Muslim votes will not be divided and the community will vote with prudence to defeat the BJP.”
“Nobody in Azamgarh is scared of either the BJP or Narendra Modi. The BJP could not win this seat even at the height of the Ram temple agitation in 1991. The ‘Modi wave’ won’t make any difference because it’s more of a media creation than a political reality. In 2009, the BJP had won from here because the Ulema Council had fielded Javed Khan, thereby dividing Muslim votes.”
Welfare Party of India leader Tasleem Rehmani agrees. “The aura around Modi is a media creation. He is being projected as an icon of development and all good things under the sun,” he says. “It’s true that a large section of Hindu youth are attracted towards Modi, but it would be naïve to conclude that everyone, irrespective of caste and religion, would vote for Modi. An SC or an OBC would not vote for Modi, nor would a Muslim.”
“By contesting from Azamgarh, Mulayam has admitted that there is a Modi wave, but we don’t subscribe to his perception about Modi. We will do everything possible to prevent the division of Muslim votes. Talks are underway with BSP leaders. They will leave a few seats for Muslim organisations and Muslim candidates will contest on behalf of the elephant, the election symbol of the BSP.”
However, the secularisation of the Hindutuva plank pursued by Narendra Modi is proving to be a big problem for the SP, thus threatening it the denial of the benefits of the communal polarisation of voters in eastern Uttar Pradesh.
“Modi is the epitome of communalism and hatred, so he hardly needs to refer to the Ram Mandir or Mian Musharraf like he did during the 2007 Gujarat Assembly election campaign,” says political analyst Ambrish Kumar. “So, he is vigorously pursuing the plank of development, harping on employment and equal opportunity for all, thereby warming the hearts of all, particularly the aspiring youth.
“At his rallies in Uttar Pradesh, Modi was able to strike a chord with the masses and the weaker sections, irrespective of caste and creed. He talked about how India cannot achieve the status of a developed nation without all-round development in Uttar Pradesh with the application of new ideas and technology. So far, he has not uttered a single word that could even be remotely linked to rabble-rousing or being communally insensitive.”
The BJP appears to be unfazed by the howls of protest over the selection of Lok Sabha candidates. Across Uttar Pradesh, effigies of BJP president Rajnath Singh and even of Modi were burnt to protest against the selection process.
“Riding on the crest of the Modi wave, all and sundry want it to make to Parliament, but we are unable to oblige all the applicants as there are only 80 Lok Sabha seats in Uttar Pradesh,” says state BJP president Laxmikant Bajpai. “We are doing our best to douse inflamed passions and we are confident that the cadres will see reason and work for the candidate selected by the parliamentary board of the party after due diligence.”