Election 2014: Why UP Matters?

The elections in India’s most populous state will not be fought over roads and development, but over a perceived and manufactured threat to the sovereignty of the majority

Sanjay Kapoor Delhi 

Meerut is reimagining itself through its bypass. Hotels, entertainment parks, educational institutions like Subharati University and so on are filling up every piece of real estate along this highway that sidesteps the traffic, congestion and grime of a small town and takes speeding vehicles to Dehradun
and beyond.

Little wonder it is Meerut and not Delhi, Mumbai or Ahmedabad that has been declared India’s second most vibrant city after Bengaluru in 2011 by Morgan Stanley. Many of the attributes needed to be ‘vibrant’ are being showcased for Gujarat by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate, Narendra Modi, but surely he is not on the same page as Morgan Stanley.

The affluence and glitz earlier limited to big cities is following the national highways to small towns. Meerut, Muzaffarnagar, and even the religious town of Deoband are good examples of the way people are readjusting to the demands of the new economy. There are more young women stepping out than ever before. Even Deoband, stereotyped as the bastion of Muslim religious conservatism, has a kind of buzz that defies easy conclusions of op-ed writers about how the slowing economy is driving Modi to power. The economy in these parts is rocking and even Uttar Pradesh, as a whole, which has been trashed by Modi in his innumerable meetings for poor growth and inadequate power supply, has been cruising merrily at a comfortable 7+ growth rate. 

Visibly, Meerut and the affluent areas of western UP must be clocking a much higher growth rate than the state average. Common wisdom suggests that if the economy is at a steady rate of 7 per cent and beyond, chances of an incumbent getting re-elected are
fairly high. 

Surely then, it is not the economy that is creating anti-incumbency against the Samajwadi Party. Neither is the rising anger in semi-urban areas a sign of discontent against the Congress-led UPA government.

The gargantuan corruption scandals in Delhi or poor governance are actually a non-factor in driving anti-incumbency in western Uttar Pradesh and the rest of the state. The state, after rejecting communalism in the wake of the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, is witnessing a disturbing revival of hate-based politics with an aim to dismantle a secular opposition and give meaning to the objective of the BJP to garner a majority of the 80 seats here. It would not be too outlandish to suggest that the SP was a willing accomplice to the return to a politics of atavism, hoping it would squeeze out other parties like the Congress and BSP, and allow them to fight elections on their terms.

The riots in Muzaffarnagar last year, which saw scores of deaths, rapes and displacement of thousands of Muslims from their villages, have begun to define this election. Expectedly, elections are seen not just as an act of electing a representative, but also establishing new power equations in society on the debris of the old ones. The Muslim-Jat alliance that saw the Rashtriya Lok Dal’s electoral success all these years stands seriously threatened. So, when the BJP candidate from Muzaffarnagar, Dr Balian, grandly told the media that this time the fight is not for roads and development but for ‘swabhiman’, he was right. A senior police official was also categorical when he told this correspondent that people in these parts weren’t really concerned about economic issues, they are fighting to save their turf, lives and honour.

Therefore, it will be too simplistic to say that the latest round of communal politics began with the appointment of Amit Shah as the General Secretary in charge of UP. In truth, he did not start the fire; it was raging much before he could lend his own spin to UP’s communally charged politics.

In Bareilly, communal riots had been going on for months. Worse, they did not really elicit the kind of response from the government that would have provided comfort and protection to ordinary people from the violence intrinsic in communal politics. It has been proven beyond cavil that riots seldom happen without the criminal laziness of the district administration. After all, the origin of riots has acquired a textbook clarity. Old gazettes put together by district collectors of the Raj era graphically enumerate when, why and where the riots will take place in a particular district. Save for naked political interference, nothing really has changed.

What defies a textbook understanding of these communal conflagrations is, in fact, detailed by Steven Wilkinson in his seminal work, ‘Votes and Violence’, which states that a political party that wins on the votes of the minority community has the responsibility to look after their safety. For a host of reasons, this did not happen. After all, nothing hurts the minorities more than riots. Not only does it heighten their vulnerability, it also takes away their dignity. Wilkinson also writes about how riots shape voting behaviour, and much of what he says is furiously unravelling itself in UP.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: APRIL 2014