PM Narendra Modi's BJP secured a landslide victory in 2014, bagging more than 70 of 80 seats from the country's largest state. But BJP's momentum in this election is being kept in check, likely leading to a tight race.
LUCKNOW, India – As the April heat soars to 40C in Lucknow, political gossip inside Mohammad Naseem's shop intensifies as well.
The cobweb of lanes in this historic Chowk market, in which his shop is tucked, were once famous for Mujra centres (where courtesans danced) attended by Nawabs –– descendants of Persian courtiers who administered this northern Indian city in 18th Century under the Mughal empire. Today, over 5,000 shops, mostly selling chikan-embroidered dresses, are crammed into this market, replacing memories of those Mujra centres.
"Sometimes, I wonder how would Nawabs have reacted to the current Goods and Services Tax (GST). Or those poor dancers. Were they mindlessly taxed too?" Naseem laughs as his salespeople, four middle-aged men, repack and place embroidered georgette and cotton dresses on wooden shelves.
"Gathbhandan [an alliance of three regional parties] is the answer," he says. "Five families, including mine, are dependent on my business. By slapping on demonetisation and then GST, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wrecked it."
India introduced demonetisation in 2016 - which sapped cash - and GST in 2017, its biggest ever tax reform, which critics say drove many small businesses and enterprises out of trade.
But, to Vijay Kumar Kapoor, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's "was a genuine step".
"The GST did impact traders, but it's fine now. Modi's stature is matchless. The world respects him. The regional alliance is an accord of corrupts and thugs. Our vote is only for BJP," says Kapoor, who deals with high-end apparels, adding that he voted for the opposition Congress years ago.
Further ahead in the capital's Hazratganj street – a key shopping nerve of pink and off-white buildings decked with black and white signboards – a juice shop owner, Raj Kumar, is worried about the nature of the incoming government.
"They have cheated us. But what option do we have other than the new alliance?" he asks.
How the alliance was formed
In the game-changer state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), three regional parties –– the Samajwadi Party (SP), their traditional rivals the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) –– have united, posing a major threat to the ruling BJP's re-election bid.
UP is the most populated state in India and sends more lawmakers to the Indian parliament than any other state.
The local adage is "the road to New Delhi goes via Lucknow". So it is no wonder it's in UP where elections become hugely important and parties must fight well.
In the 2014 election, polarisation, partly caused by riots in Muzaffarnagar, helped the BJP secure largely Hindu votes, while regional parties like the SP, BSP and Congress, contesting independently, got anti-BJP votes in segments. In that election, the BJP won 71 of the total 80 seats in UP.
"This time we agreed division of anti-BJP votes amongst many parties helps BJP. That realisation led to formation of the alliance," one of SP's chief election strategists told TRT World, wishing to remain anonymous because he was not authorised to speak with media.
"We [SP and BSP] were rivals in the past but we've moved on. In 2018, both parties helped each other win seats in by-elections in the BJP-ruled state. For 2019 national election, both sides approached each other with the offer to join the fight against BJP. And it ended up in a powerful agreement. From leadership to ground-level workers, we are sticking to the agreement," he said, adding talks failed with opposition Congress on the seat-sharing issue.
"Otherwise, it would have been a great grand alliance," he said, "But we still have the ability to win 60 seats of total 80 in this state. We're looking at this figure."
A BSP official told TRT World that Congress wanted to contest in several seats without giving concessions to regional SP or BSP, "despite the fact Congress was not assured of victory in those constituencies".
The SP is led by former chief minister Akhilesh Yadav and the BSP is led by former chief minister of UP and 'Dalit queen' Mayawati Das.
Chaudhary Ajit Singh of the RLD is another stalwart of this alliance and together they command large support bases among millions of Dalits (India's low caste Hindus), small traders, peasants, lower classes, Jat farmers and alienated Muslims.
As per their seat-sharing agreement, the SP will contest in 37 seats, BSP gets 38 and the RLD three out of the total 80 in the state. The alliance has left the two "unwinnable" seats of Amethi and Rai Bareilly constituencies (both Congress strongholds) for opposition Congress to retain.
SP and BSP have alliances in other states, also called the Hindi belt, as well against BJP and resurgent Congress.
Congress as spoiler?
"SP and BSP were ready to concede six to nine seats in UP instead of now two. In return, they wanted concessions in Congress dominated states, such as Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. But Congress wasn't interested in sharing its support base in these states with outside players," Rasheed Kidwai, author of several books and Congress observer, told TRT World.
This pits the alliance against both the BJP and Congress, which could indirectly help BJP as anti-BJP votes are split between the alliance and Congress.
Another factor that could upend the alliance's gains is that Congress is fielding strong candidates in some areas where the alliance is sure it could defeat BJP's candidates, although Congress has decided not to contest from seven constituencies where the anti-BJP alliance is dominant.
Modi's popularity, which got a major boost in the aftermath of the Kashmir bombing and subsequent air strikes against Pakistan, is another reason why the BJP can make significant electoral gains in the state.
Congress can't defeat BJP
Some party leaders and observers argue Congress, which has led India for decades since independence in 1947, needs to protect its image as a pan-India party for its long-term recovery, instead of relying on regional alliances.
"Congress may have good candidates, but it lacks organisation so it doesn't upset us," former UP chief minister Akhilesh Yadav told TRT World in an exclusive interview.
"People angry with the BJP know Congress can't defeat it. Who will they vote for? The alliance. In fact, we're happy with the way voting took place in the first phase."
Yadav dismissed the idea the 25-year-old rivalry between his party and Mayawati's BSP could undermine the alliance's success in the ongoing election.
"In politics, new things come. We have come together for common issues, to save the country, to save the constitution, which is under attack by BJP. The alliance is strong."