It was around 9 pm when the shopkeepers near Ghantaghar in Saharanpur were beginning to pull shutters down. A group of young men suddenly emerged from a by-lane shouting slogans, some of them wearing blue Bahujan Samaj Party caps, some carrying red-green flags of Samajwadi Party. Some boys on bikes were trying to catch the attention of onlookers by vigorously beating tambourines.
A small group of middle-aged men in white kurta-pajama standing on the other side of the road didn’t seem very pleased with what they were watching. “Gathbandhan wale hain, ye paise ke bal par kaam kharab kar rahen hain (These are guys from SP-BSP coalition. They are spoiling the game with money power)," one of them said.
After spending a day talking to a cross-section of people, it is not difficult to assess which community they belonged to and what their concerns were. They belonged to the Muslim community and were supporters of Congress candidate Imran Masood. Their concern was that activism by sections of Muslim men would essentially cut into votes of Masood and lead to victory of BJP.
Masood, who shot to infamy in 2014 for his “chop him into pieces” remarks against Narendra Modi, is otherwise very popular among Muslims. It should be noted that Muslims constitute around 40 percent of the total electorate. In the last parliamentary election, he was the only leader in Uttar Pradesh from the Congress-SP-BSP fold who, despite getting over four lakh votes, lost the election.
That was a highly polarised election. Masood supporters claim Congress couldn’t even get 50,000 Hindu votes for him. Samajwadi Party, which was the vanguard of Muslim cause during the Muzaffarnagar riots, could get only around 50,000 votes for Shazaan Masood, son of five-time MP from the region Rashid Masood and a cousin of Imran Masood.
The problem for Masood and Congress is that if they have to win, then they can’t afford any split, howsoever big or small, in Muslim votes. They are hoping that they would get some Hindu votes, particularly that of Gujjars and some others. BSP-SP-RLD candidate Fazlur Rahman, a meat exporter, has complicated the game. BSP in particular has a strong support base here and Rahman has begun to draw a good number of Muslims to his side. That puts the Muslim community in a dilemma – they want BJP to be defeated but how should everyone in the community be convinced to pitch in one tent? The election here is likely to be highly polarised.
Saharanpur, thus, becomes a test case, a bellwether constituency which would indicate which way UP, with its 80 Lok Sabha seats, goes. It is going to the poll in first phase, on 11 April. BJP and Congress can win only in case of a totally polarised election. Even if BSP or a gathbandhan candidate wins, Muslim votes will have to be polarised in his favour.
There are no so-called VIP candidates in the fray here. But in these elections, Saharanpur has become a prestige constituency for all the parties: BJP, Congress and BSP-SP-RLD gathbandhan. All of them know that winds originating from this western Uttar Pradesh constituency could impact central and eastern UP constituencies.
Rarely has Saharanpur seen the kind of feverish campaign pitch that it sees this time. Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a mammoth rally in Saharanpur on Friday, where he made clear references of Muzaffarnagar riots, blaming SP for it. He took on Chaudhary Ajit Singh’s RLD for joining hands with SP and BSP in alliance. Since Muzaffarnagar riots were about conflict between Muslims and Jats, Modi was trying to influence Jat voters in the entire Western UP.
Ajit Singh and his son Jayant are contesting elections from Muzaffarnagar and Baghpat. Congress has not fielded any candidate against Singh. Modi referred to Imran Masood, saying he had heard that “boti-boti” man lives here and is immensely liked by Congress' 'Shahzada' (a phrase which Modi used for Rahul Gandhi in 2014 elections).
Modi had neither come here in 2014 parliamentary election nor in 2017 Assembly election.
The fact that BSP chief Mayawati, SP chief Akhilesh Yadav and RLD chief Ajit Singh will jointly hold a rally in Saharanpur on Sunday, and that too the inaugural rally of the gathbandhan for 2019 polls, speaks volumes of the importance they attach to the constituency and the kind of impact it may have on other regions. All three coalition partners are working hard to make the rally a huge success.
Congress is also doing everything in its might to put up a challenge. Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra will hold their first ever joint rally, outside of Amethi and Raebareli, in Saharanpur on Monday. Congress is hoping that Saharanpur, with Masood on their side, might help the party swing its fortunes.
UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath began his campaign from Saharanpur and is coming again on Monday, a day before campaigning for first phase closes.
Epicentre Saharanpur could well be the guiding force of 2019 elections in UP. It will show whether UP will have a polarised election. If so, it is advantage BJP.
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Updated Date: Apr 06, 2019 17:09:15 IST