UP polls: With unlike poll narratives, Loni stares at a cliffhanger

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“By 1 lakh votes.” This prediction by BJP MLA Nand Kishor Gurjar for his victory margin in the coming elections in Loni is ambitious. He knows that two debutantes, a friend-turned-foe dairy owner and a “muscleman”, are both snapping at his heels and may even run past him.

Yet, Gurjar seems confident. “This time, it will double to 1 lakh. For sure,” the firebrand MLA says at his Ganauli farmhouse. A few members of the Azgar Sena, a cow vigilante group Gurjar founded in 1998, nod in agreement.

In the 2017 polls, Gurjar had bagged 1,13,058 votes, followed by BSP candidate Zakir Ali’s 70,249. RLD’s Madan Bhaiya had got 42,518 votes. The SP and the RLD had fought separately then.

For the February 10 polls, Gurjar, a first-time MLA from the seat in Ghaziabad, again sees his rival-in-chief in BSP candidate Akil. However, Bhaiya, the SP-RLD combine’s “muscleman”, and Independent candidate Ranjita Dhama are no pushovers either.

Dhama, the chairperson of the Loni Municipal Council whose husband Manoj is in jail in a gangrape case, quit the BJP after it refused her a ticket. She now threatens to disturb the SP-RLD’s and the BJP’s poll arithmetic.

The battle lines for Loni drawn, Gurjar, Akil, Bhaiya and Dhami all have their eyes set on a common goal. Their poll narratives, however, are equally disparate.

While Akil is banking on “voters’ anger against lack of progress in five years”, Bhaiya, a four-time MLA and out of power for 10 years now, waxes lyrical about restoring communal harmony. Dhama has been seeking votes in return for her civic works, including road construction.

And for Gurjar, cow protection and a ban on meat shops are as important as the development needed to attain ‘Ramrajya’. “We have built schools, colleges, roads and sewer lines. In total, projects worth Rs 6,100 crore have been undertaken here alone,” Gurjar claims.

Gurjar’s first brush with Hindutva activism was in 1998. Returning home from office one day, he says, he saw a few people slaughtering a cow in the middle of the road in Loni. “I protested and a few more joined me. This led to the formation of Azgar Sena against cow slaughter,” he recalls. After being “rebuffed by other parties”, his cow vigilantism and campaign against meat shops found a platform in the BJP in 2009, with a little help from then party national president Rajnath Singh.

Known for his incendiary speeches, the Loni MLA last week received an Election Commission notice for saying “Naa Ali, naa Bahubali, Loni mai sirf Bajrang Bali (Neither Ali, nor muscleman, Loni seeks only Bajrang Bali)”— in an apparent reference to his rivals.

On his way to the party office at Loni Tiraha on a cold winter morning, Gurjar stops to offer prayers at the temples of Hanuman and Lord Shiva at the Loni main market. “Do you feel safe now?” he asks a woman shopkeeper. Several shopkeepers praise a ‘better’ law and order. “Theft and robbery cases have come down under the Yogi government. This time, I have decided to bet on the BJP,” says Baghirath, 83, a traditional BSP voter.

The next moment, Gurjar is found pulling up a woman hawker for occupying the road with her kitchen products. He is concerned about traffic jam and has repeatedly objected to unauthorized taxi stands. “Where can I go? My husband died a few years ago. I have four children to feed,” Radha, 50, tells The Indian Express.

A few kilometres away in Lalbaugh, Bhaiya alleges Gurjar’s “insensitivity” towards hawkers and auto drivers has caused job losses. On Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s remarks that the mafia have been fielded by the SP-RLD alliance, the former MLA claims, “I have just two cases. Both are politically motivated,” he claims. His aides reveal they have no scruples in Bhaiya being called a muscleman “because he is a positive one”.

“He has never bothered us,” says Gulshan, who thinks the RLD leader, who won his first assembly poll as an Independent despite being in jail in 1989, could help her secure her widow pension. At this gathering, women and young voters complain of inflation and unemployment.

At Naipura, Ranjita from the Jat community has caught the voters’ attention. “For five years, nobody could build roads here. Only Dhama completed it recently,” says Deepak Sain, who favoured the BJP in 2017. A section of voters believes had the BJP chosen Dhama as its candidate, it would have been a cakewalk for the party.

Local journalists and political workers argue that Dhama’s entry will eat into the vote bank of both the BJP and the RLD. “In 2017, my husband and I did everything to ensure Nand Kishor’s victory. Now, he has conspired against us,” she claims. Gurjar rubbishes the allegation: “Did I send the woman (the gangrape victim) to him (Manoj Dhama)? It was a court decision.”

On rejection of Ranjita’s ticket, Ghaziabad BJP president Vinay Singhal underlines that the decision was taken by the Central and state leadership. “The party received 20 applications. We decided that whosoever is chosen as a BJP candidate will have our full support… And there is no question of vote cutting. Our victory margin will be bigger this time,” declares Singhal.

Of the total 5.10 lakh votes in Loni, Muslims account for 1.6 lakh, the SC community’s share is 90,000 and the rest is held by other communities, according to estimates by parties. More than one lakh votes are from rural areas. With several voters still weighing their options — whether to choose development over community, party over candidate, or vice-versa — poll predictions could be a mug’s game. But what seems indisputable is a possible cliffhanger in Loni.

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