High stakes

Published : Apr 24, 2009 00:00 IST

in Lucknow

THE run-up to the 2009 general elections started fairly early in Uttar Pradesh, which sends 80 members to the Lok Sabha. In fact, as early as January 2008 Chief Minister and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) president Mayawati proclaimed that her next target was the Prime Ministers position. This had the effect of drawing into election mode the other major political forces the Mulayam Singh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party (S.P.), which is the principal opposition party in the State, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress and the past 13 months have been a period of fluctuating political fortunes for them.

In January 2008 the odds were stacked in favour of Mayawati. Just eight months earlier the BSP had stormed into power on the strength of the Dalit-Brahmin bhaichara (Dalit-Brahmin brotherhood) plank, forming the first single-party government in the State in 17 years with 206 of the 403 seats. Projecting these results onto the 80 Lok Sabha seats, the BSP claimed that it was in a position to win 56 seats. The claim is eminently debatable, but there is little denying that the party has the advantage.

The S.P. leadership got the message and was in course-correction mode by February 2008. It sought to dispel the image of a party with a support base confined to the Other Backward Class (OBC) Yadav community, Muslims and a section of upper-caste Thakurs. To appeal to a section of Brahmins just as the BSP did its strategy was to get closer to the Congress, the original Brahminical party. The Congress, realising the need to counter Mayawatis march towards Delhi, responded favourably and the high point of their unity was the July 2008 trust vote of the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance government. The S.P.s support played an important role in the survival of the government and the talk of an S.P.-Congress electoral alliance gathered momentum.

The period immediately following the trust vote provided a high for the S.P. leadership. The party was hailed as the saviour of the UPA government and the BSPs political honeymoon with the people was all but over. Mayawatis government was increasingly perceived as a failure in maintaining law and order, a key promise on which it was voted to power. Mayawati personally faced criticism that she spent most of her time looking at Delhi instead of administering Uttar Pradesh. The leader who was known for her disciplined approach and forceful administration was seen as one who protected the Mafiosi and condoned corruption in the police and the civil service.

A popular slogan during this period summed up the situation: Goonda chad gaya haathi par, goli maara chhati par (the goonda has got on the elephant the election symbol of the BSP and is firing from there). This slogan was essentially a take-off of a pro-BSP slogan of 2007, Chad goondon ki chhati par, mohar laga do haathi par (crush the goondas and vote for the elephant).

By December 2008-January 2009 the new slogan became a byword for bad governance. That was also the time when BSP MLA Shekhar Tewari was arrested on the charge of torturing and killing Manoj Kumar Gupta, an engineer in the State Public Works Department. The allegation that the engineer was killed for not making enough contribution to Mayawatis birthday funds drove the governments stock further down.

At this point, the possibilities of an S.P.-Congress alliance looked bright. Consequently, the S.P. leadership started talking about winning as many as 60 seats in combination with the Congress. The projected break-up of seats was 45 for the S.P. (it won 39 in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections) and 15 for the Congress (nine in 2004). The calculation gave the BSP 15 seats as against 19 it won in 2004, and the BJP barely five or six seats.

However, in the fast-changing political situation the main casualty was the Congress-S.P. alliance itself. The Congress decided to fight the polls alone and the bonhomie the two parties once shared was replaced by bitter acrimony.

A number of factors caused this break down, but the most important was their inability to arrive at an understanding on sharing of seats. There was also the perception in the S.P. that the Congress was trying to use the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to strengthen some of the criminal cases against S.P. leaders, including Mulayam Singh Yadav. This was being done to arm-twist us into submission, said a young S.P. leader who did not want to be named.

On its part, the Congress said it could not accept the S.P. bringing into its fold former BJP Chief Minister Kalyan Singh, blatantly overlooking his role in the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid. The S.P.s explanation was that Kalyan Singhs departure from the BJP would weaken the Hindutva party further.

However, the realpolitik that guided the S.P. leadership was undoubtedly the OBC consolidation that Kalyan Singh could effect in favour of the S.P. The Lodh community, to which he belongs, is estimated to account for nearly 6 per cent of the States population, while Yadavs add up to around 10 per cent. The Lodh community is more or less concentrated in about 12 Lok Sabha constituencies in central Uttar Pradesh, thus imparting an additional value to its political potential.

However, large sections of Muslims, a traditional support base of the S.P., are not happy with having Kalyan Singh on their side. Azam Khan, one of the founders of the S.P., has criticised the move. A sizable section of Muslims are also unhappy with Mulayam Singh Yadavs soft approach towards BJP candidate Varun Gandhis vitriolic anti-Muslim speech in Pilibhit. The S.P. leadership, however, hopes to overcome this opposition through initiatives such as the formation of a new secular front comprising the Bihar-based Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP). It is expected to strengthen the OBC consolidation in its favour. The LJP would be able to bring in some sections of the Dalit vote to the S.P., albeit in a diminutive quantum.

All this attempt at consolidation does not seem to have affected the BSP, which continues to present an upbeat mood. According to Ambeth Rajan, party spokesperson and Rajya Sabha member, the BSPs core vote will not be affected by the false propaganda of its opponents. We were the first to finalise candidates, and they have been working systematically. Early finalisation of candidates helped us in the Assembly polls and it will help us now too. Moreover, there has been no depletion of the Dalit-Brahmin unity and the Saravjan Hitaya agenda we have advanced. As usual, the BSP will come up with an impressive result, he told Frontline. BSP activists are also of the view that the resentment among Muslims against Kalyan Singhs entry into the S.P. and Mulayam Singhs soft line on Varun Gandhi would strengthen the BSP.

Kalyan Singhs departure did hurt the BJP cadres morale badly. However, within two months the BJP and its associates in the Sangh Parivar managed to bring up another Hindutva icon in the form of Varun Gandhi, son of the late Congress leader Sanjay Gandhi and a cousin of Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi.

Varun Gandhis vitriolic speech against Muslims and Sikhs has indeed generated a nationwide controversy and landed him in jail, but it has also had the effect of charging up the Hindutva cadre of the Sangh Parivar organisations. This, as well as the communal polarisation that seems to be happening in several parts of the State on account of this, is expected to strengthen BJP candidates in many constituencies, particularly in eastern Uttar Pradesh. It remains to be seen whether this new Hindutva energy and the polarisation it has evoked would be enough to help the BJP win more seats than the 10 it won in 2004. But there is little doubt that large sections of the BJP perceive an upswing for the party in the post-Varun speech situation. The partys alliance with the Ajit Singh-led Rashtriya Lok Dal can also bring some gains for the party, particularly in western Uttar Pradesh.

The Congress is banking on the good governance it has provided for five years at the Centre and the positive popular appreciation of the UPAs welfare schemes and poverty alleviation programmes. Speaking to Frontline, party leader Pramod Tiwari said the population as a whole, and particularly the minority communities, realised that the Congress was the only national party in the country. The people are increasingly realising that they have to get out of the clutches of caste politics. The young leadership of Rahul Gandhi is another plus for us with the people, he added. These expectations have to be weighed against the fact that the Congress organisational machinery is virtually non-existent in many parts of the State.

There is a consensus among parties in the State that the political situation could witness significant changes through the five-phase elections spread over a month. The first two phases, scheduled for April 16 and 23, have 16 and 17 seats respectively. Important constituencies such as Amethi, contested by Rahul Gandhi, and Allahabad, contested by BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi, vote in this phase.

In the final analysis, the battle in Uttar Pradesh is essentially about how far the two principal contenders have supplemented their core vote or how far their core vote has eroded. The S.P. has certainly added to its core vote through a number of manoeuvres. The BSP has not added to its core vote and has, indeed, lost some of its appeal. The key to understanding the result lies in quantifying this loss of appeal.

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