By Ratan ManiLal
Polling in the first round of the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election went off generally peacefully on February 10. Nearly 2.27 crore voters cast their vote in 58 constituencies in 11 districts in western UP. This region, bordering the national capital Delhi and some districts of Haryana, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh, is generally well-connected, has good agriculture, and most of it is industrialised as well. The average voting percentage was 60.17, about 3 percent less than the figure of 2017.
In the previous election, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had won 53 out of these 58 seats with the Jat community moving to its side, moving away from the traditional social allies, the Muslims. The region has a decisive population of Muslims and Jats in some districts, whereas other backward castes, Dalits, and others are crucial in pockets across the districts.
The Jats and Muslims had drifted apart after the 2013 riots in Muzaffarnagar, leading the former to support the BJP in a big way. But last year’s prolonged agitation on the agriculture bills angered the Jats and their antipathy to the BJP again brought them closer to Muslims. The SP-RLD alliance has very cleverly cultivated this social combination to their advantage, as indicated by the most significant aspect of polling that did not escape anyone’s attention: the large turnout of Muslim voters everywhere. Women, elderly persons, and young girls of voting age lined up at polling stations till late in the evening and at places voting had to continue till beyond 6 pm.
The trend was common among the community in both urban and rural areas, even though polling was comparatively lesser in urban areas. Ghaziabad city recorded the lowest voting at 54.77 percent, whereas urban areas like GautamBuddh Nagar (Noida) saw 56.73 percent voting, followed by Agra (60.33 percent), Aligarh (60.49 percent) and Meerut (60.91 percent.) Remarkably, the highest turnout in the first phase was in Shamli, at 69 percent, with Kairana recording 75 percent voting.
There can be many reasons for the low turnout in urban areas, as the general apathy towards elections and little interest in politics at the grassroots level. In villages, by contrast, people are more engaged in issues related to local politics, caste, and community, since government working is at the centre of village activities. The high turnout by Muslim voters is an indication of a keen political understanding and identity issues among people of this community. It is witnessed in almost every election by the keenness of community elders to come out and insist on voting. People of the community are generally well aware of their rights, their stakes, and their share in local political activities. Before any election, if the political environment is important enough, there is a consensus on whom to vote for – or whom to vote against. This kind of tactical voting has been prevalent in the community in almost every state and has led to striking results, the most recent being in West Bengal.
In the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections and the 2017 Assembly elections in UP, such voting was overwhelmed by the support for Narendra Modi. In all these three elections, the BJP had won in even those seats where Muslims are in a dominant position. But the tactical voting this time indicates a clear purpose of either for a party or against a party. While the Samajwadi Party-Rashtriya Lok Dal combine has fielded 12 Muslim candidates, the Bahujan Samaj Party has the highest number of Muslim candidates at 16, with the Congress at 10 being in third place.
The high voter turnout of 75 percent in Kairana in Shamli is very significant. Kairana was in the news over the last couple of years for the reported migration of some residents because of the terror of local criminals. The Yogi Adityanath government conducted a campaign to catch or eliminate many criminals and then it persuaded the residents to return. The Chief Minister had himself gone to Kairana to welcome the returnees. The campaign by BJP leaders, including Yogi Adityanath and Union Home Minister Amit Shah, had repeatedly referred to the entire episode.
As far as other parties are concerned, the BSP may have lost some of its Dalit support because of fielding Muslim candidates in Dalit-dominated seats. Interestingly, in many seats like Kairana, Charthawal, Meerapur, Meerut, Loni, Bulandshahr, Aligarh, and some others, there are two or three Muslim candidates in fray from the SP-RLD combine, Congress and BSP. The impact of such “social engineering” remains to be seen.
As all parties move on to the second phase of polling on February 14, the mood in the BJP is sombre, as the perception grows that it may not be able to match the 2017 record of winning 53 seats. But at the same time, the SP-RLD combine too is said to have realised the limitations of its appeal beyond the areas where the RLD has a committed support base. Since the second round, too, features some Jat and Muslim-dominated areas like Saharanpur, Bijnore, Moradabad, Rampur, Amroha, and Sambhal, the voter turnout and voting trend may not be drastically different from the first round – unless the perception changes from the word of mouth.
The author is a Political Analyst, Associated with People's Pulse, a Hyderabad-based research organisation. E-mail: peoplespulse. hyd @ gmail.com