BJP supporters at the party main headquarters in New Delhi (File) Image Credit: PTI

In Kasganj, a bellwether seat in the Uttar Pradesh assembly that always votes for the party that wins the state, four farmers are packing sacks of carrots. They laugh when I ask them the price of one sack, offering me as many free carrots as I like. They are from the Lodh community, dominant in population and politics in this region.

I ask them about the forthcoming Uttar Pradesh assembly elections, likely to be held in February-March 2022. One of them loudly speaks for the group: the Bharatiya Janata Party it will be. He states the familiar reasons for the choice: improved law and order, free rations, cash transfer schemes and so on. So the people are happy, they don’t have any issues and problems?

His cousin jumps in and says the biggest issue for farmers is stray cattle. They destroy crops. He claims he’s suffered a loss of around Rs50,000 this year thanks to hungry old cows nobody wants. The government started cow shelters that take them in for money and release them back into the roads that lead to farms like his. He is so fed up with the administration’s inability to solve this problem that he wants to change the government.

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His taller cousin, the vocal BJP fan, says that would be a terrible idea. “Right now we only have to suffer strays eating our crops. But if the Samajwadi Party comes to power their people will grab our land, our sisters and daughters won’t be safe on the roads!”

From west to east UP, the scaremongering about the Samajwadi Party is a top reason why BJP voters are sticking to BJP. The Trumpian scaremongering is also reflected in the BJP’s campaign about ‘safety’.

Depending on who you talk to, law and order has improved drastically or it is just as bad. Muslims and Yadavs, the Samajwadi Party’s core supporters, will give you a long list of incidents of crimes in their area. They will quote you data. But BJP supporters will tell you they are relieved to not be living with the fear of assertive Yadavs and Muslims.

No matter what the data says, there is always a perception that the Samajwadi Party protects criminals. But this was true of its founder patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav. His son, Akhilesh Yadav, tried to change this in 2015-17. He denied election tickets to criminal politicians even at the cost of losing seats. He reduced the influence party leaders could wield at the police station. He started a police emergency response service even for villages.

Yogi vs Akhilesh
UP: It is a head on electoral contest between BJP's Yogi Adityanath and the SP leader Akhilesh Yadav Image Credit: AP and ANI

But all of that is forgotten. High profile crimes in the BJP era are also forgotten. These are all forgotten because the Samajwadi Party is unable to remind voters about them. They are forgotten because the SP has had no strategy whatsoever to pre-empt or at least counter the BJP’s attacks on the SP for law and order. They are forgotten because Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav hasn’t kept up the public narrative he tried to build in 2015-17.

A veteran local journalist in Kasganj tells me the problems with the Samajwadi Party. The district chief here has been a Yadav since before 2014. Why not make a non-Yadav the district chief in a Lodh dominated district? Why not try someone new? Surely, if a district chief can’t deliver results, it is time for change?

He further says he can tell how hard a party is trying by the number of press releases he gets. For every four press releases from the BJP, he gets one from the SP. If the BJP press release speaks of a big programme to engage one community or another, the SP press note will typically be about an SP leader stepping out of his house and sitting on the road for an hour to protest something or the other. Photograph taken, he goes back inside. Lately, he says, even the Congress sends more press releases than the Samajwadis.

No dearth of real issues

There is no dearth of issues people are suffering from: inflation, unemployment, economic distress, stray cattle. Voter after voter, in city and village alike, tells you they intend to vote for the BJP despite these problems because they don’t think the Samajwadi Party can do better, at least not for them. With these acute problems faced by the people, the Samajwadi Party should be sweeping.

The BJP supporter will tell you he’s happy getting free ration since Covid began, but the ration was already so subsidised that the free food grains save them only a few hundred rupees a month. Is that enough? It is not. The trouble is, they don’t know if the Samajwadi Party is promising anything better.

The SP for now is focusing on talking about unemployment and inflation but voters want to know if the SP can solve these problems. If yes, how? And can they really trust the SP? How do they trust the SP will help voters other than Yadavs and Muslims with these problems?

The SP will launch its promises only once election dates are announced, and it won’t have enough time to make those promises reach millions of voters given the media is hostile to the SP. Right now both the SP and the BJP are doing a largely negative campaign, though the BJP is claiming it has done a lot for UP’s progress and development over the last 5 years.

It is sad to see one of India’s most backward states has no narrative about solutions in an election. Everyone says everyone else is the problem.