Volatile vote bank

The election juggernaut hurtles along in UP. Will the roads to New Delhi pass through Lucknow?Raghav Sharma DelhiThe Uttar Pradesh state assembly elections are a carnival dwarfed only by the Lok Sabha polls. To have an idea of the immensity of Uttar Pradesh on the political map of India, it is best to run through the fundamentals. The road to New Delhi has long passed via Lucknow. It sends as many as 80 MPs to the Lok Sabha. Its roll call of Prime Ministers begins with Jawaharlal Nehru and includes names such as Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, VP Singh, Charan Singh and Chandrasekhar.More than one in six Indians lives in the state. So do the largest number of Dalits, Muslims, Brahmins and Other Backward Castes (OBCs). The per capita income of the state is just under half the all-India level: more poor people live within its borders than in any other state of the Union. The social tumult of the last two decades has transformed politics in the state but the economy has failed to keep pace.As Uttar Pradesh faces its seventh state assembly election in 18 years, no one seriously expects a clear verdict in any party’s favour. To know why, one has to step back in time. For many decades after independence, the Congress ruled the roost with its unique coalition of the top and the bottom ends of society. As the lower social orders became more assertive and the older caste hegemonies unravelled, no new stable social coalition was able to establish its hegemony.Yet, there is a difference this time round. The third Mulayam Singh Yadav government has lived longer than the first two in 1989-91 and 1995-97. Not only has he lasted longer in power and seen his electoral base expand in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, but also this is the first time he is fighting on his own. There is little doubt there has been a spurt in terms of economic growth rates. State revenues have gone up 80 per cent in the last three years. UP’s share of Union government revenues has also doubled to Rs 20,000 crore in the last four years. Over Rs 5,000 crore has been invested in as many as 29 new sugar mills. But there is more than a touch of anxiety in the chief minister’s party. The very sugar mills that were showcased for development owe the farmers over Rs 3,500 crore in dues. The law and order situation, while not fit enough a case for President’s Rule, makes it easy for the opposition to link criminalisation of public life with the ruling party. Even as his hold on the minorities and his own Yadav community is firm, Mulayam has a strong rival breathing down his neck. The media spotlight may be on Rahul Gandhi or Rajnath Singh but there is no doubt about the real challenger. Mayawati has been battle ready since the Lok Sabha polls, when her party polled as many as one in four votes and was just two per cent behind the ruling Samajwadi Party (SP) in its share of the popular vote. Even in the 2002 assembly elections, when she polled fewer votes, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) came first or second in 206 of the 403 seats. This is where she is focussing all her energies this time. Her hold on the dalits, who make up over a fifth of the electorate, is uncontested. The challenge is to broaden her appeal and base.In 2004, she first tried out a new slogan, "Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh hai, Haathi nahin, Ganesh hai", exhorting the upper castes, also a fifth of the electorate, that the BSP symbol the elephant was in consonance with the three divinities of Hinduism. No Brahmin has been chief minister since 1989 and she does not hold out the promise of another. But of all the diverse upper caste groups, this is the one with the largest numbers and history of proximity to the apex of power. The BSP holds out hopes of a respite from SP rule (read Yadav misrule).For his part, Mulayam has been wooing the other major segment of the savarnas (upper castes), the Rajputs, since the mid Nineties. Few now recall that he was at a Rajput-Yadav maha sammelan or great conclave at Haridwar when Sitaram Kesri announced withdrawal of support to the HD Deve Gowda government in 1997. Rajputs number only around seven per cent of the population but have a memory of recent dominance of village society. Paradoxically, the Yadavs, who were once their tenants, are trying to make common cause with their former landed masters.This is an irony of history. The once subordinated social groups are trying to carve into electoral voting blocs the very classes that dominated the public space and society for generations. It is not just at the bottom of the pyramid that caste fissures operate; the top is now no less divided. While the vast mass of Dalits is with Mayawati and Mulayam has welded most (though never all) of the backwards together, the upper strata are more fractured.It is here that the BJP faces an uphill task. Its memories of glory are still fresh in mind: from 1991-99, it was a formidable force. But this pyramid was built on a foundation of sand. Even today, it is divided from within between a pro-savarna image and reaching out to the non-Yadav backward classes, a numerically larger but less cohesive constituency. Its base is also thinner as one proceeds from corporation via municipal and mofussil town and out into the dehaat or countryside where four out of five voters still live. The older party, the Congress, has unleashed Rahul on the voters but while initial responses to him were enthusiastic, especially among younger voters, his party lacks the organisational muscle for a real fight. Even in the 2004 Lok Sabha poll, it led in only 48 segments. For all talk of a minority surge, reliable post-poll surveys by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies shows not more than one in six of Muslims voting for it. All indicators are of the Congress finishing fourth and the BJP well ahead. But of the Big Two (SP and BSP), it is still difficult to hazard a guess. One reason for this is that both Mulayam and Mayawati are attempting to create an umbrella like structure, holding onto their core voter base but pulling in other disparate elements. The other reason is simply empirical: there were as many as 170 seats in 2002 that were won with less than a five per cent margin. This time, the race may be tighter in a far larger number of constituencies. The fate of the Big Two will be decided by who gets ahead in these marginal constituencies by a whisker. The dice is loaded against Mulayam. Since 1967, UP has not voted a party back to power in two successive elections except in 1974 and 1985. Were Mayawati to get ahead by even a few seats, she will make it difficult for the BJP or the Congress to avoid supporting her. Such an arrangement will only be short-term, but will set off major realignments at the Indian level.The road to Delhi may not run through Lucknow any more. But the outcome will have deep implications for those who rule — or aspire to rule — in New Delhi.