NEW DELHI: It is the first election that this reporter has covered in Uttar Pradesh where the voters refer to a gathbandhan ( coalition ) rather than the specific party of their choice. In that the Mayawati voter when asked who they will vote for rarely say Bahujan Samaj party, and instead chorus almost to the last person, “gathbandhan.” Similarly the traditional Samajwadi voter does not speak of Akhilesh Yadav, but the ‘gathbandhan” as the electoral preference.

The gathbandhan has caught the imagination of the non-BJP vote bank, with both the BSP and the SP finding themselves in a position where their respective votes are being transferred with ease. This comes from the meticulous preparations between the two parties, along with the with the Rashtriya Lok Dal that is contesting three Lok Sabha seats in western UP, ahead of the elections.

Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav are now addressing public meetings for each others candidates. For instance in the first phase, RLD leader Jayant Choudhary left his own election in Baghpat to campaign for BSP candidate Danish Ali in Amorha. And more recently Mayawati campaigned for SP’s Azam Khan in Rampur. Besides the joint public meetings across UP that continue.

In a major development Mayawati and SP patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav came together on the same platform in Mainpuri. And as the local leaders said, this in itself was a reflection of impending victory. “Behenji would not stand with Mulayam Singh ji unless the hawa was favouring the gathbandhan,” an old BSP supporter said.

The Congress party remains out of the opposition spectrum, playing at best the role of a spoiler. Both gathbandhan and BJP leaders do not give it more than five seats in UP. Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi has hinted at contesting from Varanasi, but this will depend largely on the party’s ability to get the gathbandhan’s support in what is essentially now Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency. So far none of the opposition parties have announced a candidate from this Lok Sabha seat, where reports suggest an upper caste consolidation behind Modi. A BSP leader said, “we will announce our candidate also later.” Asked about Priyanka Gandhi he laughed, “she will not have the guts.”

In most seats there is a close fight now between the BJP and the gathbandhan, going by the statistics of the 2014 Lok Sabha where the combined votes of the SP-BSP equal, and in some seats exceed, those secured by the BJP at the peak of what emerged then as the Modi wave.

The coalition leaders are confident of crossing 45 Lok Sabha seats in UP these polls, as the first two phases according to them have seen close and issue based contests. Unemployment and agrarian distress are working for a consolidation of the gathbandhan vote, that had been fractured in the 2014 polls with the youth at the time crossing caste lines to vote for Modi. This is not expected by the BSP-SP now, with Mayawati confident of getting the non-Jatav Dalit vote as well.

Whether this optimism comes to pass or not, the fact remains that there is sudden reverse traffic towards the coalition after the first two phases are over. The Nishad party leader who had won the Gorakhpur by election on the Samajwadi ticket had crossed over to the BJP just a few weeks ago. However, Amrendra Nishad left the BJP along with his mother Rajmathi Nishad, a former MLA from Gorakhpur, and came back to the SP after just 42 days. The BJP MP from Macchali Shahar, an adjacent Lok Sabha constituency, Ram Charit Nishad also joined the SP as he did not get the BJP ticket. This has led to a consolidation of the sizeable Nishad vote in this area, that could give the coalition a head start in what promises now to be an itneresting election.

Ten seats will go to the polls in UP in the third phase tomorrw, April 23. These are Moradabad, Rampur, Sambhal, Firozabad, Mainpuri, Etah, Budaun, Aonla, Bareilly and Pilibhit. Of these three are already with the SP---Firozabad,Mainpuri and Badaun--- with the BSP having contested separately in the 2014 polls. It is thus, reasonable for the party workers here to believe that they will retain these seats now with the coalition with the BSP increasing the percentage. Interestingly rebel uncle Shivpal Yadav is contesting from Firozabad, but even so the SP workers insist that he will barely make a dent. Besides the BSP secured over a lakh votes that will now come into the gathbandhan kitty and perhaps make up for any losses at the hands of Shivpal Yadav.

Of the seven seats, the BJP has a statistical edge over the gathbandhan in Pilibhit (here too Shivpal Yadav has put up a candidate this time) with Varun Gandhi likely to win the seat despite the coalition; and Bareilly where the BJP candidate Santosh Kumar Gangwar got over five lakh votes last election as against 2.77 lakhs secured by the SP and 1.06 lakh by the BSP. However, this time the coalition has fielded Bhagwat Saran Gangwar to try and fracture the BJP mandate that could make for a closer than expected contest.

In the remaining five Lok Sabha seats going to the polls tomorrow the gathbandhan is chasing the BJP closely, or the other way around. The vote difference is low as in Etah where the BJP had 4.74 lakh votes as against the 4.10 lakhs secured by the SP-BSP; or for that matter Aonla where the SP-BSP combined tally was 4.65 lakhs as against the 4.09 lakhs secured by the winning BJP candidate in the last general elections.

BJP workers across UP also refer to the gathbandhan as their main competition. Interestingly when asked who is the main opponent they do not name the BSP or the SP separately but like the voter in the field say, “gathbandhan.” This in itself is a major achievement by the coalition political parties that have created a major alternative in UP for the voters who are settling back into caste and community lines rapidly in these elections. In that the youth, for instance that had come out of caste parameters to vote Modi, have returned to the caste fold visibly angry over increasing unemployment.