Ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party’s emphatic victory in the 2014 parliamentary elections, Opposition parties in Uttar Pradesh – especially the Samajwadi Party and Congress – have furiously sought to reverse the saffron outfit’s tide in the crucial state, which elects 80 of the 542 members of the Lok Sabha. Their attempts to close ranks in last year’s state elections did not work, with the BJP winning three-quarters of the seats in the Assembly.

Close to a year on, the Samajwadi Party and Congress have decided to contest the March 11 bye-elections to the Gorakhpur and Phulpur Lok Sabha seats separately. These seats were vacated by Chief Minister Adityanath and his deputy Keshav Prasad Maurya when they were elected to the Legislative Council in order to be part of the BJP government in the state.

Attempting to break away from its Yadav-centric identity, the Akhilesh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party has projected Other Backward Classes candidates from the Nishad and Patel communities. Pravin Nishad, son of Nirbal Indian Shoshit Hamara Aam Dal or Nishad Party chief Sanjay Nishad, is contesting from Gorakhpur and Nagendra Patel, an Other Backward Classes leader, from Phulpur.

The Congress has fielded Brahmin candidates in both seats – Dr Surhita Chatterjee Karim in Gorakhpur and Manish Mishra in Phulpur – in a bid to eat into the BJP’s core upper-caste vote base.

The Opposition candidates are up against the BJP’s Upendra Shukla, a Brahmin, in Gorakhpur and Kaushalendra Singh Patel in Phulpur.

Wooing the upper castes

By the Congress’s calculations, a section of upper caste voters – especially Brahmins, who account for nearly half of the upper-caste population in Uttar Pradesh – may not be averse to shifting their loyalties from the BJP.

In the Assembly elections, the Congress’s alliance with the Samajwadi Party was said to have worked against them and in favour of the BJP. Upper-caste voters distrust the Samajwadi Party and hold the Yadavs responsible for the decline of their political power in the state’s politics. Therefore, a section of Brahmins who were looking at the Congress favourably reportedly shifted allegiance to the BJP as a result of the alliance.

For the Gorakhpur bye-election, Congress candidate Chatterjee Karim is said to be popular both among the region’s numerically strong Bengali population, who have traditionally supported candidates backed by the Gorakhnath temple, and among upper-caste voters in the Gorakhpur town area.

Of the five Assembly segments in this Lok Sabha constituency, the BJP is known to poll a high percentage of votes in the Gorakhpur Urban Assembly segment while faring moderately in the remaining four segments – Gorakhpur Rural, Sahjanwa, Pipraich and Campierganj. In the Assembly polls last year, it had received over 56% of the votes in Gorakhpur Urban against 35% in Gorakhpur Rural, 34% in Sahjanwa, 33% in Pipraich and 42% in Campierganj.

The Gorakhpur Lok Sabha seat was vacated by Chief Minister Adityanath last year. (Credit: Reuters)

Play for OBC votes

In Gorakhpur, Samajwadi Party candidate Pravin Nishad’s core vote base includes the Nishads as well as the Muslims and Yadavs. Since the three social groups have a strong presence in Gorakhpur Rural, Sahjanwa, Pipraich and Campierganj, the party’s ability to swing the bye-election in its favour would depend largely on the BJP’s performance in Gorakhpur Urban.

Chances of Muslim votes being consolidated in favour of Nishad are high. Though the Congress candidate, Chatterjee Karim, married into a Muslim family here, she is said to have almost no support base outside the Gorakhpur Urban Assembly segment. Thus, whatever share of the votes she garners would be a direct loss for the BJP and its Brahmin candidate Upendra Shukla.

Similarly, in Phulpur – where the Patels, Brahmins and Muslims are numerically strong – the Samajwadi Party’s Nagendra Patel is expected to vie for Other Backward Classes votes against the BJP candidate from the same social group, Kaushalendra Singh Patel.

As for the Congress, by fielding a strong Brahmin candidate here, it seems to be making a serious bid to tap into the BJP’s upper-caste vote base.

Tactical cooperation, not direct alliance

Despite contesting the elections separately, there was some kind of coordination between the Samajwadi Party and the Congress in the selection of their candidates, leaders of both parties admit. The parties believe that any significant shift of Brahmin votes to the Congress would be a blow to the BJP, they said.

The new thinking in the Congress and Samajwadi Party is that the BJP’s victory march in Uttar Pradesh can be halted only if one of them prevents upper-caste consolidation in favour of the ruling party while the other works to polarise the majority of the Other Backward Classes.

A convincing victory for the BJP in the bye-polls would leave the Opposition parties bereft of any strategy in the run-up to Lok Sabha elections early next year – unless, of course, Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party decides to join hands with them. The Bahujan Samaj Party is not contesting the bye-polls.

But even a partial victory for the Opposition parties would prove that their new thinking holds merit. It would then open up an opportunity for tactical cooperation rather than a direct alliance in the 2019 general elections – in Uttar Pradesh at least.