Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Lok Sabha constituency, Azamgarh—also the name of the district—is inhabited by a large number of Muslims and Yadavs who are the majority in many pockets. But the SP is far from complacent. Although Uttar Pradesh’s ruling party is hopeful it will repeat the success of 2012, when it won in nine of the 10 Assembly constituencies, it is leaving no stones unturned to ensure the minority voters do not inch towards the BSP, which had finished second in nine seats barring Mubarakpur, where its Muslim candidate Shah Alam alias Guddu Jamali delivered a surprise jolt to the SP.

Azamgarh’s 10 Assembly constituencies—Atrauliya, Gopalpur, Sagri, Mubarakpur, Azamgarh Sadar, Nizamabad, Phoolpur Pawai, Didarganj, Lalganj (SC), Mehnagar (SC)—will vote on Saturday, 4 March.

In a make-believe war-room area under a dense tree in former gram pradhan Nayan Yadav’s house in Sehda village in Azamgarh Sadar, Mayawati’s “Muslim card” forms the crux of a dozen SP workers’ anxious conversation. “Macro-management is needed. We have to go door-to-door and tell Muslims that Behenji (Bahujan Samaj Party supremo Mayawati) has an arrangement with the BJP,” quips an SP worker when somebody points out that BSP general secretary Nasimuddin Siddiqui and Ulema Council’s chief Maulana Ameer Rashidi were seen on the same platform together. “Haan, haan…batana parega (Yes, yes, we need to tell people),” nod all others, revealing how Akhilesh’s team is gearing up to peddle rumours about an “impending Maya-Modi alliance” to retain its Muslim vote-bank.

Most of them are enthused about Akhilesh’s decision to align with the Congress, which can brighten SP’s prospects in Sagri and Phoolpur Pawai, two constituencies where Congress had come a distant third in the 2012 elections but had polled nearly 25,000 votes. In Lalganj and Mubarakpur, the Congress can be of help if it is able to transfer the 10,000 plus votes it secured five years ago. 

The BJP, which has tied up with Om Prakash Rajbhar’s SBSP, is banking on the consolidation of non-Yadav OBCs such as Mauryas, Shakyas, Sainis, Kushwahas, Nishads and Binds across eastern Uttar Pradesh.

Congress ka pura vote SP ko transfer hoga (All the Congress votes will get transferred to SP),” asserts Nayan Yadav, a frail man in his 80s, as he waits with his entourage for Cabinet Minister and seven-time MLA from Azamgarh, Durga Prasad Yadav to arrive. He is admittedly worried about the situation in Sagri and as a team of SP volunteers return from a tour in Sagri, he anxiously takes a detailed account of the campaign. After the consultations, he tells this reporter: “Upper castes here are floating. They will not waste their votes on the BJP, which has not much of a chance. Many of them who voted for the Congress will come to our fold. The alliance is working on the ground,” he added.

Congress’ Arvind Kumar Jaiswal in Sagri had polled an impressive 29,421 votes in 2012, way ahead of the BJP, which got only 7,285 votes. While the SP cadre is banking on the statistics of the last elections, in which SP-Congress together polled more votes in all seats, they are not oblivious to the facts on ground.

“We are aware we have a stiff battle confronting us in Sagri and Lalganj,” says Rajesh Srivastava, an SP worker. “But we will deal with it.” 

Lalganj, a reserved seat for the SCs, is offering an interesting spectacle this time, with three bahubalis (musclemen) in the fray, say the locals in the main town of Azamgarh. “Teen bahubali takra rahe hain, mukabla dilchasp hai (Three musclemen are competing, the fight is interesting),” says a 20 something Ashok Yadav, at a road side juice corner as you enter Azamgarh.

In 2012, SP’s Bechai Saroj, a bahubali, had trumped both BSP’s Hiralal Gautam and BJP’s Gyanmati Saroj. While the SP has retained the incumbent from constituency no. 351, Lalganj, its two competitors have taken a leaf out of its book and fielded strong-men.

Akhilesh’s team is gearing up to peddle rumours about an “impending Maya-Modi alliance” to retain their Muslim vote-bank.

BSP’s Azad Arimardan and BJP’s Daroga Saroj, both of whom were identified as bahubalis by locals, are taking on Bechai Saroj. “It’s a razor sharp contest between the SP and BSP. But we hope the Congress’ votes will help us scrape through,” SP worker Rajesh Srivastava told this reporter.

Another worker admitted on the condition of anonymity that Akhilesh’s decision to deny ticket to Shivpal loyalist Waseem Ahmad, sitting MLA from Gopalpur and minister, has disillusioned the Muslims in the constituency. Although the SP ticket eventually went to another Muslim, Nafees Ahmad, the damage was done. “The cadre too is divided”, lamented the SP worker.

Meanwhile, the SP’s numerical calculations may not be that simple in Lalganj. BSP’s Arimardan is the lone Muslim candidate for the seat and the general mood of the Muslims in Lalganj seemed to be in favour of the elephant. Making matters worse is the poor track record of the incumbent. “The SP MLA’s tenure was dull. He hasn’t done much work. Else, the SP would have surely won,” said another youth, Ujjwal Yadav. His friends said in chorus the SP would put up a good show across Azamgarh. “They are definitely winning six seats,” quipped another. 

Back in the war-room in Sehda village, SP workers admitted Sagri needs a thorough booth-level campaigning if it had to be stopped from slipping away to the BSP. The ruling party has replaced its incumbent MLA, Abhay Narayan with Jairam Singh Patel, who is in competition with Vandana Singh of BSP and Devendra Singh of BJP.

Though the BJP fared badly in 2012, getting only 7,285 votes, the situation has improved since 2014 when the Narendra Modi wave swept the state. The BJP, though it lost the Azamgarh Lok Sabha seat to Mulayam Singh Yadav in 2014, had done well in Gopalpur, Sagri and Mehnagar Assembly segments. But the SP cadre claimed that the tide in favour of the national party comforted them rather than worried them.

“The BJP cannot win Sagri, though it will improve its performance. This will help us against BSP, which is almost wresting the seat away from us. BJP’s Devendra Singh will cut BSP candidate Vandana Singh’s votes, thus saving us from the sympathy factor that seems to be working in favour of the BSP,” said a war-room SP worker, refusing to be named. He did not explain the reason for the sympathy wave for the BSP.

In Mehnagar, where there are 70,000 Thakur votes, the SP is again banking on the BSP to eat into BJP ally SBSP’s votes, clearing the way for it. “We will definitely win Mehnagar,” claimed SP worker Rajesh Srivastava. He further said veteran Durga Yadav faces no competition in Azamgarh, although the BSP has roped in bahubali Bhupendra Singh. “People now vote only for development and ask anybody here, we have changed the face of Azamgarh in the last five years,” Durga Yadav told The Sunday Guardian.

The BJP, which has tied up with Om Prakash Rajbhar’s SBSP, is banking on the consolidation of non-Yadav OBCs such as Mauryas, Shakyas, Sainis, Kushwahas, Nishads and Binds across eastern Uttar Pradesh. Its ally SBSP has a considerable influence on the Rajbhar community. The combination may boost the BJP in Atrauliya, where it has fielded Kanaihya Lal Nishad against incumbent Sangram Yadav of SP and Akhand Pratap Singh of BSP. Nishads are 40,000 in number, while Brahmins and Thakurs make up for 60,000 in Atrauliya, which makes the BJP a formidable player. Added to this is the nearly 9,000 votes polled by its ally SBSP in 2012. But SP leaders said Atrauliya is a secure seat.

But overall, the BJP remains a distant third player to the SP and the BSP in Azamgarh, in the absence of a 2014 like polarisation. When you enter the city, you would find most Muslim women wearing a burqa and Hindu women sporting a thick sindoor, as if to assert their respective identities. But locals said the communal divide is no longer sharp and the majority votes are less likely to unite under any one faction.

“This area is dominated by Yadavs and Muslims. We will definitely vote for the lotus, but BJP may not win,” said the “Sethji” of Krishna Bhojanalaya, Azamgarh, in a crestfallen tone. “This is Netaji’s (Mulayam Yadav) citadel,” he murmured, as folk songs hailing Rahul-Akhilesh’s “dynamic leadership”, played from a loud-speaker fitted in an SP lorry touring the city, swamped his voice.

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