Uttar Pradesh

Loosening hold

Print edition : May 10, 2019

BSP leader Mayawati (centre), RLD leader Ajit Singh (left) and S.P. leader Akhilesh Yadav at the Mahagathbandan’s first joint rally in Deoband on April 7. Photo: Altaf Qadri/AP

A show of strength by the S.P.-BSP alliance at the mahaghatbandhan rally in the Kannauj, on April 17. Photo: Venkitesh Ramakrishnan

Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and Union Minister V.K. Singh at an election rally in Ghaziabad on March 31. Photo: PTI

There is no perceptible Modi “wave” this time and the muscular nationalism plank that the BJP banks on fails to evoke the required response in the face of widespread agrarian crisis.

After the completion of polling in 16 seats in the first two phases of voting and as campaigning is in progress across the remaining 64 seats that will witness voting over five phases ending May 19, there is one refrain that has caught on across Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous State which sends 80 members to the Lok Sabha. It could be summed up thus: five years ago, there was just one trend across all the seven phases in the Uttar Pradesh elections, but this time there are as many trends as there are phases. Informal projections by pollsters, political activists and observers after the first two rounds of polling resolutely rule out the presence of a “wave” in the constituencies that voted on April 11 and 18. In practical terms, this points towards the unfastening of the electoral stranglehold that the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had over the State in the 2014 election, helping it win 71 seats out of 80. The party’s ally, Apna Dal, had also won two seats then, taking the tally of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) from the State to 73.

Central to the “one election, many phases, many trends” phenomenon that is being observed across the State is the collapse of the “muscular nationalism” political platform that the BJP and its allies had built up after the Pulwama terrorist attack and the consequent Balakot air strike. In fact, in the early run-up to the elections, the BJP and its allies in Uttar Pradesh had the express belief that this plank would help them to repeat the 2014 “many phases, one trend”. As this campaign failed to evoke a uniform response from all parts of the State, a senior BJP leader reportedly referred to the public as an entity that goes for a “bits and pieces sensation”. Evidently the social and political nuances of the public discourse have not gone down well with the BJP leadership.

However, in broad terms, three distinctive but inter-related streams of thought have dominated the discourse. These are, in not any particular order of priority, the assessment of the performance of the BJP governments at the Centre and in the State; caste and communal equations in different parts of the State; and the organisational strengths, weaknesses, initiatives and foibles of the main contenders in the fray, namely the BJP, the Samajwadi Party (S.P.)-Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)-Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) Mahagathbandhan (MGB), or the Grand Alliance, and the Congress. An important component of the stream linked to the performance of the governments at the Centre and in the State is the persistent references to the unrelenting agrarian crisis and the hardships it had inflicted on the farming sector. The travails of the urban and rural population on account of the persisting economic chain reactions caused by demonetisation and the erratic implementation of goods and services tax (GST) have also come up repeatedly with equal importance. The persistence of the “there is no alternative” (TINA) factor in relation to Narendra Modi, presenting him as the tallest leader in the country now and the potential impact his “leadership skills” would have on the election are other important factors.

The fervent efforts of the BJP and its associates in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar to overcome public resentment against the government through anti-Muslim propaganda and communal polarisation that lay stress on the manner in which the Modi-Yogi governments have put the “minorities in their place” form a big component of the frame of reference relating to caste and communal equations. The arithmetic and the chemistry of the massive social combination comprising large segments of Other Backward Classes (OBC), Yadavs, Dalits (particularly Jatavs) who form the core vote base of the BSP, sections of Jats and Muslims, that has come up through the Mahagathbandhan also figured prominently in the discussions. The strengths and weaknesses of different political formations, including the Congress, came up in different ways at the level of the debate on organisational resourcefulness and enterprise. Yet, people talk about the micro-level manoeuvres of the BJP to wean away local leaders and cadres from the ranks of political adversaries.

Multiple trends

Travelling across a dozen districts in the western and central regions of Uttar Pradesh, which vote between April 18 and May 6 over four phases, Frontline witnessed the multiple narratives that are impacting the election in different ways. In the relatively small distance of approximately 60 kilometres between Agra and Mathura, many vignettes of politics, society and life unfolded over the course of a single day, April 16, in such a manner that they encapsulated the three broad streams succinctly.

These illustrations of public sentiment and perception manifested themselves on that day in the form of spirited rallies, diverse campaign initiatives and animated wayside discussions and expressions on some tactical voting preferences with significant political connotations. Overall, they provided an overview of the social, political and organisational dynamics of the electoral discourse.

This microcosmic representation was significant because the developments on April 16 had an added political significance. Scarcely 24 hours previously, the Election Commission of India (ECI) had barred two prominent leaders of the State, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath of the BJP and former Chief Minister Mayawati of the BSP, from campaigning for 72 and 48 hours respectively, charging them with making religiously polarising statements in public meetings. This was a big blow especially to Mayawati since the BSP president is the lone star campaigner for the party, and April 16 was the last day of campaigning for seven BSP candidates who were to face voting on April 18 in the second phase of the election. Both Agra and Mathura went to the polls in the second phase. In Agra, the BSP candidate, Manoj Soni, was pitted against the BJP leader and State Minister S.P.S. Baghel. In Mathura, the RLD’s Kunwar Narinder Singh was taking on the BJP’s Hema Malini. Both the MGB candidates were looking forward to the Agra rally on April 16, which was to be originally addressed jointly by Mayawati, S.P. president Akhilesh Yadav and RLD president Choudhary Ajit Singh. But the ban on Mayawati meant that both the candidates had to face voting without getting the “blessings and the inspiring presence” of Mayawati.

Local leaders of the MGB were apprehesive that Mayawati’s absence would limit the attendance of Jatavs at the rally and that would work against the candidates’ prospects. However, these predictions were proved wrong. The rally turned out to be a massive success, with huge participation of Jatav Dalits who lustily cheered the young Akash Anand, Mayawati’s nephew, who read out the party president’s appeal to the public. The atmosphere at the rally was electric with every reference to Mayawati being greeted with thunderous applause and slogan shouting. Braj Sagar of Loha Mandi, who carried a “Miss you Behenji” (BSP workers call Mayawati “sister”) poster, drawn by himself, and Deepak who worked in a shoe factory in Agra, blamed the BJP for the action against their leader and asserted that the Dalits of Uttar Pradesh would make sure that Modi and BJP president Amit Shah were driven out of power. “What Behenji is facing now is only the continuation of the persecution that upper castes have inflicted on our community for a long time. The fight in this election will ultimately lead to our redemption,” Sagar told Frontline. Like the earlier rallies of the MGB, the Agra rally too showed that the three parties and their grass-roots workers jell with each other and have started working effectively. The ovation that Akhilesh Yadav and Ajit Singh got at the rally was another indicator of this spirited coming together of the rank and file.

At Gosna-Shahpur village, over 50 km from the venue of the rally, BSP members Bori Singh and Deepak and S.P. member Azad sought to explain the reasons for the new-found bonding. They pointed out that the BSP support base primarily came from agricultural workers while the Yadavs and the Jats were landowning communities pursuing agriculture. While the Jats are more into cultivation, the Yadavs are into animal husbandry. Demonetisation broke the back of all the communities in the agricultural sector, whether landowners or wage workers. “It is the economic situation that has facilitated the unity of these communities. It has helped them come closer far more easily than would have been possible in other circumstances. And this is bound to have a decisive impact on the electoral dynamics.” Bori Singh and Azad pointed out that the S.P.-BSP alliance would move into new areas after the elections are over. “The BJP has given 10 per cent reservation for the upper castes. After the elections, the BSP and the S.P. will come together and launch agitations demanding 52 per cent reservation for the backward castes and Dalits on the basis of the demographic strength of the respective communities. They will call for a caste census and build a political umbrella over Dalits, OBC communities and Muslims.”

In Agra town, close to Kothi Meena Bazar, a group of shoe factory workers who interacted with Frontline also thought that there was a need for change of government. “Our work is in a shambles on account of demonetisation and GST. We have suffered enough.” However, another worker joined in saying that he expected nothing from the MGB or the Congress as they would fight against one another for power and would take no concrete steps to alleviate their misery. “Good or bad, we have to go with Modi. His track record of five years is much better than all others put together. At least, he has made gas cylinders widespread and there is more electricity too in the villages.” This non-Yadav OBC worker’s views were echoed in Agra town by a clutch of traders belonging to the Brahmin and Bania communities, albeit with some qualifications. They were of the view that they had difficulties on account of the economic policy drives of the Modi government, but they were happy with the way members of Modi’s team, such as Amit Shah and Yogi Adityanath, and countless Sangh Parivar workers on the ground have crushed the pride of Muslims and put them in their place.

At Shehzadpur village near Mathura, yet another nuance was revealed, this one supporting the BJP. A group of RLD workers were making plans for the voting day for their candidate Narinder Singh. Even as discussions were going on, a group of Jat youngsters told Frontline that the RLD could not expect total Jat support. “It is going to be fifty-fifty. A large segment of our community believes that there is no alternative to Modi. So, they are veering back to their 2014 position and voting the BJP in spite of Mathura having an RLD candidate.”

But there were other tactical preferences too from those who supported Modi in 2014. One manifested itself in as many as six Lok Sabha seats in western and central Uttar Pradesh, namely Agra, Mathura, Moradabad, Farukkabad, Unnao and Barabanki. This is a kind of strange tactical voting preference which goes against the local BJP candidate, but with the certainty that Modi will manage to win seats from other places and still form the government. In Mathura this view was reflected by Dinesh Katiyar, a non-Yadav OBC, while in Agra and Barabanki two Dwivedi Brahmins espoused it. At Unnao, Farukkabad and Moradabad, people belonging to non-Jatav Dalit communities were the votaries of this idea. Every one of this section who interacted with Frontline asserted that many of their friends and associates were thinking on these lines. This type of voting preference has a striking resemblance to what one witnessed in Uttar Pradesh during the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. In the wake of the “India Shining” campaign, large sections of the agricultural and trading communities in the State believed that their local BJP leadership was responsible for their constituency not “shining” and decided to punish them, convinced that Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee would bring enough number of seats from other “shining” places.

Micro-level manoeuvres of the BJP

However, Kanpur-based BJP leader Shyam Bihari Mishra was of the view that even while the party may be losing some voters in this way, the organisation’s micro-level management of local affairs was such that a lot of regional influencers have been brought into the party. Mishra pointed out that this was a phenomenon across the State and predicted that this micro-level management would have a decisive impact. Close to 50 local leaders have been weaned away from opposition parties, including the S.P., the RLD and the Congress, in different parts of the State. These included Vijay Prakash Jaiswal, the BSP candidate in Varanasi against Narendra Modi during the 2014 general election, and former BSP Ministers Ramhet Bharti and Chhotelal Verma. Many others, such as Avadh Pal Singh Yadav, BSP leader from Aliganj; Virender Singh, S.P. leader from Shamli; Shishpal Singh, former S.P. MLA from Agra district; and Gutiyari Lal Duwesh, BSP leader from Agra, are considered to be powerful local influencers who could help BJP strengthen itself. “Being one-time insiders, they can upset the MGB in many constituencies, especially the so-called Yadav bastions of Farukkabad, Kannauj, Etah and Firozabad.” Mishra added that these regional influencers would have double the effect when the confusions that abound in the MGB in many seats were exploited by them.

However, other former Modi supporters like Anil Awasthi, a Brahmin farmer from Singauli village in Misrikh constituency of Bilhaur district, is of the view that this type of skulduggery will not work when people have clarity about voting against the BJP. He and other fellow farmers like Aditya Katiyar believe that Modi’s leadership and style of governance is primarily responsible for pushing the country and its people to economic doldrums. “I canvassed extensively for the BJP in 2014, thinking that this man meant well for farmers. But miscued policies have pushed farmers into such a terrible plight that instead of the promised doubling of income we are forced to sell our produce below the production cost. The Yogi Adityanath government’s cow protection policy has unleashed legions of stray cows on fields across the State, damaging farms and produce. Farmers have been forced to appoint chowkidars, incurring extra cost. And amidst all this, the value of our produce has fallen steadily. The production cost for 100 kilograms of potatoes is around Rs.300, but now we are selling it at Rs.200 to Rs.250. At the end of its tenure, the Modi government is doling out Rs.6,000 to us. I would give back that money to him if he can assure me Rs.500 for 100kg of potato.” Awasthi’s fellow farmer declares his electoral preference in one sentence: “Modi is a kisan-drohi (enemy of the farmer), who deserves no mercy or consideration.”

The assessment from the responses in the rural agricultural constituencies in western and central Uttar Pradesh is clear. The public resentment against the BJP governments at the Centre and in the State is glaringly evident even though considerable segments of the population believe that Modi has no alternative and that the opposition will make a mess of even government formation by fighting amongst themselves. Still, the “many trends” across the State point to a clear reduction of the BJP’s tally from its commanding position of 2014. It is also clear the BJP is not adding any new constituency of voters. In fact, it is losing sections of the 2014 voter constituencies, including a segment of the Jats. Moreover, the index of opposition unity is also much stronger, though the Congress is expected to harm the MGB as well as the BJP in select constituencies. In these triangular contests, the Congress is supposed to have pulled ahead in Fathehpur Sikri, which went to polls on April 18, and is expected to do well in Unnao and Kanpur, which will vote in later phases.

Reactions from the echelons of the Sangh Parivar after the first two rounds of polling point towards a sense of unease. Many leaders admit that there is a possibility that the BJP would only win half the seats it had in 2014. This context, according to a number of MGB leaders, could push the BJP and associates to aggressively advance rabid Hindutva communal politics. As these apprehensions remain, the polling process moves eastwards towards prestige contests in constituencies like Azamgarh, where Akhilesh Yadav is the MGB candidate; Gorakhpur, once Yogi Adityanath’s bastion; and Varanasi, represented by Modi.

Venkitesh Ramakrishnan has travelled in Agra, Mathura, Kannauj, Misrikh, Kanpur, Lucknow, Barabanki, Amethi and Rae Bareily for this story.

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