On May 19, 2024, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and Samajwadi Party (SP) leader Akhilesh Yadav were supposed to address a joint rally at Phulpur, in support of their Prayagraj and Phulpur candidates. Prayagraj is being contested by the Congress party, while Phulpur is in the SP quota.

As soon as the two leaders arrived on the stage, the crowds went berserk. Frantically shouting slogans, they ran towards the stage to get a better view of the two. Some tried to clamber onto the stage, trying to shake hands with them.

The meagre police presence was hardly able to control the crowd and soon the situation descended into chaos. there was a lot of shoving, pushing, roughing up, and fisticuffs. As the anarchy continued, Rahul and Akhilesh watched it from the stage, unable to restrain the overenthusiastic supporters and finally had to abandon their meeting.

But in between, the two got some time with each other, with Rahul showing interest in knowing more about Akhilesh, his father late Mulayam Singh Yadav, their ideology, their world view in general. The video of this tete-a-tete has gone viral on social media.

Rahul Gandhi can be heard saying he was happy to interact so much with Akhilesh and Akhilesh agreeing that “ it was a unique meeting.” One might decry the unruly behaviour of SP supporters, and dub it as “gundagardi” but the surge of support and enthusiasm for the two, especially Akhilesh, was unmissable.

A similar scenario was repeated two days later at Azamgarh where Akhilesh went to address a meeting to support his Lalganj (reserved) Lok Sabha seat candidate, Daroga Saroj. Here too overenthusiastic SP supporters tried to cross barriers, and climb on the stage.

The police had to use lathicharge to control the crowd. Senior SP leader Reoti Raman Singh, who has now joined the Congress, blamed the chaos on too little police bandobast to control the surging crowds at SP chief’s meetings.

The sight must have been a nightmare for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders in UP. Unlike their choreographed meetings and the rehearsed cheerleading from their supporters, the crowd behaviour at SP-Congress meetings was spontaneous, overwhelming , impulsive and unplanned. Though unruly, it was organic and it did indicate an overwhelming support for the I.N.D.I.A. bloc leaders.

Notwithstanding the BJP leaders' bravado of ‘400 paar’ and a clean sweep on all 80 seats in UP, the surge of support for the SP-Congress combine paints a different picture altogether. There is little doubt that the main architect for this show of strength is Akhilesh Yadav, whose PDA pitch has actually worked on the ground.

Though his emphasis on ‘Pichda’, Dalit and ‘Alpsankhyak’ (PDA) support for his party invited derision in the beginning, but as he announced his candidates and hand-held the Congress party along on the same path, the ridicule has given way to awe.

In a state where Other Backward Classes (OBCs) form a whopping 50 percent of the population, the ‘Pichda’ (backward) class calls the shots in politics. Among the OBCs, Yadav’s constitute an impressive 19 percent of the vote bank and they are perceived to be SP supporters mainly.

Add this to the numerically strong Muslim population in UP, somewhere around 20 percent, and SP begins with a base vote bank of over 39 percent. Yadavs , in 2019, had slightly shifted towards the BJP, but a lot of water has flown down the Gomti since then and they have consolidated in favour of the SP now.

The deft social engineering that Akhilesh Yadav has tried this time, like giving tickets to more non-Yadav OBcs, like Kurmis, Shakyas, Kushwahas, Pasis, Sainis, Mallah etc, who form the bulk of support in pockets across UP, has ensured that their vote bank adds to the SP’s base vote bank of 39 percent to begin with. And this makes a winning combination.

For example, the SP has given tickets to non-Yadav OBCs in seats like Basti, Pratapgarh, Gonda, Ambedkarnagar, Banda, Lakhimpurkheri, Pilibhit, Kushinagar etc and the PDA pitch seems to be giving it a position of strength in these seats.

Yadavs have only been given four-five seats, and these are within the family only. In a communally sensitive state like UP, in order to prevent the Hindu-Muslim binary taking over, only four Muslim candidates have been given the ticket by SP- Kairana, Sambhal, Ghazipur and Rampur.

Similarly, the SP has tried to woo the Dalits by fielding them from general seats- Faizabad and Meerut, a gamble which may pay off. With the BSP out of the loop this time, a substantial part of Dalit vote bank, which had veered towards the BJP since 2014, is expected to side with SP-Congress this time, especially in a scenario where the threat of BJP trying to change the Constitution looms large.

Ground reports have suggested that Dalits are veering towards the I.N.D.I.A. alliance, their main goal being defeating the BJP at any cost.

Initially when Rahul Gandhi started saying that the BJP wants 400 seats so it could change the Constitution, it didn’t look like it would get traction, but when BJP candidates like Lallu Singh and Jyoti Mirdha seconded this, the Dalit community sat up and took note and as the election process has progressed, so has the disquiet among them over this issue. Hence their support for the I.N.D.I.A. bloc.

Political observers in Uttar Pradesh are of the opinion that since there is no overarching issue in this election, different communities have their different concerns and for Dalits, it is saving the Constitution. It might even outweigh the free ration and other welfare schemes.

In rural areas, stray cattle menace has also taken an alarming proportion, with small farmers ruing the fact that stray cows and bulls which roam around after being abandoned, destroy their crop, leaving them dependent on free ration by the government. Stray cattle normally wouldn’t have turned into an election issue, but for farmers affected by this menace, this may well tilt the balance.

Uttar Pradesh is a communally sensitive state and all three Hindu religious places on BJP’s agenda, Ayodhya, Kashi and Mathura are situated here. With a grand Ram Mandir already in place in Ayodhya, though it definitely is a matter of pride for Hindu devotees, it is hardly an election issue here, except of course with upper caste Hindu voters.

Kashi and Mathura have failed to become election issues, but the frequent stoking of communal fire by sundry BJP leaders has made the Muslim voters wary and their only concern is to defeat the BJP. This might help many INDIA alliance candidates sail through.

But it all depends on the Election Commission getting the process completed in a free and fair manner. But if voter mood is any indication, and the surging crowds at SP-Congress meetings is a barometer, then the BJP should be worried about its position in UP.