Uttar Pradesh, Amit Shah has said, will decide the fate of the country. The first phase in UP's richest and most developed region, lying between the great rivers Ganga and Yamuna, could decide the fate of UP.
In 2017, the BJP swept this so-called Jat belt of UP, winning 91% of the 58 seats here, many with thumping majorities.
More than 40% of these wins were by margins of more than 20%, and 25% of them were by margins of over 30%.
Map Of Phase 1
This is also an area with a low OBC population and high upper caste Hindu population, the bedrock of the BJP. In the 33 seats where upper caste Hindus form more than 35% of the population, the BJP won 23 with majorities of more than 20%. This is also one of the most urbanised areas of UP, including the industrial belt stretching from NOIDA through Ghaziabad and Meerut; again, the BJP scored spectacularly here, winning 21 of the 22 urban seats, losing only in Meerut. And the wins were big.
It was only in the 20 seats with high Muslim populations (above 25%), mainly the northern part, that the BJP's win margins fell, with majorities of less than 10% in 11 seats.
So, this election should have been a slam dunk for the BJP again.
But when you listen to Amit Shah cajoling Jat and RLD leader Jayant Chaudhary to ditch his alliance with the Samajwadi Party and join the BJP bandwagon, you know there could be a problem.
The problem is, that this is the part of UP, that was most affected by the farmers' agitation. This is where the son of Minister of State for Home, Ajay Mishra, allegedly ran over farmers in Lakhimpur Kheri in October 2021. Without admitting it, that was the point at which the BJP realised that the political fallout of the farmers' agitation could upset their electoral prospects, especially in UP. Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself announced the withdrawal of the three farm "reform" bills. With that, the party hoped that farmers, and particularly the Jats, would continue to support the BJP.
The 2013 riots in Muzaffarnagar broke the long-standing Jat-Muslim alliance in this part of UP and brought the Jats into the BJP fold in time for the 2014 general elections.
Many claim that it was this continued communalisation of politics through to the 2017 assembly election that gave the BJP its huge majority.
Last week, Rakesh Tikait, Bhartiya Kisan Union leader and part of the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM) - the farmers' umbrella organisation that led the agitation - attacked the BJP for continuing to play the communal card and divide the Jats and Muslims.
The Jat community was closely linked to the farmers' agitation, so the fear that the Jats would turn away from the BJP is of great concern to the party. Jats form 15% of the population in the area and are influential in around 35 seats (see map above). Those fears of a farmers' backlash gained traction last week.
The SKM, in a strongly-worded letter to farmers, said the BJP is an anti-farmer party that "manipulated farmers in 2017 and after coming to power turned away from all their promises... Let's punish them and throw them out"; that is the only language the BJP understands. SKM has promised to carry this message to villages across the region.
Farmers have many other concerns, ranging from the delay in sugarcane payments to inflation, especially in diesel prices, but the BJP continues to stress its law and order governance, mandir, development and "social transfer" ranging from Rs 6,000 for each farm family to housing, as reasons to support it. (For a detailed political and ground analysis please read Saba Naqvi piece here)
The BJP won a mind-blowing 47% of the vote in the last election and it will take a lot of people turning away for the party for it to lose big in Phase 1. In urban areas, the BJP can probably count on the support of the urban middle class and should hold onto those seats. That gives them a head start.
Secondly, the opposition remains divided. Even if one discounts the Congress in this region, the BSP is an important player, given a large Dalit population in 20 seats. The BSP came second in 17 of these seats and averaging a vote share of 29%, compared to the BJP's 43% (lower than in other parts). It won two seats in Phase 1 and did better than the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance, coming second in 28 seats. But has Mayawati and the BSP lost ground to Akhilesh Yadav and the Samajwadi Party plus plus alliance?
Even in alliance with the RLD, the SP will have a hard time in Phase 1, unless a sizeable section of Jats and farmers move substantially to the alliance.
In 2017, along with Congress, the SP only got 26% of votes. Even if you club all the RLD votes with the combined SP-Congress vote (assuming Congress gets nothing) they still trail the BJP by a big margin of 21%. Yes, the BJP could drop 6 seats to the SP alliance, if the full transfer of votes takes place, and another 8 seats would be very vulnerable to a swing of 5%. But that isn't enough to push the SP+ to power. It needs more, much more.
A recent ABP C-Voter poll for the larger area of Western UP showed the SP+ winning upto 40% of the 135 seats in the region, with both the Congress and BSP as bit players.
The vote difference in this survey is 3% (BJP 39%, SP 36%) and when there are such small differences, the margin of error is greater.
Interestingly, while the BJP increased its vote in the first phase (not exactly the same seats as Phase 1 here, excluded Agra and the area east of it) in the 2019 general election, it won much fewer assembly segments than in 2017. Higher opposition unity because of the SP-BSP alliance made for a closer election.
If that happens and there is a straight fight between the BJP and the SP+, the anger of the farmers and incumbency could make this a much closer race. But that's a big if.
(Ishwari Bajpai is Senior Advisor at NDTV.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.