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Triangular contest

VK Singh is playing the army card in Ghaziabad. The SP-BSP alliance is concentrating on local issues. If the Dalit-Muslim-Yadav alliance forms, BJP is in trouble

Ghaziabad is an important constituency, which is represented by former Army Chief VK Singh — who had won by a record margin of more than 5 lakh votes — and is seeking re-election. A controversial army officer, who while being the Chief of Army, had sued the government to have his age reduced by a year, in vain. A visit to the district, with elections just around the corner, shows that political fervour is not really high.

Singh has not left anything to chance, he leaves his Raj Nagar residence at 6 in the morning and comes back only by 11 in the night. He’s attends several meetings in his constituency that includes five legislative assemblies of Loni, Muradnagar, Sahibabad, Ghaziabad city and Dholana, which is located in the neighbouring Hapur district. Its 23 lakh voters will decide his fate, out of which six  lakh voters are new.

The BJP election office is housed in RDC, an upmarket locality. The premises belong to the BJP MLA Ajit Pal Tyagi. There’s a big lawn covered with a tent that was swaying in the wind. People are seated, chatting in small groups that were scattered. There aren’t many people, Singh is out canvassing. They look relaxed. The Singh camp’s confidence could easily lead to complacency.

The SP-BSP camp, located in Ambedkar Road, is crowded with enthusiastic people, some 500 of them. There are representatives of Muslims community, leaders of safai karamcharis, local leaders of Bahujan Samaj, traders and women. They too feel victory is within reach; the alliance between the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) looks to them like a winning combination.

The joint candidate on SP ticket is Suresh Bansal, a former MLA, who has been active in local politics for four decades, is respected and has a fair degree of clout. His election office is buzzing with activity at 8 pm on Monday when he is out canvassing. None of the supporters are willing to leave and the political discussions are as upbeat as they are noisy.

The election office of Congress candidate Dolly Sharma, 200 metres from SP-BSP office, bears a deserted look. The workers have left early. There was a big election rally in Murad Nagar where senior Congress leader Gulam Nabi Azad stressed that religion and politics shouldn’t be mixed together. Criticising BJP’s communal politics, Azad, said, “I want to win with Hindu votes and Hindus should win with Muslim votes.”

Sharma, a 33-year-old businesswoman is by far the youngest candidate. She contested for the mayor’s post a couple of years ago but lost to BJP’s Asha Sharma. Considered an underdog, she can upset the equation for the BJP, as per a senior leader (based at the BJP’s regional office of Western UP in Nehru Nagar), “by dividing Brahmin votes and also has a credible support base amongst the trader community.”

A facelift

Ghaziabad has been a BJP bastion. Before VK Singh, it was represented by the Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh. The city has seen a facelift, lately. Many of the pending projects are complete, like the Metro connection, the Rs 900-crore elevated road along the Hindon river that will make it easier and faster to commute to Delhi. However, the ongoing widening project of NH-24 disrupts the traffic during the peak hours.

But Ghaziabad, an industrial town, which not long ago looked like a dumpyard, is cleaner, and greener now with extensive plantations along the road, under the flyover. The transformation is magical to witness, if one is visiting the city after a year. The BJP claims that Ghaziabad is the cleanest city in UP. And has seen more development than any other district, barring Prayagraj, where the Kumbh was hosted a few months ago.

Arti Singh, a teacher in a private school, is out shopping with her daughter in RDC market on Sunday evening. She was seriously exploring the option of shifting to Noida, but is now a happy resident of Ghaziabad. “A lot has happened in the last year. Modi-Yogi combination worked wonders for the city. Earlier one couldn’t even walk on the dirty streets, now they are paved and you can see flowers planted,” she says.

Singh has left no stone unturned to take the credit, though his absence from his constituency and that he’s an outsider and inaccessible to people, is an issue harped on by the Opposition. He’s floated a website, and also published a magazine, Mera Ghaziabad, listing the money spent on various projects from his Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS. He also lists his intervention in facilitating implementation of various schemes in the field of education and health in this 120-page magazine.

There was a spree of inaugurations just before the elections were declared. The Meerut-Delhi highway was inaugurated by the Prime Minister. On March 8, PM Modi inaugurated Delhi Metro’s red line extension to Ghaziabad and launched civil flight operations from Hindon air base. SP’s district head of Ghaziabad, Rahul Chaudhury, alleges that the land acquired for the airport is on three-year lease. “Do you build an airport on a three-year lease?  The Prime Minister is in a hurry to inaugurate a project that’s far from over,” he alleges. An SP sympathiser, Abhishek Garg’s family land was acquired for the Hindon airport project. He says, “2,675 sq m is disputed, the matter is in SDM’s court. They have grabbed the land to build the airport.”

“It’s like presidential elections…with (Prime Minister) Modi seeking a re-election,” says Atul Yadav, an MBA student.

“India is at such a critical stage of its development that a strong leadership is indispensable. And that can only be provided by Modi is my parent’s argument. I don’t agree. Leadership is not about belligerence and aggression, “he makes his case.

 Politics around Army

There are not many takers of Atul’s view. Pulwama and the so-called Modi’s no-nonsense approach towards Pakistan are the issues propagated here to cement votes. Hoardings carry his name as ‘General VK Singh’.  Rahul Chaudhury has complained to the district magistrate — the use of the word ‘general’ without qualifying it with the word ‘retired’ is objectionable to him. The authorities have promised to look into the matter.

As if this was not enough, UP Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath, in his zeal to establish Modi as a strong leader, while canvassing for Singh ­— at a recent rally in Ghaziabad, described the Indian Army as “Modi ji ki sena (Modi’s army)” and went on to say, “Things which were impossible for the SP-BSP, are now possible; it is possible since Modi is here. Congress used to feed biryani to terrorists but Modi ji ki sena gives them only golis and golas (bullets and bombs).” This comment led to a big controversy and the election commission has sought a report from local authorities. The former generals, Singh’s bosses, like VP Malik, condemned politicalisation of Indian Army.

And Singh’s inaccessibility has been justified by Yogi: Being a minister of state in the foreign ministry, he was busy doing commendable work. Like presiding over the rescue operation, popularly called as the Operation Raahat, where some 4,800 Indians and 2,000 foreign nationals were rescued in Yemen from Al-Qaeda handler Nasir Al-Wuhayshi. A movie is being made on this rescue operation.

Caste equations

Suresh Bansal is doing what he must — meeting as many people as he can. His election office is agog with activity, supporters of various groups gather to discuss election strategy. A Muslim trader in his late 50s, identifies himself as Sanauallah Khan. He is hopeful that Ghaziabad will initiate that much-needed change in the Indian polity. He makes a simple point, reacting to Yogi’s “Modi’s army” comment. “I don’t have to clarify that Muslims are patriots. BJP is trying to polarise Hindu votes in their favour. They are trying hard, I don’t know how far they’ll be successful. But in the process, I’m sure that they’ll with great success polarise Muslim votes against them.”

And the Muslim, Dalit and Yadav combination, which accounts for more than half the voters, might prove fatal for BJP’s election efforts. Rahul Chaudhary, SP leader, has made his calculations. “Bansal has the support of 10 lakh voters… the election is sealed,” he says. He’s confident that SP-BSP alliance is a stable one, despite the fact that these parties have had a tempestuous past.  Chaudhary lists the example of Gorakhpur and Phoolpur by-elections where the alliance won the parliamentary seats held by the incumbent chief minister and deputy chief minister of UP, respectively.

The leader of Balmiki samaj and BSP leader, Gaurav Kumar Mahrauliya, says, “We do all the work and Modi takes the credit for clean and green Ghaziabad. It’s not different from army fighting the enemies, making the supreme sacrifice of their life, while Modi takes all the credit for it. If he’s so capable, why does he shy away from a debate…never takes questions from the media.”

Mahrauliya is in his mid-thirties, speaks animatedly; there’s anger and a sense of being wronged. He points out the contradiction in BJP’s narrative. While the PM claims that he’s a chaiwalla, and has now become a chowkidar, but in the name of beautification of the city and cleanliness drives, hawkers and peddlers have been driven out of the city.

Demonetisation is an issue where traders have felt the pinch. “There are no refunds. Income tax is hounding traders,” says Sunil Kumar, a trader who was a banker for many years. “Where are 2 crore jobs?” he questions. “Claims that in IBDI bank where he works, class IV employees, six in every branch were shown the door.”

The battle for Ghaziabad is obviously going to be closely fought.