MORADABAD: Ghaziabad’s glitzy housing developments give way to Moradabad’s congested roads, the political narrative also shifts. The Citizen is travelling through western Uttar Pradesh, and the Congress Party, thus far entirely absent from the voter’s discourse in Ghaziabad and Amroha, is suddenly a central player in the polls.

“I’m a BJP worker but I’m looking to join the Congress,” says Arvind, hurriedly pushing his visiting card into our hands. We’ve just entered Moradabad, and stopped to ask for directions to the local Congress office. “If you know someone who can help me join the Congress, let me know … You know, I’ve received repeated offers from the Samajwadi Party, but I want to work with a national party.” “I’m done with the BJP,” Arvind adds, “they say they’re taking a united India along, but they don’t help anyone.”

(In Moradabad, there’s a three way fight - between the BJP, SP/BSP alliance, and the Congress. Hari Shankar, pictured, says it’s advantage Congress)

Relying on Arvind’s directions and Google Maps, we make our way to the Congress office, where we find a very enthusiastic Khan Mirza. “This isn’t the main office,” he says - giving us detailed to the main office in Lal Bagh. “The wave here is for the Congress,” he says, “Imran Pratapgarhiya is contesting and the Muslim vote will rally behind him.”

Imran Pratapgarhiya is a well known poet, and the Congress is relying on his star power to rally the vote. He was given the ticket after Raj Babbar refused to contest from Moradabad, moving instead to Fatehpur Sikri. Contesting against Pratapgarhiya is the Samajwadi Party’s Dr. S T Hassan as the gathbandhan candidate, and the BJP’s Kunwar Sarvesh Kumar.

Sarvesh Kumar is the sitting MP, having secured 485224 of the vote in 2014. Dr Hassan came in second with 397720 votes.

The key to victory in Moradabad is the Muslim vote. Muslims make up 46.79% of the electorate in Moradabad. Hindus are 51.68%, of which the Scheduled Caste vote is about 80-90,000.

With two strong Muslim candidates in the fray, a split in the Muslim vote guarantees a BJP win. “It’s possible the BJP will win as a result of a fractured Muslim vote,” says Khan Mirza, “but who knows - maybe Muslims will consolidate and vote one way.” “Yes, it’s true … if the Congress had joined the gathbandhan, there’s no way the BJP would win here.”

“It’s simple,” says Pervez Akhtar, seated behind his desk in a local mobile and technology store. “If the Congress candidate gets less than one lakh votes, the victory is the gathbandhan. If he gets more than one lakh, then the BJP will win.”

“Imran Pratapgarhi isn’t here to win, he’s here to cut votes,” Akhtar says.

“He isn’t from here, so that too will work against him,” Akhtar continues. “If the Congress had given the ticket to local leader Hazi Riswan Qureshi, he might have won. He lost the mayor election to the BJP by only 5000 votes. People in the area like him.”

“You want to speak to him? I’ll just call him,” he says, picking up his phone and dialing the Congress politician. “He will be here in ten minutes.”

(Manish, pictured second from the right says that Moradabad is a BJP seat. “The Congress will cut into alliance vote,” the group offers)

We decide to walk around and speak to people while we wait for Rizwan Qureshi. “The Congress has an advantage here,” says Suleman, seated comfortably at a hardware store down the road. “I’m an old Congress voter; I’m not going to vote for the gathbandhan.”

“We’re BJP voters,” say a group of men further down the road. “SP will be second. The Congress will cut into the SP vote.”

We head to the Congress office, where we are to meet Rizwan Qureshi. Pervez Akhtar meets us there. “Raj Babbar did have a chance, because of the ‘personality vote.’ He’s a known name. People scared him off … they said Moradabad isn’t a safe bet, and he didn’t want to risk it.”

“I’ll support the Congress less for the party and more for Rizwan Qureshi,” Akhtar admits. “The gathbandhan has a lehar (wave), so it can capitalise on that. It has the Jatav and Dalit vote consolidated, and that’s about 20 percent of the Hindu vote in the area. Right now the SP candidate is in a good position, but if Imran Pratapgarhi is able to increase his vote … the BJP stands to benefit.”

Hazi Rizwan Qureshi then walks in. “Here’ it’s a fight between the BJP and Congress,” he says. “Our assessment is that the Muslim, worried about the BJP’s policies, will vote in large numbers - says, 70-75% polling amongst the community. The non Muslim voter turnout will be lower, maybe just 50%.”

(Congress politician Hazi Rizwan Qureshi)

“Mayawati will only get the Jatav vote. The rest of the lower caste vote will go to the BJP and also to the Congress,” Rizwan Qureshi says, in response to a question on what votes the Congress will be able to mobilise.

“In the city part of Moradabad, the SP won’t even get 10,000 votes. The BJP … they’ll get say one to one and a half lakhs.”

“Yes, if the Congress had joined the alliance - bahut pharak padta (it would have made a big difference).” He quickly adds, “But in some seats it could be negative, as the anti BJP vote will not vote for the alliance, but will vote for the Congress.”

Rizwan Qureshi tells us that he had asked for a Congress ticket, but it was given to Imran Pratapgarhi. He says that the latter is a good, strong candidate, and will win. “If I had contested, I would have won by say, one lakh votes. He will win too, by 50,000 votes or so, but will win.”

“The SP candidate Dr Hassan is a good man, but he’s very sharif (decent). Maybe a bit too sharif for this area,” Rizwan Qureshi says.

“There’s some infighting within the SP,” Pervez Akhtar says. “Hazi Nasir Qureshi was to be given the ticket, but they gave it to Dr. Hassan. Nasir Qureshi is supporting Dr. Hassan publicly, but neither he nor his supporters are happy about the decision.”

We’re told that there’s a Samajwadi Party office just around the corner, and senior politician and current MLA from Moradabad, Haji Ikram Qureshi, sits there.

(SP politician and sitting MLA Hazi Ikram Qureshi)

Ikram Qureshi greets us with a frown. When he speaks, its with the flair of a seasoned politician. “The fight is between the gathbandhan and the BJP, and there couldn’t be a better alliance - with Akhilesh Yadav ji and Mayawati ji coming together in Uttar Pradesh.”

“The Congress has come here to make the BJP win, plain and simple (yeh to seeda saada BJP ko jitane ke liye aaey hain)”

“The Congress wants Modi sarkar. I don’t know why, maybe there’s some weakness (kamzori) within the party, within its ministers. Maybe they’ve struck a deal with the BJP,” he says, alleging a backdoor arrangement between the Congress and BJP.

“Last time the BJP may have won here, but it’s been a Samajwadi seat - our candidate won from here three times.”

“This time too, we will win … the junta has understood that the BJP is only jumla. People was secularism, stability and development. And the gathbandhan has proved that it’s a winning combination. What happened in Gorakhpur and Phulpur, will happen again and we’ll see a gathbandhan victory in all of UP.”

“This time, the entire Jatav vote is consolidated behind us … since the Yogi government came to power, Muslims and Dalits have faced increasing oppression. To escape this, they are now united and will vote in large numbers for the gathbandhan.”

(The group says they don’t know who will win. “The Congress will cut into the SP vote,” agree Javed Ali, extreme right, and Laxman, second from the right)

As we drive out of Moradabad, we find four men sitting on a bench. “We were just talking about the elections,” says Rayeez. “In the city, there is a Congress vote, but in rural areas, the Muslim vote is behind the gathbandhan.”

(Side note: In the assembly elections, the SP won two of the five Vidhan Sabha seats that form the Moradabad parliamentary constituency, securing the win in rural seats)

“In the city, all this poetry type stuff may work - but in rural areas, we aren’t concerned,” Rayeez continues. “Dr Hassan is a good candidate. Even after all his success, he charges only Rs. 30 a day to see patients.”

“If Congress hadn’t put up a candidate, the alliance would have sailed through,” Rayeez concludes. Anil Verma, an old time SP voter, shakes his head. “What can I even say?” he offers.

An older gentleman sums it up, “a fractured vote will drive the seat to the BJP.”

(Anil Verma, middle, and Rayeez, on the right. The older gentleman did not want to be photographed)

(A sweet shop in Moradabad. It’s SP vs BSP, say the three men. Gaurav Saini, in the middle, says that the Congress candidate is an outsider, and will not be able to secure a win)