The areas going to the polls in Phase 4 of the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections on 23 February were extremely productive for the BJP in the 2017 Assembly elections. The party and its ally Apna Dal (Sonelal) won 52 out of the 60 seats voting in this phase, leaving just four for the Samajwadi Party (SP), two for SP's erstwhile ally Congress, and two for the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).
Seven out of nine districts going to the polls are in the Awadh region:
Lakhimpur Kheri (8 seats)
Sitapur (9 seats)
Hardoi (8 seats)
Unnao (6 seats)
Lucknow (9 seats)
Rae Bareli (6 seats)
Fatehpur (6 seats).
Then there are two other districts polling: Pilibhit in Rohilkhand and Banda in Bundelkhand with 4 seats each.
In the first two phases, the SP and its ally the Rashtriya Lok Dal appeared to have inflicted significant losses on the BJP due to a shift of Jat votes following the farmers' protest, consolidation of Muslim votes, and some incremental gains among other communities like Gujjars and Sainis.
The BJP may have pulled back a bit in the third phase, but still, its domination has been nowhere close to what it was in 2017.
The fourth phase now represents a chance for the BJP to take a sizable lead in the election. However, it may find it very difficult to repeat its 2017 performance.
1. Favourable Demography for BJP
Most of these districts have a sizable upper-caste and Kurmi population and comparatively lesser Yadavs and Muslims – the main support bases of the SP.
However, the absence of any significant 2017-like polarisation against these communities could enable the SP to make some gains in these areas.
The BJP is also hoping to gain due to the entry of influential leaders, such as Aditi Singh from the Congress in Rae Bareli and Nitin Agrawal from the SP in Hardoi.
2. Battle for Lucknow
The nine seats in Lucknow district will be voting in the fourth phase on 23 February. As with most big cities in UP, the BJP has traditionally been strong in Lucknow as well.
Though the city has a sizable Muslim population, the drawing of constituencies is such that Muslim votes on their own can't ensure the victory of a non-BJP candidate in any seat.
As a result, the BJP may still be in a strong position in the district, though a number of SP candidates like Ravidas Mehrotra may be in competition. The party had won the Mohanlalganj seat last time. The Lucknow West seat is another important prospect for the SP, as it has a sizable Muslim population. But some local resentment against the candidate could be an obstacle for the SP.
3. Pasi Vote Shifting to SP?
One of the factors that the SP alliance seems to be banking on in this phase is the shift of the Pasi Dalit community that is present here in sizable numbers. Last time, the BJP had gained a sizable chunk of the Pasi vote; the BSP's support in this section has been reducing.
The Congress had done decently in this section in 2009.
Unlike Jatav voters who have been stably behind the BSP, Pasi votes in UP have been shifting.
This time, there is some dissatisfaction against the BJP in this section due to a number of economic factors.
Dalit voters account for over 30 percent of the population in Sitapur and Hardoi districts, among the highest in UP.
4. Economic Woes
It's not just Pasi voters, economic factors seem to be working against the BJP across several sections.
These include job losses for migrant labourers, the stray cattle menace, and unemployment. In Unnao and Banda, The Quint reported on cases where migrant labourers died by suicide due to debt and unemployment.
In Banda, we also found that matters were becoming worse due to inadequate jobs under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA).
5. Hindutva and the National Security Card
It appears that the BJP is trying to overcome these obstacles by intensifying its pro-Hindutva campaign and invoking national security.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's recent remark equating the SP's election symbol cycle with terrorism seems to have been a part of this process.
Ayodhya, where the Ram Mandir is being built, will be voting in the next phase of polling on 27 February, but the BJP hopes that the Ram Mandir factor will help it across the Awadh region.
That doesn't seem to be happening beyond a point, with the election becoming more localised.
While its impact in rural areas may be limited, the national security card does seem to be helping the BJP in urban areas. The Quint found that several people who had lost their loved ones due to COVID-19 appears to have reconciled with the BJP. A few of them even credited the party for providing 'protection from terrorism'.
6. Congress Under Test
The Awadh region once used to be a stronghold of the Congress as it includes the Gandhi family bastions of Rae Bareli and Amethi.
In 2009, this is the region that the party gave its strongest performance from.
With Priyanka Gandhi at the helm of the UP campaign, the Congress would hope for a strong performance in this region.
Though some of its candidates like Lalan Kumar in Bakshi Ka Talab have been working hard on the ground, it remains to be seen if the party will be able to win a few seats in this phase.
Both the party's sitting MLAs Aditi Singh and Rakesh Singh have joined the BJP and are contesting on BJP tickets this time.
While Rae Bareli district votes in Phase 4, Amethi will be voting in Phase 5.
Why This Phase Is Important
In 2017, the BJP's sweep of West UP in the first phase partly due to communal polarisation, set the momentum decisively in its favour for subsequent phases.
However, this time, the reverse seems to have happened with the SP and its ally RLD making gains in the first two phases and not letting the BJP recover beyond a point in the third.
The fourth phase is a big opportunity for the BJP to turn the momentum in its favour.
For the SP, this is among the toughest phases. It may hope to nibble into the BJP's massive lead from last time as much as possible. However, overtaking the BJP may be very difficult.