PILIBHIT: On a Saturday morning, as Amit Shah's helicopter lands on the grounds of the Drummond College in Pilibhit, cries of "Adhyakshji ka swagat hai" emanate from the stage. The president is welcome. Pilibhit MP Maneka Gandhi is on stage, having arrived only a few minutes ago. A man begins to roll out a red carpet towards Shah. The chopper blows a mini dust storm over the carpet. It's rolled back before Shah can step on it.
The ground is not even 20% full — 3,000 people at the most. Perhaps it's unfair to point this out. After all, it's a small jan sabha, not meant to be a rally. Yet, it does remind you that Amit Shah is no mass leader.
Pilibhit will vote in the second of seven phases, on 15 February. The district has four assembly constituencies. All of them have high Muslim population percentages. In fact, the second phase has on average a higher Muslim population percentage than even the first one.
"Bhaaaaarat Mata ki ..." says Amit Shah, and the crowd responds with a feeble "Jai". "Aisay nahi," says Shah. This is not how it's done. He asks them to show some "parivartan ka aakrosh," the angst of transformation. "Modiji is in nearby Badaun, your voice must reach him."
Most of Shah's speech attacks the Akhilesh Yadav government. At one point he even imitates the prime minister, both in words and tone: "Chaubees ghantay bijli aati hai kya? Rozgari mili kya? (Do you get 24 hours electricity? Did you get jobs?" and so on.
He says nothing against Mayawati or her Bahujan Samaj Party. Not a word on demonetisation. He only attacks Akhilesh Yadav and his Congress alliance, makes allegations of corruption and crime, and then mentions the freebies his party his offering. He alleges that laptops and other schemes by the Akhilesh government were given out on the basis of caste and religion. The suggestion is clear: only Yadavs and the Muslims got them. The crowd cheers.
Except, it's not true. It was quite unprecedented in Uttar Pradesh when people received patronage without ethnic discrimination. Whoever finished school got one. Similarly, voters across caste and religious divides admit electricity supply has increased substantially over the past five years, whether or not they are voting for Akhilesh Yadav.
Jats set the agenda
As people in front row began dozing off, an audio was going viral on the internet. At a private gathering of the Jat "biradari", it's Amit Shah's voice asking Jats not to desert the BJP.
As countless pieces of election reporting have shown us, Jat voters in Uttar Pradesh have been returning to their original party, the Ajit Singh-led Rashtriya Lok Dal. Some Jats staying with the lotus is not enough for the BJP to win seats. It needs a complete Hindu consolidation to win those seats with high Muslim population.
It was thanks to Jat voters in west UP that the BJP was able to build a hawa for itself in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Amit Shah himself says repeatedly in his speeches, "In 2014, the wind blew from west to east, sweeping away all other parties."
If Jats are deserting the BJP this time, it's elementary the BJP cannot be doing as well as 2014. Add the trading community's disenchantment with demonetisation (with the tax raids, actually), and it's difficult to agree with Amit Shah's claim the BJP is winning 50 of 73 seats in phase one.
The BSP can possibly also not be doing that well. Mayawati's strategy this election was a Dalit Muslim alliance. If you travel across west UP and talk to Muslims, it is clear they haven't bought the line. Yet, in many constituencies in phase one, the absence of Yadav voters has meant that the BSP looked in a better position to win the seat. In such seats Muslims have gone to the BSP. In a few seats, Muslims vote division has helped the BJP.
But over all, it is clear that phase one, a stronghold of both BJP and BSP, had not been too great for either of them. The BSP may still get more than the SP-Congress alliance, but that was the case even in 2012, when BSP did better than SP in these areas even as it won only 80 of 403 seats across the state. This time, too, no matter how many seats the BSP wins, its strike rate should be the highest in phase one.
If the SP-Congress can maintain their 2012 tally in phase one, they appear to be steadily ahead this election.
When you don't attack your rival
Addressing the media in Lucknow on Sunday, Amit Shah said his party was winning 50 of 73 seats in that region. When a journalist asked about Jat desertion, Shah appeared irritated and shot back, "Have you ever been to west UP?" When another journalist asked about the viral audio, Shah said, "Lots of things go viral. You will also go viral."
Most interesting, Shah said in response to a question that the BJP's main challenge in phases one and two was the BSP. That raises a lot of questions. If the BJP's main challenge in the first two phases is the BSP, why is Amit Shah attacking only the SP-Congress alliance? In fact, when asked about this, he said he is attacking the SP because it has been in power, before adding, "Don't ask me about Mayawati."
It is true the BSP is stronger in phase one areas than the SP, but this is not true of the second phase. Of the 67 seats in the second phase, the SP had won 34 in 2012. The BSP had won 18, the BJP 10 and Congress had 3. Looking at the voting pattern of these assembly segments in the Lok Sabha election, the BJP won 49, Congress 2, SP 15 and BSP just 1.
How do those numbers make the BSP the main contender of the BJP in phase two? After all, this phase has such SP strongholds as Rampur and Badaun.
Furthermore, Amit Shah said the BSP also has "jan-adhar" in phase one areas. True, but why would you say your opponent has public support? Usually, election campaigners say nobody else has public support.
Like BJP workers on the ground, Amit Shah is trying to prop up the BSP to confuse voters. His statements seem to suggest the SP-Congress alliance is doing better than he would have liked.
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