Religion and caste dominate the political skyline of large parts of western Uttar Pradesh, where 58 Assembly seats go to poll in the second round of seven-phase state elections, on Friday.
Even as 1.64 crore voters are to exercise their franchise to elect from 881 candidates, only 294 of these belong to recognised parties. The rest are independents. Only 50 women had filed their nominations for these 58 seats.
As many as 18,400 Electronic Voting Machines have been put in place at 15,887 polling booths set up across the ten districts of Aligarh, Meerut,Mathura,Ghaziabad, Gautambudh Nagar (Noida) , Muzaffarnagar, Bilandshahr, Saharanpur , Hathras and Baghpat.
Despite being an agriculturally rich area, the social divide is sharp largely on religious and caste lines.
India's leading Islamic seminary at Deoband and the famous Aligarh Muslim University -- widely acknowledged as the think tank of Indian Muslims -- hold much sway on the electorate in a large part of this region. And Congress star campaigner Rahul Gandhi left no stone unturned to woo this electorate that for decades remained the party's pocket burrow.
Rahul's aim was to clearly tap that section of the Muslim vote which was disillusioned with Mulayam Singh Yadav, who had lately moved heaven and earth to win back the sore voter through a series of sops.
Interestingly, this was among the few pockets in the country where caste considerations were observed in a big way among Muslims as well. "Muslim division on caste lines was a new phenomena even in Uttar Pradesh; and it is a negative trend and totally against the teachings of Islam," observed All India Muslim Personal Law Board legal adviser Zafaryab Jilani.
He felt, "It was a retrograde step aimed at dividing the Muslim vote."
A party hopper Haji Yaqub Quraishi , who until recently occupied the position of UP's Haj and Waqf Minister in the Mulayam Singh yadav government, was largely responsible for forging this divide in and around Meerut from where he was contesting as a nominee of his own brainchild, United Democratioc Front. The political outfit was floated not very long ago with much fanfare and a number of prominent Maulanas had also thrown their weight behind it. But some of these clerics broke away even before the organisation could actually take off.
Quraishi had shot into the spotlight after he declared a Rs 51 crore bounty on the head of the Danish cartoonist who had caricatured Prophet Mohammad in a certain blasphemous cartoons. He was trying to openly woo voters in the name of his caste.
"It is not merely caste, but even sub-caste that matters among Hindus here", says RLD leader Munna Singh Chauhan, who until not very long ago was also a minister in the Mulayam Singh Yadav government.
Chauhan's party chief Ajit Singh has been thriving on the strength of his Jat following, inherited from his illustrious father and former prime minister Chaudhary Charan Singh.
BJP leader Kalyan Singh, the most powerful campaigner for his party in this belt, also depended heavily on his caste following of Lodhis -- a socially backward caste with large presence in at least 40 per cent of the constituencies in this phase.
Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati, who had so far concentrated on consolidating her main Dalit support base, had however attempted a change in her caste strategies. While she was trying to strike a combination of Dalits, backward classes and Muslims in some pockets, it is Dalits and Brahmins in other areas.
The BSP had scored over all others in the 2002 polls, when her party bagged the highest number of seats (15) from this area. BSP was followed by RLD's 11, BJP (10), Samajwadi Party (8) and Congress (4).
Kalyan Singh, who had then rebelled against the BJP to float his own Rashtriya Kranti Dal had managed to grab three seats solely on the strength of his caste that he did succeed in denting the BJP then.