As the contest moves from the sugarcane belt in Shamli/Muzaffarnagar in western Uttar Pradesh to the potato-growing areas in Braj-Rohilkhand region, the ‘Yadav territory’ begins where Samajwadi Party has held sway, trumped by the BJP in the Modi wave that swept through in 2014 and 2019.

Of the ten Uttar Pradesh seats going to polls in the third phase on Tuesday (May 7), the BJP was the victorious party in eight during the 2019 elections. The Samajwadi Party (SP) could win only two – its pocket-borough seat of Mainpuri and the Muslim majority Sambhal from where the veteran Shafiqur Rahman Barq emerged victorious.

This time around, in a wave-less and tepid election, local issues, factors and candidates are dominating and the SP is in a close fight in at least five of the ten constituencies including Fatehpur Sikri, Firozabad, Mainpuri, Sambhal and Bareilly. In the reserved seat of Agra along with Aonla, Badaun, Etah and Hathras, the BJP has an edge.

BJP’s social experiment

The region reflects the success of the social engineering experiment by the BJP which has focused on the lower OBCs or “non-Yadav OBCs” and Dalits other than Jatavs, who largely vote for the BSP. A stark example of this is Agra, the city that houses the Taj Mahal and the constituency which is known in political parlance as the “Dalit capital” of northern India with an almost 22 per cent population of Scheduled Castes, nearly three-fourth of them being Jatavs, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)’s support base.

However, the BSP has not been able to clinch this seat even though it has a Jatav population of over 7 lakh. The BJP has been winning the mayoral polls since 1989. The BJP won all the five Assembly segments under the Agra Lok Sabha seat in the 2022 State elections and has been winning the Agra Lok Sabha seat since 2009. The Union Minister of State for Health and Family Welfare S. P. Singh Baghel won in 2019 and he is the favourite to win again this time around too.

“The BJP has a clear edge in Agra. Both the Congress and the BSP have fielded Jatav candidates and the Muslims are likely to vote for the SP. But the BJP corners the rest of the castes. They have a better candidate too. S. P. Singh Baghel is very strong and there is no voter recall for either the BSP or the SP candidates,” said Gaurav Valmiki, a Dalit activist in Agra.

Besides Agra, BJP is strong in Etah where former UP Chief Minister late Kalyan Singh’s son Rajveer Singh is the sitting MP and BJP candidate. Rajveer Singh had secured 54.82 per cent of the popular vote in this constituency in 2019, defeating Devendra Yadav of the SP. This time too, locals believe him to be on a strong wicket. The BJP is equally strong in Hathras where the sitting MP Rajvir Singh Diler had defeated the SP’s Ramji Lal Suman Ramjilal Suman by over 2 lakh votes in 2019.

SP’s target

But SP has bounced back in some other seats. In Fatehpur Sikri and Firozabad neighbouring Agra, the BJP is locked in a fierce contest with the SP-Congress alliance.

In Firozabad, which the BJP had won in 2019 by 28,781 votes, not a very large margin in the Lok Sabha polls, the SP is eyeing a comeback. This is because in the last Lok Sabha elections, the Yadav family’s internal strife had played out with Mulayam Singh Yadav’s brother Shivpal Yadav contesting as an independent to cut into the substantial Yadav support base in this constituency. While the SP’s official candidate lost by 28,781 votes, Shivpal Yadav managed to garner 91,869 votes which largely came from the family’s loyal Yadav support base. This time, the SP hopes to consolidate the Yadav vote and Muslims who overwhelmingly support the INDIA bloc.

There are a total of 4.5 lakh Yadav votes in this constityency and about 3 lakh Muslims. The non-Yadav OBCs including the Lodh Rajputs, Nishads, Kushwahas et al who vote for the BJP together constitute about 4 lakh votes. But SP seems to be on a strong wicket.

In Fatehpur Sikri, the BJP should have been fairly confident, given that it had won by a margin of 4,95,065 votes in the 2019 elections. But the locals are unhappy with the sitting MP Rajkumar Chahar and the Congress has fielded a maverick candidate Ramnath Sikarwar, a Thakur who is being enthusiastically promoted by his community.

While Mainpuri and Sambhal have local caste equations and demographics favouring the SP-BSP alliance, a curious contest is afoot in Bareilly where the BJP’s local stalwart Santosh Gangwar had been winning since 1989. This time, Santosh Gangwar has been dropped in favour of Chhatrapal Singh Gangwar who locked in a keen contest with Praveen Singh Aron of the Congress.