Editor's note: As voters in Phulpur and Gorakhpur Lok Sabha constituencies in Uttar Pradesh exercise their franchise in the bypolls on Sunday, Firstpost will run a series of ground reports covering the aspirations of the people and prospects of political parties. The reports will seek to find if these by-elections are indeed litmus tests ahead of the 2019 General Elections.
Lucknow: A little over a year ago, when Bharatiya Janata Party romped home with brute majority in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections and assigned chief minister and deputy posts to two of its Lok Sabha MPs, no one would have guessed the party would face stiff opposition in the by-elections to those seats—Gorakhpur and Phulpur—where voting is scheduled to be held on 11 March.
Besides Gorakhpur and Phulpur, the Kairana seat fell vacant after the death of BJP MP Hukum Singh. The election date for Kairana hasn't been announced yet.
The two seats set to go to polls on Sunday were vacated by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya. BJP leadership put Yogi at the helm of Uttar Pradesh affairs, albeit after much drama over staking of claims by rival factions within the party. Maurya, under whose leadership the state BJP leadership went to the hustings, had to settle for deputy chief minister’s post, although grudgingly.
The by-elections for Gorakhpur and Phulpur seats have become a prestige issue for both Yogi and Maurya. Though opposition parties, jointly led by Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party, have queered the pitch in both constituencies, it appears out there be a BJP-vs-BJP contest.
Observers feel that the SP-BSP combine and other parties would definitely dent Yogi’s voter base in Gorakhpur. Maurya’s political future is likely to take a beating if Phulpur slips out of BJP’s hand.
Senior political commentator Ratan Mani Lal believes the parties would be in a tussle of prestige.
"BJP has to save the noses of its chief minister and deputy chief minister. These biggies were not able to save their respective seats in the panchayat election," he says.
Lal adds that for SP and BSP, this bye-election is an opportunity to prove that they are still in the scene and that together, they can stop the winning chariot of the right-wing, which otherwise has a firm grip on Uttar Pradesh at present.
Fight for prestige
While BJP's choice of Upendra Shukla in Gorakhpur was against Yogi’s wish, Kaushalendra Patel got the Phulpur ticket against Maurya’s wish. But both leaders have campaigned vigorously for the party’s candidates.
More than in Gorakhpur, the party was faced with an uphill task in Phulpur with the entire leadership having diverted its energy to address rallies to woo voters, especially the backward class. Yogi and Maurya have addressed several rallies. Whether the turnout at the rallies would convert into votes will be decided on 11 March, when votes are cast. Indications are that a united show of strength put up by opposition parties seems to have dimmed BJP’s prospects in Phulpur, where Keshav Maurya had defeated his nearest rival BSP candidate Kapil Karvariya in 2014 by more than three lakh votes. Maurya, however, is putting up a brave face by claiming that the BJP will even surpass the victory margin of 2014.
Samajwadi Party’s Allahabad district president Krishnamoorti Yadav disputes Maurya’s claim. He is confident that people of Phulpur constituency would not vote for BJP as they were disappointed with the party.
"No welfare schemes were rolled out neither any jobs were generated during Maurya’s tenure as MP," he alleges.
Phulpur has been a prestigious Lok Sabha seat since Independence. Jawaharlal Nehru represented the constituency three times, followed by his sister Vijayalakshmi Pandit. Though socialist Ram Manohar Lohia failed to get elected, Janeshwar Misra later saved the day for Lohia’s party. The constituency also saw Vishwanath Pratap Singh rise to become prime minister. Though Indira Gandhi stayed away from the constituency, she did create huge job opportunities by setting up IFFCO. Her private secretary JN Misra was known to have provided employment to an entire village.
This time around, Congress has fielded JN Misra’s son Manish Misra, who is believed to have a strong hold over 150,000-strong Shravan community. However, the key to success in Phulpur lies not with Shravans, but with the dominant Patel community, which has more than 300,000-strong presence. And that’s what both SP and BJP are focusing on. While BSP has lent support to SP’s choice Nagendra Patel, BJP is banking on ‘outsider’ Kaushalendra Patel, former mayor of Varanasi.
Shravans and Patels aside, there is a sizeable presence of Dalits and Muslims in Phulpur constituency that could swing votes. Jailed mafioso Atiq Ahmed who, too, had represented the constituency in Parliament, is being seen as a ‘game spoiler’ by BJP as well as the SP-BSP combine. Running as Independent, Atiq Ahmed commands enough ‘nuisance value’ when it comes to polls and is capable of chipping away at Muslim voter base across all party lines.
Uttar Pradesh Congress spokesperson Surendra Singh feels this bye-election will give a glimpse of what could transpire in 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
"BJP has done nothing in both these seats. People are fed up with jumlebaji. They want to see change. SP-BSP alliance, with support from other parties against the BJP, has given people in both the constituencies a new hope," he says.
Singh further adds, "People won’t fall for fake promises of a party that poisons the society with communalism and other agendas."
Though the spotlight is more on Phulpur, BJP’s Gorakhpur boat, too, seems to have been caught in troubled waters. The party preferred Upendra Shukla, whose father SP Shukla doesn’t see eye to eye with Yogi. Shukla’s choice has sent a streak of anger among Yogi’s staunch followers. This, coupled with a united opposition, makes for a pungent recipe that might leave the BJP leadership with a bad aftertaste.
In Gorakhpur, the division of votes is going to be between the equally dominant Nishad community and upper caste Brahmins. Though observers do not consider Samajwadi Party’s Pravin Nishad a winning candidate, Nishad is likely to put up a tough fight against BJP’s Shukla, whose voter base could be sabotaged by Yogi’s followers. With the SP-BSP tie-up in place, a piqued Congress has reluctantly and hopelessly fielded a lightweight Seema Wajahat Rizvi, who could muster merely 80,000 votes in the recent mayoral election.
Eye on 2019 Lok Sabha polls
According to statistics available, in 2014 Lok Sabha elections, SP and BSP had together polled 21.13 percent of votes in Gorakhpur. BJP bagged an impressive 28.28 percent of votes while Congress shrank to a piddly 2.4 percent.
In the same election, SP-BSP together accounted for 18.54 percent votes in Phulpur against BJP’s 26.30 percent and Congress' insignificant tally of 3.04 percent votes.
Irrespective of opposition victory or no victory, if BJP’s vote percentage shrinks and that of SP-BSP swells in both constituencies, it could spell trouble for the saffron party in 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Uttar Pradesh BJP spokesperson Shalabh Mani Tripathi says these elections are not a challenge for the party as the opposition has totally lost ground in the state.
"People have become hopeless with previous governments of regional parties. They now vote for change," he says, adding that previous governments were filling their treasury, instead of working for the people.
But, former SP minister Rajendra Chaudhary believes otherwise.
He says opposition (parties) have shown faith in the young leadership of former chief minister Akhilesh Yadav.
"This alliance will go very far as people love Akhilesh," Chaudhary adds.
Whether the much-touted ‘marriage of convenience’ between SP and BSP transforms into a full-fledged 2019 pre-poll alliance, supported by other camps and fringe groups, would largely depend on the results of by-elections in Gorakhpur and Phulpur, which would be announced mid-next week.
However, with slithery Rashtriya Lok Dal shaking a leg in SP-BSP poll tango, it could well turn out to be a case of ‘two is a company, three is crowd’, if not ironically ‘divided they stood, united they fell’.
And then, there would be Kairana by-elections, where RLD could certainly be a key player.
The authors are Uttar Pradesh-based freelance writers and members of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.
Updated Date: Mar 12, 2018 09:54 AM