Winter of Discontent: Uttar Pradesh bares it all in the election season

By Sudhir Kumar

Saboteurs, moneybags, history sheeters, Trojan horses, party hoppers, fence sitters – you name them and they are aplenty in India’s election season. There are other signs also that the country is bracing for the crucial assembly elections in five states as shibboleths rent the air, promises are galore, opportunistic realignments are being concretised, and political parties are promising freebies at the drop of a hat.

But it is in the dusty bowls of the cow belt state of Uttar Pradesh that an engrossing spectacle of desertions, poaching, revival of bitter rivalries, and unbridled turf wars is unfolding. The political parties are firing on all cylinders for the February-March assembly polls in the state, and its results are likely to impact the contours of politics in New Delhi.

When S P Maurya, a senior backward class leader and minister in the Yogi Adityanath cabinet, deserted the BJP to cross over to the Akhilesh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party (SP) on January 14, it was a rude jolt to the saffron party which is eyeing for a second consecutive term in the state. With Maurya, state minister Dharam Singh Saini and five other BJP MLAs also joined the SP. But the BJP appears to have found a counterweight to Maurya when it embraced within its fold Congress leader Ratanjit Pratap Narain Singh, former Union Minister and a member of the inner circle of Rahul Gandhi. Singh, also a high-profile backward class leader, belongs to a royal family that enjoys considerable clout in Kushinagar district, of which Padrauna is as an assembly constituency. Maurya, who hails from the same region, has been fielded by the SP as its candidate from Padrauna. Singh is likely to be the BJP nominee from this constituency, which is tantalisingly poised for rejig of political equations.  

Reports indicate that Singh is keen on entering the national scene through the Rajya Sabha (the Upper House of parliament). But the party wants to bolster its backward leadership line-up by keeping him in the state as an important player and thus soften the blow that it might have suffered with the exit of Maurya and some other backward class leaders.

Popularly known as ‘Raja Saheb of Padrauna’, 57-year-old Singh belongs to the Sainthwar sub-caste among non-Yadav OBC Kurmis. There are around 60,000-70,000 voters belonging to the Sainthwar community in Gorakhpur alone, and he could leverage his caste by reaching out to this community. The importance given to Singh joining the party can be seen from the fact that Union Ministers Dharmendra Pradhan, Jyotiraditya Scindia and Anurag Thakur, and Deputy Chief Minister Dinesh Sharma were present on the occasion.

Anyway, if Singh is fielded, it won’t be the first time that he would be pitted against Maurya. The Kushinagar Lok Sabha constituency witnessed a keen fight between the two in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. Singh was then the Congress candidate while Maurya threw his hat in the ring as a nominee of the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Interestingly, both the contestants secured over two lakh votes but Singh had the last laugh: he won by over 20,000 votes and went on to become a minister in the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government at the Centre. Prior to it, he was an MLA from Padrauna for three consecutive terms in 1996, 2002 and 2007. His father, the late Chandra Pratap Narain Singh, was also an MLA from Padrauna besides a two-time MP and the Defence Minister in the Indira Gandhi government in 1980.

Things, however, changed in the last two assembly elections. Maurya won the seat twice – first in 2012 on a BSP ticket and then in 2017 on the BJP ticket with over 40,000 votes over his nearest rival Javed Iqbal of the BSP. If Maurya and Singh fight once again, it would definitely be a spectacle. Both are seasoned gladiators and both of them have switched sides.

During his three-decade-long association with the Congress, Singh was Union minister of state for road, transport and highways (2009-2011), petroleum and natural gas and corporate affairs (2011-2013) and minister of state for home affairs (2013-2014) in United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regimes.

If Singh left the Congress, the reasons are not far to seek. He came a cropper in the last two Lok Sabha elections that he contested and his vote share also plummeted from 17 per cent in 2014 to 8 per cent in 2019. Moreover, he was quick to realise that he did not have any future in the Congress which has now been on a constant decline in the state. There was yet another reason. Singh had remained largely sidelined in the Congress as also in his home state. As AICC in-charge of Jharkhand, he was instrumental in installing a coalition government of which Congress is an ally. But he was nursing a grouse that his performance had not been suitably rewarded. True, he featured in the list of star campaigners for the assembly polls in the state, he was sulking because his role in candidate selection was minimal. Obviously, he was feeling marginalised in the strategy Priyanka Gandhi, who, as the general secretary in-charge of Uttar Pradesh, has been trying to revive the party in the state.

It was then hardly a surprise when he lavished praise on the BJP after joining it. “Hailing from Uttar Pradesh myself, I can say that it is the heart of India. When there is progress in Uttar Pradesh, there will be progress in the country. In the last seven years, the people of the state have seen the implementation of big schemes of the PM. Now I would like to be part of nation-building with PM Narendra Modi, as a small worker,” he said, adding: “I have seen how a double engine government has initiated development works in the state and improved law and order situation.”

Uttar Pradesh is politically crucial for any party seeking to form a government at the Centre: it has 80 seats out of the 543 in Lok Sabha, a 403-member assembly, and 31 of the 245 in Rajya Sabha, besides a 100-member Legislative Council. With a voter strength of over 15 crore, it carries significant weight in the country’s politics. In the 2017 assembly elections, the BJP had swept to power with 312 seats, while the SP and the BSP managed 47 and 19 seats, respectively. The Congress was relegated to the fourth spot with just seven seats.

Underlining the political significance of Uttar Pradesh, PM Modi visited the state around 10 times in November and December last year, unveiling a slew of projects, including the inauguration of the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor and the Purvanchal Expressway and the foundation stone laying ceremony of the Ganga Expressway. It is apparent that the results of the state assembly elections will be crucial in ensuring Modi’s return at the Centre for a third term on the trot in 2024.

The Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections are to be held in seven phases: February 10, February 14, February 20, February 23, February 27, March 3 and March 7. The poll results will be declared on March 10 when counting of votes takes place in four other poll-bound states – Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur.

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