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.

When the SP came to power, for a short while the minorities began to feel it was their government. Some important jobs were given to members of the community. The SP began to overcompensate for the support it had got from the community, triggering grievance amongst the Hindus that their interests were being overlooked to “appease” the vote bank. The allegations got truly bizarre when the government was blamed for passing oral orders that the crimes of the Muslims should not be registered in thanas. Echoes of these allegations were heard even when this correspondent travelled to western UP — how the administration had ignored complaints of young Muslim boys harassing college-going girls from the Hindu community. The agitation to save the honour of the ‘bahu, beti’, much of it exaggerated by community leaders, deepened the rupture between the two communities. Sources in the police claimed that, had Lucknow taken action against a district official, the matter would not have spun out of control. This is a narrow view. Does it really mean that the practitioners of the politics of hate would have abandoned this plank and, instead, harped on development? By all counts, it seems the strategy of UP’s electoral politics had been set—development for the eastern part of the sprawling state and swabhiman—a reassertion of the majority community to set the terms of political discourse and to force the government to stop so-called ‘appeasement’ of the minorities. This twin-pronged strategy has been working well for the BJP this time.

Since 1999, electorally, the BJP has been on a secular decline. All its attempts to revive party fortunes after the demolition of the Babri Masjid haven’t really succeeded. After the high of 57 seats that the BJP won in 1998, the party has not really got the necessary traction subsequently. Strong regional parties like the SP and BSP have prevented the BJP from enlarging its agenda in the state. The backward castes and Dalits find greater identification with regional parties than a party that wants to do its bit of social engineering. Both these parties of backwards and Dalits have tried to attract the Brahmins their way—with amazing electoral results. The BSP gained in 2007 and the SP in the 2012 assembly elections. Both have a sizeable minority support base and in the past they have been found to be a far better option by the Brahmins than the BJP — which has upper caste written all over it. #

In 2009, the Congress surprised many when it managed to win a sizeable number of seats as it was closely identified with many pro-people schemes like loan waiver, Gramin Sadak Yojana and so on. It have continued its good performance in the assembly elections of 2012, if it had not botched up its electoral strategy and ignored some of its traditional constituents. Bad advice to Rahul Gandhi contributed to squandering the groundswell of support that was building up for him and the party.

The question that is being debated now is, will UP vote like it has been voting after 1999 or are we witnessing a big change? The BJP’s attempt to return to power after 10 years rests on its performance in Uttar Pradesh. The common wisdom is that, for the BJP to form a government at the Centre, it needs to win at least 40-odd seats from UP to take its tally to 180-200. On the face of it, it seems difficult for a party in an organizational shambles to do well, but the manner in which the BJP has been repositioned by Modi and Amit Shah gives the impression that they may be in a position to eat into the votes of Congress, BSP and SP. They are pulling out all stops, including making Modi contest from Varanasi to appeal to the OBCs and upper caste Hindus. Clearly, the attempt is to hurt the SP whose base is looking ever so vulnerable.

There is another part of the strategy that is being played out that pertains to the Dalits.

The recent Delhi assembly elections allowed political parties to test some key assumptions. The first being the solidity of the support of the minorities for the Congress and the other, whether the Dalit base is immune to urban mass movements, as represented by the Aam Aadmi Party. Interestingly, the BJP may not position itself as a political pole to attract these constituencies; nonetheless, it has learnt what it takes to wean them away from their traditionally preferred parties.

For the BSP, this resulted in a 10 per cent erosion of the Dalit votes in Delhi compared to what it got in 2008. For the first time, the BSP votes shrank when confronted with a serious political challenger. Political commentator Anand Teltumbde, in an earlier comment to Hardnews, had stated that this was due to the fact that the Dalits in big metros would not benefit by pursuing identity politics.

The BJP has absorbed these lessons. It has begun to realize that it is possible to attract the Dalits on issues of development as well as a promise of co-option by the Brahminical order. The creamy layer within the ranks of the Dalits was the most vulnerable to this onslaught. Cracks were visible when a section of the Dalits—especially Valmikis—began to move towards the BJP. This process was also hastened during the low-intensity communal riots in Bareilly, Saharanpur and the big one in Muzaffarnagar. Reports suggest that a section of the Dalits was at the vanguard along with the Jats during the bloody riots. Although only a small percentage has shifted, it shows that cracks are developing in the Dalit phalanx that was assiduously put together by Kanshi Ram and now Mayawati. It’s a small percentage, but it rang alarm bells in the BSP, which has been trying to keep its support base intact. In recent weeks, Mayawati has got her electoral machinery cranking and reports suggest that she would be a serious challenger to the BJP in western and eastern UP. In western UP, Mayawati hopes that the minorities feeling threatened by the rise of Modi will ride on her Dalit support base. This is usually a formidable combination that upsets many pat assumptions routinely played out in opinion polls, which are never able to correctly predict the seats of the BSP. The reason is rather simple. Reporters, pollsters and so on, have an upper caste bias and they are seldom able to reach the Dalits that live on the margins of society. In UP, Mayawati’s support base has never plummeted below the 22 per cent mark. Her social coalition with the Brahmins was formidable enough to help the party win elections in 2007 and even prevented her predicted collapse in 2012. Although reports from BSP sources suggest that the party has begun to gain momentum and could derail many calculations, it is yet to be tested when it squares with the BJP, SP and the Congress. The BSP, incidentally, had done rather badly in the recently concluded assembly elections in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, where it had some presence.  

The Delhi elections also provided indications of what the minorities felt about the ruling Congress party. Traditionally, the Congress has been the preferred party of the minorities, but in Delhi, where it had been in power for 15 years, the minorities were seen to be wavering in their support due to the rise of AAP. The lesson on offer was that if there was an alternative to the Congress then the minorities, despite all the benefits that came their way during the last 10 years, could abandon ship.

In UP, the rise of AAP has been rather uneven. At the time it was in power in Delhi, it seemed to be emerging as a serious political option, but now it seems to be losing ground. Again, this impression may be misplaced, but the minorities in UP, which are around 17 per cent, have a reputation for voting tactically. This means looking at a political party that can defeat the BJP. From this standpoint, the AAP looks attractive only in Varanasi where Arvind Kejriwal is displaying valour by taking on the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. In other areas, AAP looks short on resources and experience to take on the BJP challenge. Its leadership realizes that the minority vote will lose any meaning if the vote gets splintered. At the same time they realize that their ability to engineer the Hindus against the common threat would also get dissipated if the minorities don’t gang up against their candidate. In some ways, it is a Catch-22 situation, but proliferation of a number of minority-based political parties is helping their cause. In constituencies with a sizeable Muslim presence, like Muzaffarnagar, Rampur, Moradabad, there are four to six Muslim candidates in each, with the potential of walking away with a few thousand votes. If the BJP indeed gets in excess of 27 per cent votes in the state, they would benefit by the split in secular votes. In UP, the voting percentage due to a four-cornered contest has been around 27 per cent. This is unlikely to change if parties remain as politically competitive as they have been in the past. If there is a wave in favour of Narendra Modi, then it is a different issue altogether. Urban areas are displaying some fondness for Modi as he represents different things to different constituents. The bounce that the BJP is experiencing could get derailed due to the rise in dissension in the party. There are 30 seats where people are agitating against faulty selection
of candidates.  

Although many have penned the obituary of the Congress, some are of the view that the party could spring a surprise in some seats. In UP there is little hatred for the party; in fact, there’s nostalgia amongst the Brahmins and minorities for their style of running the government. In 2009, the Congress had surprised itself by winning 22 seats. Why did it happen? Some people attribute it to Mulayam  embracing BJP leader Kalyan Singh, who had overseen the demolition of the Babri Masjid as chief minister, which drove  the minorities into the waiting arms of the Congress. After the Muzaffarnagar riots, a good Congress candidate could still be the choice of minority voters, if he or she has the support of a section of the majority community. “Show me your Hindu supporters and we will bring in our Muslims” has been the refrain of many leaders of the minority community. Some observers do not rule out the possibility of the Congress winning more than 10 seats in the state.

So in this politically volatile state where historical animosities, wrongs and grievances cast their long shadow on the lives of people, elections are not just about roads and power, but about dignity and protection of one’s turf.

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