This Sunday, more than campaign vehicles of big leaders, it was the media vehicles which went chasing each other as rumours of a BJP bigwig campaigning in Lakhimpur Kheri swirled. Though the BJP did not exactly confirm or deny there was frenzy that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would land in the town to campaign. When it was announced that Modi would be in nearby Hardoi district, it was widely said Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath would make his first visit to the town, the district headquarters in northern Uttar Pradesh which became a political hotspot four months ago after violent incidents during a protest by farmers.
But the chief minister campaigned in nearby areas and so did the area's powerful backward class leader and deputy chief minister Keshav Prasad Maurya. But the star campaigners moved southwards, skipping Lakhimpur Kheri, the next day too.
It was on a Sunday last October, an SUV allegedly driven by Ashish Mishra, the son of Union minister Ajay Kumar Mishra ‘Teni’, mowed down eight agitating farmers at a village in Lakhimpur Kheri. Ashish Mishra was arrested subsequently after a prod from the Supreme Court, and was released from jail on February 15 following a high court order. The incident had national-level repercussions immediately as the farmers unions and opposition parties had accused the state police of going soft on Ashish Mishra. But the BJP refused to accept opposition allegation that the powerful father, who has a strong following in the region should be dismissed. When Ashish got released a week ago, there were again insinuations that the state police was instructed by Adityanath not to strongly oppose the bail application.
But if minister Ajay Mishra had hoped that either Modi or Adityanath would come to Kheri so that he can be seen on the stage with them, BJP's central leadership did not want to take risk in an area where dissident MP Varun Gandhi has a strong hold. The party felt the message of strong law and order enforcement by Modi at the national level and by Adityanath at the state level would be diluted by any public rally association with the Mishras. Main opposition leader Akhilesh Yadav too was in Lakhimpur Kheri, and a prominent leader of the agitating farmers had joined the former CM on stage. The BJP was doing a delicate balancing act so that it avoided sending a negative message with its top leaders being photographed with controvesial local leaders, especially with the opposition parties matching BJP in social media campaigns by digging up the past.
Modi targets SP symbol
Meanwhile at the Hardoi rally, Modi delivered a strong speech against Akhilesh Yadav's Samajwadi Party and its electoral symbol 'Bicycle'. The prime minister who is known for targeting the weaknesses of the opposition as well as drawing powerful comparisons referred to terrorism cases which happened when Uttar Pradesh was ruled by Akhilesh Yadav (2012-17). Modi, with dramatic flourish, told the huge audience that terrorists who had transported bombs by using bicycles had been treated leniently by Yadav's government, and warned that if Samajwadi Party returned to power, so would terrorists. The use of the common man's humble vehicle to send the message on the tough law and order record of the BJP was meant to woo the undecided voters who were wavering between the BJP and the Samajwadi Party.
Yet even before the BJP's powerful propoganda machinery could amplify the prime minister's message, the critics dug up photographs of Modi himself riding the bicycle gifted by the Prime Minister of the Netherlands. Shiv Sena MP Priyanka Chaturvedi sent a message to Union health minister Mansukh Mandaviya, who comes by bicycle to parliament, to stop using the pedalled vehicle until the election results come out in Uttar Pradesh. The critics also found photographs of BJP bigwigs balancing on bicycles while leading wellness or protest rallies.
How electoral symbols were pilloried
Attacking party symbols has been a powerful campaigning tool ever since the Election Commission in 1952 introduced them for the benefit of the large population of illiterate voters. The Congress which used the 'Pair of Bullocks' initially as its symbol was castigated by the opposition as still being in the Stone Age. After the 1969 split, the party's 'Cow and Calf' symbol was ridiculed as representing the then prime minister Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay Gandhi. Again when she adopted 'the Hand' as the symbol in 1978, the voters were told that it was a hand which was tainted with blood and would not do good.
When Lalu Prasad chose 'the Lantern' as the symbol of Rashtriya Janata Dal in 2000, the BJP heaped scorn stating that he wanted to keep Bihar in semi-darkness. Same had happened decades ago when the Bharatiya Jana Sangh opted for 'diya', the traditional earthen lamp, as its symbol until its merger into Janata Party.
When H D Deve Gowda's Janata Dal (Secular) chose the symbol of 'a woman farm labourer carrying a stack of paddy on her head'. feminist activists said the party wanted to make women do all the work.
Referring to the criticism that the party with the cycle was the party which supports terrorists, a wag remarked that if the terrorists had used the elephant, symbol of Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party, then any adverse remark would have led to protests from animal rights activists. But the BJP's own assessment that Modi going to Hardoi delivered a better harvest of publicity compared to going to Lakhimpur Kheri, where the farmers
are still angry about the heinous event of October.