Pooja Shukla, 25 and Sadaf Jafar, 45 are two of six women contesting from the nine assembly constituencies in Lucknow.

Three of the women have been fielded by the Congress, in keeping with Priyanka Gandhi’s promise of giving 40 percent tickets to women in the state. The Congress slogan is ladki hoon, ladh sakti hoon (I am a girl, I can fight) and the party promises job quotas, free bus services, electric scooters and smartphones for women if it wins.

However Abbas Haider, spokesperson of the Samajwadi Party tells The Citizen that no third party is in the race in these elections any more.

“For the first time in the electoral history of UP there is a direct fight between the SP and the ruling BJP. From Ghaziabad to Ghazipur the voters have made their choice in favour of the SP,” says Abbas.

In a bid to win as many seats as possible from Lucknow, the SP has fielded Pooja Shukla from Lucknow North. Shukla is amongst the youngest candidate in the polls, her constituency a haphazard cluster of college campuses, heritage buildings, bustling markets and sprawling slums with open drains.

Her dream is to dot her constituency with model public schools. She works tirelessly to raise the level of literacy in her constituency and to lower the rate of poverty. She wants clean drinking water, cleaner drains, the best roads, safety for women and better wages for artisans like weavers.

Lucknow North is home to about 1.2 lakh Muslims, 80,000 Brahmins, 35,000 Lodhis from the Other Backward Classes and 30,000 Dalits. Pooja Shukla’s door to door campaign has taken her to every home in each neighbourhood and she claims to care for members of all communities that reside within her constituency.

In the past five years police have lathi-charged citizens asking for jobs in UP’s capital city. Social activists have been jailed, and kicked around and beaten in lockup for participating in protests. And gruesome crimes continue to be perpetrated against women.

Will female politicians better address the problems faced by the youth and women? Today the number of female contestants in the state is down to 12, from 27 candidates in 2012 and 17 in 2017. It is clear that all political parties want the votes of women but are reluctant to share power with them. Therefore it is a long drawn struggle for every woman who joins the male dominated world of politics.

The daughter of a small property dealer, her mother Beena is Pooja’s pillar of strength. At first Beena was hell bent on getting Pooja married to a respectable Brahmin boy. However the constant cry to marry died down after the SP gave Pooja a ticket to contest the assembly elections.

Her parents wanted Pooja to take up a teaching job instead. They were afraid, and pained when Pooja was jailed in 2019 and countless criminal cases were filed against her for participating in the anti-citizen bill demonstrations at the clock tower in the old city of Lucknow.

Pooja was inspired by SP chief Akhilesh Yadav who is opposed to the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the National Population Register (NPR) and promises to withdraw the cases lodged against anti-CAA protesters if the SP is voted to power.

Pooja is the eldest of three sisters and she feels responsible for her siblings. But she is unwilling to give up her politics. Her determination to remain engaged in public life is not frowned upon, at least not by her immediate family members and neighbours. She is no longer considered a black sheep within the Brahmin community that sees itself as exceptionally respectable.

Pooja has been in the limelight since 2017 when along with other students she waved black flags at the motor convoy of Chief Minister Adityanath Yogi at the Lucknow University campus.

The students were protesting against the use of University funds to organise an event on the campus by a political party. It had made Pooja angry to be thrown into jail merely for protesting peacefully. After 20 days in jail, the University had refused her admission for post graduate studies. Pooja went on a hunger strike and forced the University to allow all the students to continue their studies. Today she has emerged as a youth leader and a fearless role model who stands for a democratic, secular and inclusive India.

If Pooja Shukla is the SP’s face of the future, then Sadaf Jafar is the Congress face of female courage. Jafar, national coordinator of the All India Mahila National Congress is contesting from the hot seat of Lucknow Central that was once represented by Congress strongwoman Swaroop Kumari Bakshi.

A schoolteacher and actor, Sadaf made headlines in 2019 when she was arrested for her support for demonstrations against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in Lucknow. She was slapped with a legal notice and a heavy fine for damage to private and public property. Her photograph, postal address and contact number were displayed on life-size posters that were pasted in the city in an effort to shame and endanger the anti-CAA protesters further.

She spent three weeks in the Lucknow Central jail where policemen kicked her and beat her brutally. She was verbally abused and called a Pakistani at the police station. The mother of two teenagers, she says Priyanka Gandhi stood by her during those difficult days and remains a source of constant moral support.

On her release from jail, Sadaf joined the Congress and helped distribute food to migrants who had walked back to their homes in UP in large numbers due to the shock Covid lockdown. Today it is her dream to see that India remains secular, and safe for women. She believes in doing her bit by nursing her constituency which is home to very important people but also to slum dwellers.

The slums along the riverfront area of her constituency are hell holes. Some 27,000 citizens call the slum home, that routinely get washed away every time the open drains in the area overflow. Often loved ones, especially children get lost in the flood of filth and squalor around them.

Juhi Singh, SP spokesperson admits that Sadaf is someone she respects. But it may not be possible for her to defeat the veteran SP candidate Ravidas Malhotra who is a grassroots leader.

“Ravidas Mehrotra has a history of working for the poor, and the marginalised. The roadside vendors, rickshaw pullers, auto drivers, small shopkeepers all know him and love him,” Juhi says adding that for Ravidas it is a mission to protect and to keep alive the spirit and letter of the Constitution.

“If Ravidas Malhotra has a history of working in the constituency then why is it that the poor have become poorer over the years?” a Congress worker wants to know at the front garden of Salimpur House. Syed Mohammad Sajjad, head of the house of Salimpur is an old supporter of the Congress and has allowed the party to use his Qaiserbagh home during the election.

“I have never been an active politician but my heart is with the Congress,” the 72 year old Sajjad told The Citizen.

The place is abuzz with activities like any other day. Tents are prepared for a meeting with workers later in the day. Helpers like Brajesh Misra and Majid put the chairs in order as Muhammad Ayub Siddiqui, head communications writes down the day’s agenda on a portable blackboard.

Shadab Akhtar, 26 party national coordinator has come down from Bihar to campaign for Sadaf and will stay in Lucknow till polling is over on February 23.

In the nine assembly seats in Lucknow, the other two female nominees of the Congress are Shahana Siddiqui in the West assembly seat and Mamta Chaudhary in Mohanlalganj. Of the six women contesting the elections in Lucknow, three are from the Congress, two from the SP and one from the BJP.

“She is educated. She is local. She is a grassroots worker. She is fearless and taking on the incompetence of previous representatives of this constituency whether it is the SP or the BJP. That is enough reason to look upon Sadaf as a winner,” concludes Shadab stroking his overgrown beard.