Uttar Pradesh Battle Royale 2017

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Uttar Pradesh appears ready for change, its people especially youth disappointed by four years of SP driven corruption, violence and general maladministration. The BSP is on a good wicket, so is the BJP but caste fragmentation means old loyalties no longer apply

YEH HAI RIGHT CHOICE CM

Just to remind these worthies, the UP assembly election is a year away but from their comments (read with other posturing and manoeuvres), it would seem the polls are imminent. Curiously, this mirrors the far away US presidential contests: the current campaign kicked off a mystifying 644 days before the actual election in November this year.

The early start in Lucknow is clearly a reminder of how important this election is to the political fortunes of the leading parties and their leaders. The SP began its run up to 2017 with block level rallies in February to build awareness of the government’s schemes. These are expected to continue until February next.

The BJP has been preoccupied with getting the right ‘faces’ to ensure a stable and united backroom when the tough gets going. Although they now have an individual from a backward caste as the head of the state unit, the dilemma of whom to project as chief ministerial face (when its rivals have already done so), is taking time.

Speculation about Varun Gandhi leading the saffron charge in UP is growing and the opinion poll by ASUME gives him top ranking among BJP leaders including stalwarts like Rajnath Singh. It would appear that the opinion of UP’s youth apart, there is probably a significant view among sections of the BJP workers that Varun is the man of the moment. There’s little denying his obvious charisma and his image of a serious MP. Let’s see how this plays out on the national stage.

The party has already been delivered a warning from the voter: during panchayat elections last year, its candidate in Jayapur, the prime minister’s adopted village near Varanasi, lost to the BSP, a rude reminder that relying entirely on Narendra Modi may not work every time.

Mayawati kicked off the 2017 campaign in December last year, with a rally in Lucknow to mark Dr. Ambedkar’s death anniversary. She also announced the names of candidates for the election, the first party to do so.

THE STAKES FOR BEHENJI

For Mayawati, the stakes cannot be higher. She’s been on the political margins since losing the 2012 assembly elections in UP; subsequent elections did not help, she was not able to score in either Delhi or Bihar and her party lost the “national” tag as she failed to pick up a single Lok Sabha seat. Behenji is herself in the Rajya Sabha where she distinguished herself by doing absolutely nothing.

But gains in the panchayat elections last December, where candidates backed by her party won the highest number of seats, appear to have revived her confidence. She’s been meeting district party presidents, MLAs and workers with one message: highlight the prevailing law and order situation (which is the top concern of voters as the ASUME survey indicates) to drive home the point that Mayawati’s administration of 2007-12 did a far better job, and minorities felt secure.

As her national general secretary SP Maurya put it: “People remember the work of Mayawati to establish law and order in Uttar Pradesh. People are unhappy with both the gunda (hooligan) raaj of the SP and the danga (riot) raaj of the BJP.”

She took that drumbeat to Parliament and on the first day of the Winter Session lashed out at two rivals: Congress and BJP, the former for doing nothing for Dalit welfare, the latter for the Dadri killings and RSS chief Bhagwat’s remarks on reservations.

But as a report by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies showed, Mayawati will be more focused on stemming the decline among sections of her vote bank. Support from Jatav voters fell steeply from 86% to 62% with some drifting to the SP; Balmikis down from 71% to 42% and other scheduled castes down from 58% to 45%; upper caste support rose only marginally from 16% to 19% and only a fifth of Muslims backed her.

Clearly, something had gone terribly wrong with her handling of those very caste groups that drove her to power successive times. Dalit activists say that in the process of consolidating her upper caste vote bank, she took her traditional voter base for granted.

Dalit activist Ram Kumar says: “Mayawati gave too much emphasis to Brahmin leaders in her party at the cost of Dalit interests. The inequality continued through her term as chief minister.”

Senior leaders like BS Kuswaha, who commanded nearly 10% of the most backward castes (Kushwaha, Maurya, Pal, Shakya, Saini and Kachi communities), was expelled for “anti-party activities” (a convenient and catch all term used by every political party in India). Result: those communities also drifted away.

So old wrongs are now being righted. Behenji is reiterating her demands for reservation in government jobs and in education, she’s also opposed to proposed changes in the UP Zamindari Abolition & Land Reforms Act 1950 that would allow scheduled caste landowners to sell or transfer their plots to non-scheduled castes. As for alliances, right now the word is no to Congress and no to BJP. Behenji will go it alone, confident she can make it. If not, well politics is the art of the possible.

STAKES FOR BJP

For the saffron party, UP is critical because it dominates the Ganga plains and gives the party “bragging rights” to the Hindi heartland. A win here (after losing in Bihar) could have a spillover effect in other states going to the polls next year: Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab and Gujarat (where it has been in uninterrupted power for 18 years).

The first step in the Battle for UP was laid when KP Maurya, a backward caste, was picked to head the state unit of the party. This fits in neatly with the party’s other efforts to woo Dalits, whether in terms of organizing community meals (Samrasta Bhoj), opening schools in Dalit settlements, and organizing sensitization campaigns for upper castes.

Writer Badri Narayan argues that the Sangh Parivar has also propagated the concept of Ramrajya, in which the upper and lower castes come together in social life as well as in democratic politics. Also notable, he believes, are moves to appropriate the BR Ambedkar legacy.

“The prime minister inaugurated a world-class memorial in the Indu Mills Compound in Mumbai and also the Ambedkar memorial at the partially restored London house,” he wrote adding: “ Prior to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the BJP president took part in caste rallies and meetings of various Dalit communities.”

Modi’s visit to the Ravidas temple in Varanasi in February this year, was seen as an obvious attempt to link Dalits in UP with Dalits in Punjab. Whether these efforts will bear fruit next year given the controversies surrounding the party and Dalit scholar Rohit Vemula (who committed suicide), and other incidents remains to be seen.

“When I come to power, I’ll not build memorials, because my work is over. Now I’ll focus only on development.” – MAYAWATI, BSP supremo

Another move which will be keenly watched is the “face” the party projects for chief minister, who will obviously lead from the front. Party sources have hinted he will be from the upper caste, clearly a neat balance. But the sources have also indicated they may opt for a “progressive leader”, one whose image will cut across caste lines. This does suggest somebody like Varun Gandhi, and the ASUME survey shows he is regarded as the most popular candidate for CM from the BJP.

There’s another side to the BJP strategy. Uttar Pradesh is different from Bihar where caste and only caste rules. UP has serious religious cleavages evident in the manner in which the Congress and SP have positioned themselves as champions of the Muslims and minorities. This works perfectly for the BJP.

“UP is a matter of life and death for them. And it is make or break for Modi and Shah. They will use all the tools in their tool box and communalism will be the most potent weapon in their armoury,” argues Ashutosh Mishra, professor of political science at Lucknow University.

STAKES FOR SP/CONGRESS

Unless a miracle happens, the SP is on a downward spiral burdened with Akhilesh Yadav’s youth and obvious inexperience, the party has failed to capitalize on the massive vote of confidence reposed in him by the young people of UP. His administration has been notable for the complete lack of it, of ideas and imagination, and poor economic growth.

Add to that the breakdown of law and order (it tops the public list of concerns in the ASUME survey) and the general spread of criminalization in all forms, which frankly is not new. The SP has always been known for goonda raj but this time it appears to have crossed every conceivable limit. Corruption has grown and the ASUME survey notes the comparisons being drawn by members of the public on the “relatively clean administration” that Mayawati ran in 2007-12.

Add to that, the party’s silence on repeated bouts of communal violence that have rocked the state. For the Muslims, who have relied heavily on the SP for protection, it may have come as a betrayal of their trust.

The Congress is in an even worse position. After caste and communalism caught the popular and political imagination in the 1990s, the Congress has been a marginal player in UP. Today, it is relying on the advice of strategist Prashant Kishor to shape its electoral strategy. Kishor’s advice is to project Priyanka Gandhi as the chief ministerial face of the party and back the upper castes, who are seen to have drifted away from the BJP in recent times.

A senior party leader revealed that “Our strategy will be to focus on upper castes — Brahmins, Thakurs and other caste groups — and also on non-Jatav dalits and non-Yadav OBCs. Dalits, other than Jatavs, have invariably been ignored in the BSP while the non-Yadav OBCs have no say in the Samajwadi Party. The BJP will be focusing on the Maurya, Kushwaha community and we will focus on other OBCs, including Most Backward Castes.”

“We will form the next government in Uttar Pradesh with a clear majority.” – RAJNATH SINGH, BJP

Will this work? Hard to say. The Congress is down to its “last dollar” in UP (some would say nationwide) and the national level leadership may inspire little confidence or credibility. Sonia Gandhi, as has been reported, is taking a back seat in the party with son Rahul slowly taking over. In fact, the decision to entrust Kishor with the UP strategy was, it is said, Rahul’s decision.

Senior Congressmen may not like taking orders from Kishor, but there is no culture of “loyal dissent” the party allows.

POLITICAL CHURN

UP presents many puzzles and this can also be attributed to the visible political churn in the electorate, with yesterday’s favourites looking less likeable today. Notwithstanding Mulayam Singh’s fulsome praise for his son’s performance as chief minister, the SP has read the tea leaves and knows the going may not be anywhere near good.

Long time UP observers believe the continuing fragmentation of the electorate has broken the symmetry between caste, candidates and parties. Parties must provide representation to many groups in order to win elections. Some parties have retained a core electorate – Yadavs for the SP and Jatav dalits for the BSP – but these taken together represent less than 21% of all voters.

It is also becoming evident that in constituencies, it is common for caste groups to opt for different party or parties and candidates in keeping with their best interest. Like the upper castes, for instance, who have divided their support to ensure larger representation in the state assembly. As one media report noted: “They upper castes regained their 1991 level of representation – well above 40% – in the 2009 assembly elections, by voting cohesively and supporting upper candidates across party lines.”

Muslims have followed the same logic and increased their representation through the 1990s, although more at the state level and less in Parliament elections. In the 2009 UP Vidhan Sabha elections, almost as many Muslims were elected to the state assembly as the strength of their population.

“Akhilesh is the best Chief Minister in the entire nation. He has done tremendous work shaping a new UP and helped uplift the poor and downtrodden.”

– MULAYAM SINGH, SP

Economic power also matters. It’s been noted that winning candidates generally tend to come from the economically dominant segment of the population in any constituency. Or they are backed by economically dominant segments. Increasingly, such candidates don’t belong to the land but professions like real estate, construction, local industry and liquor.

Some of India’s most notorious criminal politicians are from UP and it was the Congress party that first gave them a leg up when it sought their help to counter its decline in the 1980s. Conscious of their capacity to sway votes, they started to contest for themselves and offered their services to various parties that were anxious to field strong candidates in an increasingly competitive game. Many criminal figures have now turned corporate and use both crime and politics to further their economic interests.

So here’s looking ahead to UP in 2017, that elephantine state, that confusing and confounding mix of people and ideas which could will set the political agenda for next year and perhaps even further.

Summary

  • A fragmenting caste base and religious cleavages underscore that the Battle for UP in 2017 will test every political party and candidate
  • The SP appears to be on the backfoot, undone by four years of corruption, maladministration and poor economic performance
  • The BSP has been on the political margins ever since the loss in 2012 but recent gains in civil body polls have revived Mayawati’s confidence
  • The BJP is also on the rise and with a backward caste heading the state unit, the search is on for an upper caste or “progressive leader” to be the CM face
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