As the election moves towards Uttar Pradesh’s Purvanchal area in the 6th phase on May 25, caste alignments increasingly acquire centrestage, and turncoats from every party have made the elections intriguing.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is facing a tough fight as the I.N.D.I.A. bloc campaign is keeping the poll narrative focused on ‘upholding the Samvidhan Constitution)’ and promises to address the day to day struggles of the common people.

On the other hand, the BJP has run a largely negative campaign charging the I.N.D.I.A. bloc ‘shehzadas’, read Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav, of being “anti Ram, totti chor (stealing taps)”, and their vote bank of being “intruders” among many other such bizarre charges.

The BJP is on a sticky wicket in this phase as of the 14 Lok Sabha seats, five had been won by the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) alliance in 2019. The remaining nine seats were secured by the BJP.

The seats won by the BJP in 2019 were Sultanpur, Pratapgarh, Phulpur,Allahabad, Domariyaganj, Basti, Sant Kabir Nagar, Machhlishahr (reserved) and Bhadohi. Azamgarh was later wrested by the saffron party in a by poll when SP President Akhilesh Yadav vacated it to become the Leader of Opposition in the UP Vidhan Sabha.

The BSP had won Ambedkar Nagar, Shrawasti, Lalganj (reserved) and Jaunpur while SP had won Azamgarh in 2019. Almost all of BSP’s sitting MPs have since switched over to the BJP or SP. Only Jaunpur MP Shyam Singh Yadav is being repeated by BSP, that also on second thoughts. More of it later.

The saffron party’s graph further fell during the 2022 Vidhan Sabha elections in these 14 seats. Of the 70 Assembly seats 37 had been won by the present I.N.D.I.A. bloc.

The SP won 35 seats, Congress won one and SP’s then partner Suheldev Bhartiya Samaj Party (SBSP) had won one seat. Since then SBSP has switched sides and joined the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Its President Om Prakash Rajbhar is a minister in Chief Minister Adityanath’s cabinet.

Caste affiliations play a significant role in this phase. Interestingly, in several seats both the main candidates have BSP affiliation indicating the virtual decimation of the once strong party of the Dalits and other Bahujans.

Turncoats going from one party to another have made this phase intriguing. The BJP has put its caste based NDA alliance partners to work in this phase including the SBSP President Om Prakash Rajbhar, Nirbal Indian Shoshit Hamara Aam Dal (NISHAD party) president Sanjay Nishad and union minister and president of Apna Dal-Sonelal Anupriya Patel.

President of Jansatta Dal-Loktantrik, the seven-time MLA from Kunda, Raghuraj Pratap Singh aka Raja bhaiya, an influential Thakur leader however, refused to succumb to the BJP’s pressure.

Despite supporting the BJP in the Vidhan Sabha polls of 2022 in which his party won two seats, and supporting the BJP candidate during the February Rajya Sabha polls, Raja Bhaiyya has decided to remain neutral in the ongoing Lok Sabha polls. This in other words means supporting the I.N.D.I.A. bloc.

In early May union Home Minister Amit Shah had summoned Raja Bhaiyya for an hour-long meeting at a Bengaluru hotel. What transpired in the meeting is not known.

Raja Bhaiyya, believed to be close to CM Adityanath, made an important announcement soon after his return. He urged his supporters to vote independently. The video of his appeal went viral on social media platforms.

His stance clearly disappointed Anupriya Patel who gave it an egalitarian twist by declaring at a public meeting in Kunda that “‘Ab Raja EVM se paida hotey hain’ (Now kings are born from EVMs)”.

Raja Bhaiyya countered her by declaring: “EVMs give birth to jan sewaks (public representatives) and not kings. ‘Raja rajwade to saat dashak pehle hi khatam ho gaye the’ (Kings and royalty had come to an end seven decades ago).”

The verbal spat has made the Pratapgarh sitting BJP MP Sangamlal Gupta, seeking a second term, extremely tense. On May 21 he burst out crying on the stage asking the crowd if a ‘Teli’ (referring to his caste) was not entitled to become a parliamentarian. He appealed to his fellow caste voters to send him to the Lok Sabha.

In this phase Raja Bhaiyya holds considerable influence in Pratapgarh as well as in Phulpur and Jaunpur.

In neighbouring Allahabad the scions of two political families are in the fray. Congress has fielded three-time SP MLA Ujjwal Raman Singh on its ticket. He is son of Reoti Raman Singh one of the founders of the Samajwadi party.

The BJP’s candidate is a political novice, Neeraj Tripathi, son of BJP leader and former West Bengal governor Keshari Nath Tripathi.

Another interesting battle is in Shravasti where another son is making his political debut. He is BJP candidate Saaket Mishra, son of Prime Minister’s close aide Nripendra Mishra, presently chairperson of the construction committee of Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra Trust in Ayodhya.

Facing him is I.N.D.I.A. bloc’s Ram Shiromani Verma who is the sitting MP. He won in 2019 on a BSP ticket and is now with the SP.

There are three Lok Sabha constituencies – Ambedkar Nagar, Azamgarh and Lalganj (reserved) where every single MLA is from the SP. In Ambedkar Nagar sitting BSP MP, 43-year old Ritesh Pandey has since joined the BJP. He is facing yet another veteran BSP leader 69-year old Lalji Verma who is now with the Samajwadi party.

The SP expects to wrest back the prestigious Azamgarh seat where SP President Akhilesh Yadav’s cousin Dharmendra Yadav is in the electoral battle. Despite winning all the Vidhan Sabha seats in 2022, SP lost this crucial seat to Bhojpur singer and actor BJP’s Dinesh Lal Yadav ‘Nirahua’ in December 2023.

However, now SP is hopeful of winning back Azamgarh as it believes to have fixed the problem. In the by poll Nirahua has won 34.39 percent of votes while SP’s Dharmendra Yadav was just behind him with 33.44 percent of votes.

The BSP candidate Guddu Jamal had cornered a whopping 29.27 percent of votes upsetting SP’s applecart. Jamal has since joined the SP and has become an MLC. The Yadav-Muslim support is expected to ensure the victory of the I.N.D.I.A. bloc candidate here.

Another once close aide of Mayawati, Babu Singh Kushwaha is the SP candidate in Jaunpur in direct contest with BJP’s Kripa Shankar Singh erstwhile home minister of Maharashtra in his earlier avatar with the Congress.

Here Mayawati helped the BJP by changing her candidate at the 11th hour. Influential mafia don turned politician Dhananjay Singh’s wife Srikala Reddy, had been given the BSP ticket which was later transferred to sitting BSP MP Shyam Singh Yadav, who had earlier been denied a ticket by Behenji. Later Dhananjay Singh extended his support to the BJP candidate.

In Sultanpur Maneka Gandhi is facing stiff competition from mafia don-turned politician Chandra Bhadra Singh ‘Sonu’ who is the SP candidate. In 2019 as the BSP candidate against Maneka Gandhi he fought valiantly resulting in a narrow victory margin of 14,529 votes for Maneka.

Senior BJP leaders have been conspicuous by their absence during her campaign this time. Her son and sitting Pilibhit MP Varun Gandhi, who has been denied a BJP ticket, came to support her mother on the last day of campaigning.

In Domariyaganj sitting BJP MP Jagdambika Pal is defending his seat for the third time. He faces stiff competition from SP’s Bhishm Shankar Tiwari, son of recently deceased mafia don turned politician Hari Shankar Tiwari of Gorakhpur.

Both PM Modi and Amit Shah have campaigned in Pal’s support. Pal faces the wrath of the locals for not being accessible to them and putting development issues on the backburner.

In Bhadohi, Laliteshpati Tripathi, grandson of former Congress chief minister Kamlapati Tripathi is the I.N.D.I.A. bloc candidate contesting on Mamta Bannerjee’s Trinamool Congress symbol. This is the only Lok Sabha constituency on which the TMC is contesting in Uttar Pradesh.

The sitting BJP MP Ramesh Chand Bind has since joined SP and is party’s Mirzapur candidate against Apna Dal (S) president Anupriya Patel. In Bhadohi, the BJP holds only one of the five Vidhan Sabha seats. It has fielded Vinod Kumar Bind, at present NISHAD party MLA from Majhwa assembly segment in Mirzapur.

Despite attacking the I.N.D.I.A. bloc of dynastic politics, the BJP has field three dynasts in this phase: Neeraj Tripathi in Allahabad, Saaket Mishra from Shravasti and Praveen Kumar Nishad, son of NISHAD party president Sanjay Nishad from Sant Kabir Nagar.

Praveen is facing Laxmikant aka Pappu Nishad. The presence of Mohammad Alam from BSP in Sant Kabir Nagar may make the fight triangular.

Lalganj (reserved) is another Lok Sabha constituency where all the 5 assembly segments are with the SP. The sitting BSP MP, Sangeeta Azad won Lalganj in 2019 by a margin of 1.61 lakh votes.

She recently joined the BJP but has been denied the ticket. The decision to field 2014 winning BJP MP Neelam Sonkar has caused infighting within the local BJP unit.

The dissenters point out that Sonkar had been defeated by Sangeeta Azad in 2019. Sonkar faces veteran SP leader 68-year old Pasi leader Daroga Prasad Saroj who has twice represented Lalganj in the Lok Sabha.

In Basti once again caste alignment is the central factor. BJP’s sitting MP Harish Dwivedi is expecting to hit a hat trick. The SP has fielded former minister in Mayawati government and 6-time MLA Ram Prasad Chaudhary.

He contested the 2019 election on a BSP ticket and lost by 30,354 votes. An influential Thakur leader and former minister Raj Kishore Singh recently joining the BJP has improved its prospects as the upper castes have come together to back the BJP candidate. The presence of a Kurmi, Luvkush Patel as the BSP candidate has made the fight here triangular.

With the I.N.D.I.A. bloc rallies breaking all records in Phulpur , Allahabad and Azamgarh where people climbed the stage, it remains to be seen if the popular support converts to votes for the I.N.D.I.A. bloc candidates in this phase.