The first phase of the crucial Assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh (UP), covering 73 seats in its communally charged western region, on Saturday, witnessed a turnout of 64.2 per cent—three per cent better than the 2012 Assembly election turnout, but one per cent compared to 2014 Lok Sabha poll turnout.
The turnout has kept political parties and analysts guessing, who going by the high-voltage electioneering by the parties—the BJP, the Congress-SP alliance, the BSP and Ajit Singh led RLD—were expecting a higher turnout. According to initial figures available with the Election Commission, the number of women voters was 60.28 per cent, exceeding the male voters that stood 58.68 per cent.
Since the BJP had swept the region in the 2014 national election, the pressure is palpable on the party to prove it is firmly ruling the ground. Following the note ban, it is also a test of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's popularity, who in the absence of any chief ministerial candidate, is the face of the BJP. Opponents like Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav's Samajwadi Party and his alliance partner the Congress and Mayawati's BSP have spared no chance to attack the BJP and the PM personally on the issue of demonetization.
During Lok Sabha polls, Jats who constitute a dominate caste in the western UP had voted en masse for the BJP. In this region in 2014, the BJP had taken lead in over 65 of the 73 assembly segments. The SP had won a majority in the last state assembly election, in 2012, with just 29 per cent of the vote.
Among candidates who are being watched closely in Saturday elections are first time contestants Mriganka Singh (Kairana) and Pankaj Singh, son of union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, from Noida seat. In the 2012 assembly elections the BJP had won 11 of the 73 seats. The Bahujan Samaj Party and SP had won 24 seats each, Rashtriya Lok Dal had won nine and Congress five.
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Apart from the 23 seats it won in 2012, the BSP had finished second in over 30 seats. In the last Lok Sabha polls, this region had witnessed highest polling 65.1 per cent, which decreased in other regions.
Since the region has an overwhelming Muslim population, the BSP has fielded 18 Muslim candidates out of 73 seats and SP-Congress alliance 12. BJP's strategies in the have been further put to test by a resurgent RLD of Ajit Singh, with the latter trying hard to regain its lost Jat support. Besides 12 Muslims, the BSP has 10 candidates from Gujjar community. In 2012 Assembly polls, SP was victorious in 24 seats and Congress in five.
Political observers say that from west UP to Haryana, Jat politics is on the boil. The Jat community feels that their leadership is being increasingly ignored. Appointment of a non-Jat as the Chief Minister in Haryana has not gone well in BJP's favour, soaring the chances of Ajit Singh of the RLD. Another high profile contest is in Mathura.
Incumbent Congress MLA, Pradeep Mathur, has been challenged by BJP national spokesperson Srikant Sharma. Mathur has been winning the Mathura seat for past three consecutive terms. Eyes are also on Rahul Yadav, son-in-law of former Bihar Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav, who is contesting on SP ticket from Sikandrabad seat in Gautam Buddha Nagar district. Former BJP UP president Laxmikant Bajpai's fortunes were also sealed on Saturday.