Will Uttar Pradesh vote to become a sea of red under the Samajwadi Party? While the poll surveys predict a Yogi Adityanath victory with a much smaller margin, they have not gauged the undercurrent against the current regime. The public, it is being said, fear speaking out for fear of retribution while they admit they plan to vote for change off-the-record. This antipathy manifests in brief montages of anger shown on social media but is not telecast on mainstream television channels.
Last week, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MLA Vikram Singh Saini from Khatauli near Muzaffarnagar was chased away by angry villagers who refused to let him address a meeting. In the Lyon village of the Shamli district, villagers have put up signs saying no BJP leader is allowed inside. A local farmer complained that the local BJP MLA never visited them in five years, so why should he come to seek their votes?
Another recent viral video showed Uttar Pradesh Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya surrounded by women in Sirathu, from where he is contesting the election. The women accuse him of “deceiving them” and say they will teach the BJP “a lesson on 10 March”, the day the state election result is announced.
There are several reasons why the anti-BJP sentiment is sweeping through many parts of Uttar Pradesh. In 2017, the BJP could craft a victory because it had created a fissure between the Yadavs, who form the base of the Samajwadi Party, and the “non-Yadav” backward classes. Besides, the Yogi Adityanath government has embarked on a publicity blitzkrieg, handing out fat cheques to the media and advertising agencies to project its version of events and developments. In Uttar Pradesh, jobs have not been created on the scale that Uttar Pradesh’s youth population needs. The government has already been talking up schemes such as Swachch Bharat Abhiyan and Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana in the last three elections at the Centre and state. The Ujjwala Yojana has also hit roadblocks of late.
Since 2017, Uttar Pradesh Police has killed over 39 alleged criminals in “encounters” with support from the Yogi regime. The National Human Rights Commission ordered an inquiry after these killings, so the police switched to half-encounters, where men were shot at, but not to give lethal injuries. Additional Secretary Avinash Kumar Awasthi told the media that over 1,329 “alleged criminals” were disabled in these encounters, and most of them are Muslim or Dalit.
The 21.5% Dalits and 19.3% Muslims of the state (Census 2011) are in a mood for a change of governance style. Kamal Krishna Roy, a civil rights advocate in the Allahabad High Court, says, “Practically every major town in Uttar Pradesh, be it Ghaziabad, Meerut, Muzaffarnagar, Kanpur and Allahabad saw encounters. People are not willing to forgive and forget this.”
Another source of anger is the arbitrary manner in which the government amended the Uttar Pradesh Gangsters and Anti Social Activities (Prevention) Act 1986, which allowed a deputy commissioner rank officer to order the attachment and demolishing of property. This law allowed the state authorities to seize and demolish property worth over Rs. 1,500 crores belonging to alleged gangsters. Yet this law was against those who protested in December 2019 against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) across Uttar Pradesh.
The state government “named and shamed” protestors on hoardings with their names, photographs, addresses and phone numbers.
Ashok Rai, a former Socialist leader from Ghazipur, regrets that “Yogi has created a fear psychosis”. “The public is afraid to invite the wrath of the BJP,” he observes.
The Yogi administration also promulgated the Uttar Pradesh Recovery of Damages to Public and Private Property Ordinance, 2020, whereby the state government could order the take over of the property of protestors “fomenting unrest and damaging public property”. These two ordinances created such apprehension that in many places, concerned Muslim citizens handed over cheques to the district authorities even without proper assessments of the alleged damage.
Aflatoon, a Varanasi-based social activist who heads the Samajwadi Jan Parishad, says he was horrified by the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister calling for “revenge” on those who protested against the CAA. “How can a Chief Minister talk about ‘thok do’ and ‘badla’? People have patiently bided these past five years,” he says.
The Yogi government has alienated a cross-section of people by wading into needless controversies. For example, a minister told the local media in Lucknow that only three teachers had died in the panchayat elections held in Uttar Pradesh last year. Those elections covered 52,000 village panchayats, 61,000 block members, 821 block heads, 3,000 Zila panchayat members and 75 Zila panchayat chiefs and were held for 8,50,000 posts. Three lakh primary school teachers were ordered to supervise this massive operation amid the Covid-19 second wave, which allegedly resulted in the death of around 1,621 teachers, according to data collected by Dinesh Chand Sharma, president, Uttar Pradesh Prathamik Shiksha Sangh, a primary teachers’ union. This, too, has become an election issue. Sharma’s union spearheaded a campaign for the deceased teachers’ kin to receive adequate compensation. He now actively campaigns for the Samajwadi Party, demanding that one member of each such family gets a government job.
When hundreds of dead bodies were found in the Ganga in May 2021 at the height of the pandemic, again, Uttar Pradesh minister Mahendra Singh said there was little he could do about it. Other ministers made light of the incident claiming it was the old Hindu practice of Jal Samadhi. After all this, the state Health Minister Jai Pratap Singh informed the Assembly that nobody in Uttar Pradesh died “due to lack of oxygen”.
This was after scores of nursing homes and individuals pleaded for oxygen supplies on social media. Several doctors and others who went public with their demands or complaints faced FIRs or were arrested under the National Security Act.
According to Congress MLA Pratap Singh, just because the government “did not mention death due to lack of oxygen in the death certificates of the 22,915 patients who died due to Covid-19 [in the state] does not mean there was no shortage of oxygen. Their own ministers and MPs had written letters highlighting the oxygen shortage. Were they telling lies? The Congress candidates are highlighting all these issues in our door-to-door campaigns,” says Singh.
Prof Mahesh Vikram, a historian, said, “There is no ostensible wave but a quiet regrouping of castes away from the ruling party is taking place. The anti-incumbency factor will also go against the present Uttar Pradesh government.”
Nowhere is the public’s antipathy more focused than in the government mishandling of the farmers’ agitation across Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh against the three laws passed by the Modi regime. Matters came to a head-on 3 October 2021, when farmers returning from a protest were mowed down at Lakhimpur Kheri by a convoy of vehicles, two allegedly owned by the Minister of State for Home, Ajay Mishra ‘Teni’ and his son, Ashish, who was arrested belatedly. The Samyukt Kisan Morcha also demands the resignation of Mishra Senior, but the Modi government has resisted this, perhaps fearing it will alienate its Brahmin voters.
Of late, Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav has expressed confidence that with the Jats and Muslims united in western Uttar Pradesh, the BJP’s Hindutva card will flop in the region and convert into votes for his party. In 2017, the BJP won 80 out of 103 Assembly seats in the region. On Saturday, Home Minister Amit Shah went door-to-door campaigning in the Kairana town and insisting that Yogi’s government had ensured there were no “bahubalis” but only “bajrangbalis” in Uttar Pradesh.
The BJP is trying its best to prevent the Muslim-Jat consolidation and has approached the Rashtriya Lok Dal, which is in alliance with the Samajwadi Party, to “join” it before or after the election. RLD leader Jayant Chaudhary has dismissed this invite as another BJP attempt to mislead voters. “Send the invite to the 700 farmer’s families whose homes you have destroyed,” Chaudhary tweeted. Chaudhary told NewsClick, “Uttar Pradesh voters cannot forget the Covid-19 trauma. Every family in Uttar Pradesh was deeply affected in the second wave. It has only been denial, denial, denial, from the incumbent Chief Minister,’ says Chaudhary.
According to Rai of the Socialist Party, the critical issue in the coming election is whether the Samajwadi Party can organise people to vote. “Apart from Modi, the BJP has no leaders. It has not allowed Defence Minister Rajnath Singh to campaign although he is from Uttar Pradesh,” he says. According to him, the chief minister was asked to contest from Gorakhpur, not Ayodhya, as the former is seen as a safe seat for the party.
The women in Sirahu who gheraoed deputy chief minister Maurya appeared to be speaking from their heart when they shouted they would give a befitting response on 10 March.
Public anger was intensified by police brutality against protesting students in Prayagraj on 25 January. Around 1.24 crore students had applied for jobs in the Indian Railways three years ago, but the appointments were suspended for three years. Anugrah Narayan Singh, the Congress candidate from Prayagraj, says, “This agitation of job-seekers will spread across the state. Youth unemployment and price rise are major election issues which the BJP are trying to side-step by raising the Hindutva issue.”
For the BJP, the ides of March could well blow in from Uttar Pradesh.
The author is a freelance journalist. The views are personal.