As a saffron hue falls over the Ghagra river, villagers gather at a dhaba on the banks for "lal chai" and pakoras. Most of them belong to Mahula, the last village of Azamgarh constituency, from where SP supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav is fighting the Lok Sabha election.
A couple of villagers take pride in the fact that "netaji" himself is fighting the election, one talks of a Modi wave while another is angry that neither the sitting BJP MP nor SP MLA helped them when the river engulfed acres of their land last year and says he will back BSP. They strike only one common note in the debate-- voting out the Congress. Two years after Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi visited Daruk Musannefin Shibli Academy and saw the letters written by his ancestors, its almost a forgotten story in Azgamgarh, which is bracing up for a triangular contest among SP, BJP and BSP. The last time Congress won the seat was in 1984.
Mulayam, who is banking on the Muslim and Yadav votes to interrupt the Modi tide, faces BSP's Mubarakpur MLA Guddu Jamali and four-time MP Ramakant Yadav, the BJP's candidate who was with SP in 1996 and 1999, BSP in 2004 and BJP in the last election. The BJP had won the seat, which has a sizeable Muslim vote, for the first time in 2009. The larger question of whether the Hindu vote will shift away from the SP, due to polarisation will also be decided here. If some Yadav and other Hindu caste votes shift away in significant numbers from SP, then it in the long run it is bad news fo Mulayam even if he wins. What Mulayam is trying to do by contesting from Azamgarh also is to block a Hindu or Modi wave from having any effect. To set up Yadav-Muslim wave breakers all over the place before it is too late, is the game plan. The SP is looking ahead to he next assembly elections. If the Moid popularity dissipates here then the battle would have been won.
Just 100 kms from Varanasi, where BJP's Prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi is contesting the election, the SP is echoing his development mantra. "In this election, development is the main issue. Mulayam will get votes cutting across caste and community lines," says SP's Balram Yadav, a minister in the Akhilesh Yadav government. The party is trying to remind the voters that when Mulayam became the chief minister he had announced a Poorvanchal package with special attention to Azamgarh.
Dubbing the Modi wave as a media creation, he says there is an anti-incumbency against the BJP candidate. Incidentally, Mulayam was Ramakant's political mentor. For Mulayam, if Etawah was his birth place, then Azamgarh was close to his heart, says Balram Yadav, who is one of the SP's nine MLAs in the ten assembly segments of the Lok Sabha constituency. The party office, galvanized that its leader is contesting the election, is making plans for Mulayam's campaign in Azamgarh, which goes to pollson May 12, the last phase of election which covers eastern UP, including Varanasi.
People here say Azamgarh's electoral outcome depends on the Yadavs and Muslims. With Mayawati's party fielding a Muslim, the community's vote could get divided between the SP and BSP while the Yadavs could split between the BJP and SP.
"The SP government is in power so there is a feeling that if Mulayam is the MP it will help the constituency," says Ravindra Pandey, who owns a gas agency in the city. AK Singh, who runs a bottling plant, agrees but says the BJP candidate, whose "local popularity" has brought him victory irrespective of which party he represents, is giving a tough fight with the added advantage of the Modi factor.