The Bharatiya Janata Party and the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance are fighting a high stakes battle in the 10 assembly constituencies in Kanpur Nagar.
Both have unleashed their top campaigners in Kanpur in last few days of campaigning. On Thursday, the BJP deployed a battery of national leaders like Rajnath Singh, Yogi Adityanath, Kalraj Mishra, Gen VK Singh and Keshav Prasad Maurya in different parts of the city. For the SP-Congress alliance, it was Kannauj MP and Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav's wife Dimple Yadav who came out to bat in the slog overs.
Towards the end of the campaign, the battle moved from local issues to the larger ideological message the parties wanted to send. The BJP openly played the communal card. Campaigning in Kalyanpur constituency, Adityanath raked up the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots as well as the communal clashes that took place in the city around Ramnavmi in 2015.
During Rajnath Singh's public meeting in Sishamau, a few speakers openly hurled abuses at the minority community. The BJP candidate Suresh Awasthi even secured a commitment from the Union home minister that those who the SP government has accused of being behind the 2015 Ramnavmi riots will be declared innocent.
Dimple Yadav, on the other hand, chose to focus on her husband's persona. “Akhilesh Yadav mann ki baat nahi kartay, balki kaam ki baat kartay hain,” she said, addressing a public meeting in Arya Nagar constituency.
Meanwhile, the Bahujan Samaj Party is running a relatively silent, low key campaign, focussing on the three rural seats in Kanpur Nagar, two of which happen to be reserved.
Here's how the major parties are placed in Kanpur on the eve of polling day.
Kanpur in many ways will be a referendum on Akhilesh's decisions. As the Congress has a significant presence across Kanpur city, the effectiveness of the SP-Congress alliance will be on test here.
Kanpur was the main bone of contention between the two parties as they initially fielded candidates against each other in five of the constituencies in the city – Kanpur Cantonment, Maharajpur, Kidwai Nagar, Arya Nagar and Govindnagar.
Barring Kidwai Nagar, where the sitting MLA Ajay Kapoor belongs to the Congress, the other four “disputed” seats were all held by the BJP.
The SP's Om Prakash Mishra withdrew in favour of the Congress' Kapoor in Kidwai Nagar. While this would consolidate anti-BJP votes among the minority community and a section of the traders, some say that Mishra's withdrawal could have a negative impact as well. His presence could have taken away a chunk of Brahmin votes that may now end up with the BJP's Mahesh Chandra Trivedi.
Kidwai Nagar is a heavily Brahmin and trader dominated constituency that came into existence after delimitation. Kapoor won the last time largely by consolidating trader and Muslim votes, a feat he hopes to repeat this time.
In Arya Nagar, Congress candidate Pramod Jaiswal, the brother of former Union minister Shriprakash Jaiswal, withdrew in favour of SP's Amitabh Bajpai. Bajpai is putting up a good fight against the BJP's sitting MLA Salil Vishnoi. Towards the end, Shriprakash Jaiswal even came out to campaign for Bajpai.
Similarly, in Govind Nagar, SP's Yogesh Kushwaha withdrew in favour of the Congress candidate Ambuj Shukla.
The dispute between the two parties in Kanpur Cantonment and Maharajpur didn't get resolved that easily. In Kanpur Cantt, SP's Hassan Roomi withdrew at the last moment in favour of the Congress' Sohil Akhtar Ansari. In Maharajpur, however, SP candidate Aruna Tomar remains in the fray, which may harm the chances of the Congress' Rajaram Pal who is taking on BJP stalwart Satish Mahana.
An OBC face of the Congress in UP, Pal was elected as the MP from Akbarpur in 2009. He has also been an AICC secretary.
Performing well in Kanpur is key to Akhilesh's plan to carve out a base for himself outside of the Yadav strongholds in Etawah, Mainpuri and Kannauj districts. SP strategists believe that urban voters, particularly the youth, will vote for Akhilesh in large numbers. Kanpur will be a key battleground in this respect.
There's, indeed, some enthusiasm for Akhilesh in Kanpur. “The infrastructure developed by the Akhilesh Yadav government is comparable to any big city in India. You see the roads in, say, Unnao, you would feel you are in Mumbai,” says Sudhir Kumar, who lives near Ghanta Ghar in Kanpur.
Ram Lal Jaiswal, who lives near Sishamau, voices a similar sentiment. “I am in my 70s now. I have seen several chief ministers. No one has delivered the way Akhilesh has,” he says.
However, given the local dynamics, the SP may find it difficult to repeat its 2012 performance of winning five seats in Kanpur.
For the BJP, Kanpur will be a referendum on Prime Minister Narendra Modi's popularity as well as his note ban policy. For the BJP to capture power in UP, it would need to sweep urban centres across the state and Kanpur Nagar, with 10 assembly seats, is extremely significant in this respect.
Kanpur became a BJP stronghold in the late 1980s. In 2012, the party won four of the 10 seats, which was a below par performance by its standards.
The party has been undefeated from Kanpur Cantonment since 1991. BJP stalwart Satish Mahana represented it six times before moving to Maharajpur in 2012 after delimitation. Its success here is despite the fact that Kanpur Cantt has a substantial Muslim population.
A split in Muslim votes between the SP, Congress and BSP has been key to the BJP's success on this seat. In 2012, all three parties fielded Muslim candidates and even the Peace Party gained around 5,000 votes.
Another BJP bastion is Kalyanpur, where the party's Prem Lata Katiyar won continuously from 1991 to 2007. In 2012, however, she was narrowly defeated by SP's Satish Kumar Nigam. Her daughter Nilima Katiyar is contesting this time, and the BJP senses a strong chance of wresting back the seat. Nigam, however, is no pushover and is said to have done a lot of work in the area. As a last ditch effort to tilt the scales, the BJP deployed Adityanath on the penultimate day of campaigning to raise the communal temperature.
Another seat where the BJP is playing the communal card is Sishamau. This was the epicentre of the communal clashes that took place around Ramnavmi in 2015. The party has raised the pitch, accusing the sitting SP legislator Haji Irfan Solanki of being the mastermind behind the violence. It has also demanded the release of the Hindu youth charged in connection with the violence.
The BJP won the seat thrice in a row – in 1991, 1993 and 1996 – when the party attained its peak in Uttar Pradesh in the wake of the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation.
A local BJP functionary said the party hopes to retain its four seats and wrest Kalyanpur and Sishamau from the SP and Kidwai Nagar from the Congress. But this might be a tall order.
The party has little hope in the three rural constituencies of Bilhaur, Bithoor and Ghatampur. In the two reserved constituencies – Bilhaur and Ghatampur – the BJP hasn't managed even a second place in the past two decades. Making inroads into these seats would be a major test for the BJP and the RSS's outreach among Dalits.
The two reserved constituencies of Bilhaur and Ghatampur have been bellwether seats, having changed hands between the SP and the BSP since 2002. The party which won these seat ended up forming the government in the state. The BSP seems to be making gains this time, and hopes to capture the two reserved constituencies in addition to Bithoor.
While the BSP has its loyal support base in the city as well, it may not be in a winning position on the other seven seats.
Asaduddin Owaisi's All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen is contesting just one seat in Kanpur – Arya Nagar. Although there is a substantial Muslim population in Kanpur Cantt and Sishamau, it's interesting that the AIMIM chose to contest only Arya Nagar and not the others.
Arya Nagar used to have a significant presence of the Muslim League, which stood second here in 1989 and 1991. But with the rise of the SP, it became a stronghold of Haji Mushtaq Solanki, who won it in 1996 and 2002. His son Irfan Solanki won the seat in 2007 but moved to Sishamau after delimitation.
AIMIM is unlikely to win, but it has made an impact in Kanpur's electoral landscape. Even on seats where the party isn't contesting, Owaisi has managed to capture the imagination of young, educated Muslim voters.
“Owaisi is the only leader Muslims have in India. He takes up issues related to the community even when other parties are too scared to even mention the word 'Muslim',” says Irshad, a resident of Faithfulganj in Kanpur Cantt.
A number of young, educated Muslim voters Catch spoke to in Faithfulganj, Harrisganj and Mirpur areas said they support Owaisi but are voting for the Congress' Sohil Ansari by compulsion. Some of them even said they would vote for the BSP or press NOTA.
With all three major forces evenly placed, Kanpur promises to be as exciting a contest as the larger battle for Uttar Pradesh.