Uttar Pradesh: Polling begins in 73 west constituencies that may hold the key

LUCKNOW: Polling began in 73 constituencies of Uttar Pradesh’s western region on Saturday morning in which an estimated 2.6 crore people are expected to caste their votes. This will also kickstart the Assembly elections in the state which will be held in seven phases.

With 73 constituencies and the possibility of triggering a wave that may just affect elections across Uttar Pradesh, an estimated 2.6 crore people in its western region will cast the first votes in the state Saturday. Ground zero for the 2013 violence that killed at least 65 and rendered thousands homeless and an alleged Hindu exodus, the region accounts for the most sensitive polling booths — at least 600 — where video cameras will be installed to maintain law and order.

The region has witnessed hectic campaigning over the last two weeks as parties fielded star campaigners in a last-minute rush to garner support. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, UP Chief Minister and SP chief Akhilesh Yadav, BSP chief Mayawati, Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi and several cabinet ministers have addressed public meetings.

At a rally in Muzaffarnagar last week, Akhilesh stressed the importance of being the first voters in UP. “You are voting first in UP. You will set the tone for the rest of the state,” he said.  Sources in SP and BJP in western UP agreed.

“In such a phased election, the mood is very important. People can sense which way the wind is blowing and this is an advantage for everybody. To win UP, performance in western UP is a must,” a senior BJP leader in Muzaffarnagar said.  In the 2012 assembly polls, the SP and BSP won 24 seats each, followed by BJP (11), Ajit Singh-led Rashtriya Lok Dal (9) and the Congress (5).

The contours of the region changed a year later when violence — Muzaffarnagar and Shamli formed the epicentre — spread across several districts. Over three days starting September 7, 2013, at least 65 were killed, hundreds injured and thousands displaced — most of the affected were Muslims — as they fled villages to escape the carnage. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP swept all seats in western UP.

While the BJP, SP and Congress have played down the 2013 violence in campaign speeches, it became the fulcrum for the BSP poll pitch.In her speeches, Mayawati has constantly referred to the riots and extolled her party’s superior law and order track record. The region was also once a BSP bastion, where the party had enjoyed support from the combination of Muslims and Dalits.

In 2017, Mayawati and BSP face stiff competition for the same electorate, particularly Muslims, after the Congress and SP announced an alliance and seat-sharing in UP. Other issues in the region include development of infrastructure and payment of sugar cane dues, the latter of which the RLD hopes to cash in on.

There are 839 candidates in the fray in 15 districts where 26,823 polling stations have been set up. Among the electorate are 1.17 crore women and 1,508 belonging to third gender category. The largest constituency is Sahibabad, while Jalesar is the smallest.

The maximum number of 26 candidates are in fray from Agra South, while the least number of aspirants are in Hastinapur with just six candidates. Prominent candidates include Pankaj Singh, son of Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, from Noida; Congress Legislature Party leader Pradeep Mathur from Mathura; Mriganka, daughter of BJP MP Hukum Singh who raised issues of a Hindu exodus, in Kairana; and, controversial BJP MLAs Sangeet Som and Suresh Rana from Sardhana and Thanabhawan.

The Election Commission of India said elaborate security arrangements had been made in all districts. Around 6,000 paramilitary personnel are being deployed in all 887 polling centres in Muzaffarnagar and neighbouring Shamli, particularly areas that witnessed communal riots in 2013.

Districts going to polls in the first phase are Shamli, Muzaffarnagar, Baghpat, Meerut, Ghaziabad, Gautam Buddha Nagar, Hapur, Bulandshahr, Aligarh, Mathura, Hathras, Agra, Firozabad, Etah and Kasganj. Chief Election Commissioner Naseem Zaidi, who reviewed poll preparations, said those who had migrated from Kairana for any reason, will be extended security if they take part in the polling process in their respective areas.

The six other phases of polling are on February 15, 19, 23 and 27 and on March 4 and 8, while counting of votes will take place March 11.