On Sunday, 7 April, the town of Deoband in Saharanpur district witnessed a massive rally in which the leaders of all the three Mahagathbandhan constituents – Bahujan Samaj Party supremo Mayawati, Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav and Rashtriya Lok Dal’s father son duo of Ajit Singh and Jayant Chaudhary – were present.
The rally was a huge show of strength and unity for the SP, BSP and RLD and is said to have set the momentum in the alliance’s favour.
Two days later, Congress general secretary and star campaigner Priyanka Gandhi Vadra held a roadshow in Saharanpur and attracted a large crowd.
These two events underlined the intense tussle between the Congress and the Mahagathbandhan in Saharanpur.
But are the Congress and the Mahagathbandhan fighting as intensely in all the Lok Sabha constituencies in Uttar Pradesh? Not quite.
A closer look at the Congress’ selection of candidates reveals that while it may be competing with the Mahagathbandhan on certain seats, it is helping the alliance in a majority of constituencies.
Soon after appointing Priyanka Gandhi and Jyotiraditya Scindia as its general secretaries in-charge for Eastern Uttar Pradesh and Western Uttar Pradesh respectively, the Congress drew up a list of seats which the party should focus on.
It was decided that the party would concentrate on under 30 seats and deploy around 70 percent of its resources on these seats and 30 percent on the remaining 50 seats.
What was left unsaid is that in these 50 seats, the party would tacitly help the Mahagathbandhan in order to defeat the BJP. Curiously, the Congress has also not pushed its big ticket NYAY scheme in Uttar Pradesh to the same extent it has in other states.
Based on the Congress’ candidate selection, we can divide Uttar Pradesh into three types of seats which represent three different possible equations with the Mahagathbandhan:
- Seats where Congress has fielded weak candidates and isn’t directly harming the Mahagathbandhan
- Seats where Congress has put up Muslim candidates
- Seats where Congress has fielded strong non-Muslim candidates
The second and third category need to be seen differently. The votes secured by Congress’ Muslim candidates would almost entirely be at the expense of the Mahagathbandhan. On the other hand, strong non-Muslim candidates of the Congress could eat into the votes of the BJP as well as of the Mahagathbandhan.
So while the second category of seats would necessarily involve a conflict between the Mahagathbandhan and the Congress, the third category could involve competition as well as collaboration depending on the circumstances.
Let’s look at the seats in the three categories in detail.
Seats Where Congress Isn’t Harming Mahagathbandhan
The map clearly shows that in a majority of seats – represented by green – the Congress isn’t directly harming the Mahagathbandhan. In fact, in many of these seats, the party might end up helping the SP-BSP-RLD alliance. So far, there are 56 such seats where the Congress may not directly harm the Mahagathbandhan to a very great extent.
These include seats like Azamgarh, Kannauj, Mainpuri, Baghpat and Muzaffarnagar – where they have not put up candidates as a goodwill gesture towards the Mahagathbandhan constituents. These are seats where members of the SP and RLD’s first families are contesting. The party had also offered to leave whichever seat Mayawati contests from but she is said to have decided not to enter the fray.
Most of these happen to be seats where the Congress has been structurally weak and lacks strong local leaders. Of course, there could be some seats among these where the Congress has fielded SP or BSP turncoats, and in those seats, they might harm the Mahagathbandhan in a limited way.
But in most cases, it seems that the Congress is not spoiling the Mahagathbandhan’s chances in any significant way. Let’s take a look at some of these seats.
The Congress has fielded Harendra Agarwal, who is from the Vaishya community, like BJP candidate Rajendra Agarwal. The Mahagathbandhan’s candidate here is Haji Mohammad Yaqub. Most of the Congress’ votes would be at the expense of the BJP. On the other hand, Haji Mohammad Yaqub is likely to consolidate the votes of Muslim, Dalit and Jat voters, the core support base of the Mahagathbandhan. Together, these three communities account for over 50 percent of the electorate in Meerut, which puts Haji Mohammad Yaqub in a very good position.
Gautam Buddh Nagar
Despite being a BJP stronghold represented by Union Minister Mahesh Sharma, the party is facing a tough fight from the Mahagathbandhan’s Satbir Nagar. Here the Congress has fielded Dr Arvind Singh Chauhan, who is said to be eating into some of the Thakur community votes that would have otherwise gone to the BJP. On the other hand, BSP’s Satbir is said to be consolidating Muslim, Dalit, Yadav and some Gujjar votes.
In Kairana, that is dominated by Muslim and Jat voters, the Congress has fielded a Jat candidate Harender Malik while the Mahagathbandhan has fielded Tabassum Hassan of the SP. Hassan had won the seat in a by-election in 2018 on a Rashtriya Lok Dal ticket. BJP has fielded an MLA from Gangoh in Kairana, Pradeep Chaudhary, who is also Jat. Hassan’s chances are supposed to be bright as she’s is relying on support of Muslims, Dalits and a section of Jats and Gujjars.
BJP’s VK Singh won Ghaziabad by a record margin but surprisingly, he is facing a tough battle from the Mahagathbandhan’s Suresh Bansal. The Congress has fielded Dolly Sharma who could eat into the BJP’s Brahmin votes.
Muslims, Dalits and Yadavs account for over 40 percent of the votes and could work to the advantage of the SP candidate. In addition to that, the Mahagathbandhan could also get a chunk of Gujjar votes.
The BSP candidate here is Janata Dal (Secular) leader Kunwar Danish Ali, as a special arrangement between Mayawati and HD Deve Gowda. The Congress had initially fielded former Amroha MP Rashid Alvi, who was earlier in the BSP.
But fearing that his presence would help the BJP, Alvi withdrew from the race. In his place, Congress fielded Sachin Chaudhary, who is unlikely to harm Danish Ali’s prospects. Amroha is one of the strongest seats for the Mahagathbandhan and the Congress’ decision has helped it stay that way.
In Sambal, the Congress is following the same strategy as Amroha and Meerut. The party has fielded Major JP Singh, a Thakur, in a seat where Muslims form nearly 50 percent of the population.
The Mahagathbandhan candidate is veteran leader Shafiqur Rehman Barq of the SP. He is up against BJP’s Parmeshwar Lal Saini.
Like Amroha, Sambhal is emerging as a strong Mahagathbandhan seat.
Another seat in this category is Rampur, where SP stalwart Mohammad Azam Khan is up against cinestar turned actor Jaya Prada, a former SP MP who is now with the BJP.
The Congress has fielded senior leader Sanjay Kapoor, a Khatri, from the seat where Muslims are close to 50 percent. Besides a few loyalists of the erstwhile Nawabs who are with the Congress and staunchly opposed to Azam Khan, very few Muslims are likely to vote against the latter.
It appears that the Congress is happy to let Azam Khan win the seat.
Congress’ Muslim Candidates
There are only nine seats so far – represented by red in the map above – where the Congress has fielded Muslim candidates.
Since the Mahagathbandhan is counting on a near-complete consolidation of Muslim votes, these nine seats are where the Congress could cause most harm to the alliance.
Interestingly, six out of these nine seats – Bijnor, Sitapur, Sant Kabir Nagar, Deoria and Farrukhabad – happen to be in the quota of the BSP, and only three – Badaun, Moradabad and Kheri – are under the SP.
There are two aspects here. First, the Congress doesn’t want to harm the SP but wouldn’t mind expanding its own base at the expense of the BSP. This cannot be ruled out as throughout the campaign, BSP supremo Mayawati has been attacking the Congress fiercely while Akhilesh Yadav has refrained from taking on the party. In fact, it is said that Yadav was in favour of including the Congress in the alliance.
Second, the Congress expects that the SP’s support among Muslims is far more solid than that of the BSP, so Congress’ Muslim candidates are far more likely to get traction in BSP seats than SP seats.
Mayawati’s open appeal to Muslim voters not to divide their votes could stem from both these factors and the fear that in BSP seats, Muslim voters could go towards the Congress.
Let’s look at some of these seats in detail.
The seat is witnessing a three-way fight between BJP’s Raqhav Lakhanpal, Congress’ Imran Masood and BSP’s Haji Fazlur Rehman. This is perhaps the only seat in the first phase that the Congress has a chance of winning. In 2014, Masood had given BJP’s Lakhanpal a good fight and polled more votes than the SP and BSP put together. But this time, the situation has changed.
The formation of the grand alliance has sent a signal to Muslim voters that the best way to defeat the BJP is to vote for SP, BSP and RLD candidates. It is no surprise that BSP chief Mayawati chose Deoband in Saharanpur to openly ask Muslims to support the Mahagathbandhan.
There are two elements to the competition for anti-BJP space in Saharanpur. The first is the battle for Muslim votes between Rehman and Masood. The second is the battle for influence among Dalits between the BSP and the Bhim Army, which is extremely strong here.
Bhim Army cadres attended the massive Mahagathbandhan rally in Deoband on Sunday, which was addressed by all the top alliance leaders like BSP chief Mayawati, SP chief Akhilesh Yadav, RLD president Ajit Singh and Jayant Chaudhry. But despite that, the Bhim Army has decided to back Congress’ Masood in Saharanpur.
In Bijnor, the Congress appears to be directly in confrontation with the Mahagathbandhan, in particular the BSP. The party has fielded former BSP leader Naseemuddin Siddiqui, who was once a close aide of party supremo Mayawati before falling out with her.
Siddiqui is an outsider as he hails from Banda in Bundelkhand but still he is likely to get a chunk of Muslim voters that would otherwise have gone to the Mahagathbandhan candidate Malook Nagar.
Nagar is a Gujjar and is known to be a strong candidate with a great deal of money power and influence in the area.
The BJP has fielded sitting MP Kunwar Bhartendra Singh.
The Mahagathbandhan’s calculation is based on the support of Muslims and Dalits who form 40 percent and 17 percent of the electorate respectively, in addition to Gujjars who are close to 7 percent.
The Mahagathbandhan remains optimistic of winning the seat even if Siddiqui polls even one-third of the Muslim votes. Anything more than that could help BJP scrape through.
In Badaun, the Congress has put up a strong candidate in former MP Saleem Iqbal Sherwani against SP’s Dharmendra Yadav, who is Akhilesh Yadav’s cousin and Mulayam Singh Yadav’s nephew.
This seat is an exception to Congress’ stand of not putting up candidates in seats held by members of Mulayam Singh Yadav’s family.
Strong Non-Muslim Candidates
There are 15 seats in this category. This includes Amethi and Raebareli, where the Mahagathbandhan has not put up candidates as a goodwill gesture towards the Congress’ first family.
The other 13 seats provide scope for both tactical deals between the Congress and the Mahagathbandhan as well as competition between the two. In these seats, there appears to be a clear difference in the approach of the SP and the BSP. While the SP has put up weak candidates in some of the seats where Congress has a good chance, the BSP isn’t following this strategy.
SP Helping Congress
For instance, in Kanpur, the SP is said to have put up a weak candidate making the battle easier for Congress’ Shriprakash Jaiswal. This seat used to be a Left stronghold but passed into the hands of the BJP in the 1990s until Jaiswal captured it in 1999. Since then, the seat has mostly seen a direct fight between the BJP and the Congress, with SP and BSP never winning from there.
It appears that the SP has understood this and chosen to tacitly back the Congress. Even in the 2017 Assembly elections in which the Congress and SP fought in alliance, they managed to halt the BJP juggernaut in Kanpur, winning most of the seats in the city.
Another seat where the SP is reported to have chosen a lightweight candidate is Unnao, which has now become a direct battle between the Congress’ Annu Tandon and sitting BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj.
In Kushinagar as well, where Congress leader RPN Singh is in the fray, the SP has fielded a weak candidate. This has made it a nearly direct contest between RPN Singh and BJP’s Vijay Dubey.
Eight of the seats where Congress’ non-Muslim candidates have a chance fall under the SP’s quota. The SP hasn’t fielded a Muslim candidate in any of these seats, giving further indication that the party doesn’t want to harm the Congress to a great extent.
Even in a seat like Kheri, where a Muslim candidate of the Congress, Zafar Ali Naqvi, has a good chance, the SP hasn’t fielded a Muslim candidate which would have harmed Naqvi’s chances.
In fact, except for Badaun and Moradabad, the SP and Congress aren’t harming each other’s chances in any significant way in any other seat.
BSP vs Congress
On the other hand, the BSP could end up harming the Congress in one of its potential seats – Dhaurahra. The party has fielded a Muslim candidate Arshad Ahmed Siddiqui against Congress leader Jitin Prasada. Muslims account for 20 percent of the votes in Dhaurahra and Dalits around 26 percent, making the BSP a serious contender in the seat.
Dhaurahra and Saharanpur are two seats where the BSP could actively end up harming the Congress just as the Congress could harm the BSP in seats like Bijnor, Sitapur, Sant Kabir Nagar, Deoria and Farrukhabad.
The big picture that emerges from these localised contests is:
- The Congress isn’t harming the Mahagathbandhan in over 50 seats. In some seats, it might actually be helping the alliance.
- The Congress’ competition with the SP and RLD is far less intense than the party’s tussle with the BSP.
- The SP might tacitly help the Congress in seats like Kanpur and Unnao.
- If there indeed is a tacit deal between the Congress and Mahagathbandhan in a number of seats, the BJP could perform worse than expected.
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