U.P.: The race for bronze

Print edition : November 05, 2004

"OUR political plans have had a fair measure of success in India's second most populous State but we seem to be far away from repeating the same in the most populous State." That is the rueful comment of a Congress leader from Uttar Pradesh on the morning of October 16 as he was keeping track of the election results from Maharashtra as well as his home State. He made no secret that his joy on account of the victory of the Congress in the Assembly elections in Maharashtra was diminished considerably by the party's failure to make gains in Uttar Pradesh.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi in Sadauli, in Rae Bareali constituency.-SUBIR ROY

The disappointment of this leader and many of his colleagues in Uttar Pradesh was all the more acute because they had hoped that the byelections to 12 Assembly seats and the Mainpuri Lok Sabha constituency would be the "first major step in the revival of the Congress" in the State. The Congress strategy for revival was based essentially on manoeuvres to "capture the secular political space" from the ruling Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the byelections were rated by sections of the Congress as an appropriate moment to concretise parts of this strategy. But what the byelection results showed was that the Congress, instead of taking one step forward, had ended up taking a couple of steps backward in its revival plans.

By the time the counting was completed in 11 Assembly seats on October 16 - counting was postponed by the Election Commission in the Mainpuri Lok Sabha seat and the Karchana Assembly constituency on account of allegations of rigging - it was clear that the Congress had put up a miserable performance. The party failed to retain its two seats; worse, its candidates lost their security deposits in all the remaining nine seats. In four of these constituencies it registered less than 5,000 votes, while the winning parties had votes in the range of 70,000. "So much for the great Congress initiative to wrest the secular political space in Uttar Pradesh from us," said Samajwadi Party general secretary Amar Singh. The fact that the majority of these seats - seven out of 11 - had gone to his party, which was being specially targeted by the Congress in the "battle for secular space", has accentuated the humiliation. Two seats went to the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and one to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the principal Opposition party in the State Assembly. Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), the S.P.'s partner in the Ministry, won one seat. The S.P. had earlier held only three of the 11 seats and it had wrested seats from the Congress, the BJP and the BSP to boost its tally. The BSP had three seats earlier and the BJP two. With the addition of seven seats the S.P.'s strength in the 403-member Assembly has gone up to 194. The S.P.-RLD coalition now has 211 members in the Assembly, well past the majority mark. Thus the ruling coalition is no longer dependent on the outside support of the Congress, which has 16 MLAs.

IN spite of the thrashing it has received at the hands of the S.P., sections of the Congress leadership are taking some consolation from the tremendous loss of mass support for the BJP. The downhill slide of the principal Opposition party in the State continues. The BJP candidates lost their security deposits in seven seats. More interesting, the party polled less votes than the Congress in six seats.

It registered votes as low as 2,214 in Ahirori, 6,751 in Milkhipur, 4,111 in Siddhaur, 4,823 in Mujehna and 6,116 in Allahabad West. Its scorecard read 13,065, 51,459, 33,610, 60,575 and 15,621 respectively in the same constituencies during the Assembly elections of 2001. The only two constituencies where the BJP seemed to have a significant electoral presence were Atrauli, traditionally held by former Chief Minister Kalyan Singh and won this time by his daughter-in-law Prabha Devi, and Saidpur, where it came second. In most of the seats the fight was between the S.P. and the BSP. Sections of the Congress leadership in Uttar Pradesh see this as a trend that will ultimately help them. According to a senior Congress leader, this trend shows that sooner or later the core "upper caste" support base of the BJP will shift to the Congress. "And then," he hoped, "the Muslim minority community will also move decisively away from the S.P. to us." But observers are of the view that the "upper castes" that are moving away from the BJP are gravitating towards the S.P. and not the Congress. "In any case," pointed out political analyst Ram Kripal Singh, "that is the kind of polarisation that is reflected in the bypolls."

The bypolls have triggered widespread resentment among the party's rank and file. The target of their ire includes even the "first family" of the Congress, that is, party president Sonia Gandhi and Amethi MP Rahul Gandhi. "It seems," said a disgruntled Congress activist from Ghaziabad to Frontline, "as though Uttar Pradesh begins and ends with Amethi and Rae Bareilly for the Gandhi family."

The Congress had come second in Ghaziabad and the party worker did not mince words in blaming Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. According to him the Sonia Gandhi family does not think of the aspirations of party workers in other parts of Uttar Pradesh. "If only Rahul Gandhi had found even a day to campaign here our candidate Satish Tyagi could have at least put up a better fight. But then our new icon seems to be more interested in holidaying at choice resorts," he said, referring to reports about Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi's holiday in the midst of the election campaign. By all indications, a sense of resentment is growing among ordinary Congress workers. And undoubtedly, this will not make the Congress' struggle to "capture the secular political space" in Uttar Pradesh any easier in the days to come.

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