The drubbing of its life

Published : Mar 02, 2002 00:00 IST

Uttar Pradesh votes out the BJP government but a fractured verdict spells another round of uncertainty.

UTTAR PRADESH has once again proved that it is an enigma. Another exhaustive electoral exercise has failed to throw up a feasible answer to the political problems plaguing the State. Although the performances of the major parties in the three-phase Assembly elections were on predictable lines, the extremely splintered nature of the verdict came as a surprise.

When the results of 401 of the 403 seats that went to the polls were declared, the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) along with its allies had become the single largest alliance, with 146 seats; the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies had won 107 seats; and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which contested all the seats on its own, had emerged as a proud third force with 98 seats. The Congress(I) won 25 seats. As individual parties, the S.P. won 143 seats and its ally, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), two seats; the BJP finished a poor third, winning 88 of the 319 seats it contested.

The mandate ensured that no stable government could be formed without the support of the BSP. Even if the Congress(I) and the S.P. came together, that alliance would fall far short of a majority. There were not enough independents and members from other parties to prop up an S.P.-Congress(I) government. A BJP-BSP combination was the only one that could form a government, but the ruling BJP made it clear that it would sit in the Opposition in deference to the people's verdict rather than support BSP leader Mayawati's attempt to form a government. And by no stretch of imagination could one expect the S.P., the BSP and the Congress(I) to come together. At the time of writing it was not clear who would form the government or whether it would be a repeat of 1996 when the State had no elected government for six months after the elections.

The real story in U.P., however, is that the BJP, which had projected the elections as a referendum on the Vajpayee government's policies on national security and terrorism, has got the drubbing of its life. And ironically, the S.P., which was accused by the BJP of siding with "anti-national elements" such as the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), has emerged as the single largest party in the Assembly. The S.P. owed its victory to Mulayam Singh's all-out campaign. He was on the campaign trail, moving from village to village, far ahead of others. Also, his organisational skills helped him mobilise S.P. workers across the State while other parties were beset with dissent and infighting.

Another equally important message is that the Congress(I), which seems to be regaining its status as the pivotal force in national politics by wresting power from the BJP elsewhere, remains a spent force in U.P. The party lost even Amethi, an Assembly segment in the parliamentary constituency of the same name which party president Sonia Gandhi represents in the Lok Sabha. The parliamentary constituency was adopted by Sanjay Gandhi in the 1970s and nurtured into a Congress(I) bastion by Rajiv Gandhi later.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the elections is the performance of the BSP. There were predictions of the BSP faring better than last time, but its final tally of 98 was beyond the imagination of anyone. The BSP has established beyond doubt that it remains entrenched among Dalit supporters. Significantly, it has spread its influence to other castes and communities.

The credit for the BSP's good performance goes to Mayawati, who single-handedly led the party's campaign across the State. The BSP almost swept western U.P. and made significant inroads into the central and eastern parts of the State. In accordance with a social engineering formula that is strictly her own, she had allotted the party ticket to a large number of upper-caste - or what she calls "manuvadi" - candidates - 37 Brahmins and 36 Thakurs - and to a record number of Muslims (86). This formula apparently ensured the support of caste Hindus, besides Dalits and Muslims, to the party.

Although the parties' performances in terms of percentage of votes and the regionwise distribution of seats are yet to be assessed, one obvious fact is that the BJP suffered substantial setbacks, especially in the eastern region. Eastern U.P. was its stronghold and most of its State leaders, including State unit president Kalraj Mishra and Chief Minister Rajnath Singh, hail from that region. The party also lost substantially in the western region where it hoped to do much better in the company of Ajit Singh's Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD). Interestingly, except the RLD, which won 14 of the 38 seats it contested, all other allies of the BJP proved to be a burden on it.

Ram Vilas Paswan's Lok Jan Shakti Party, which was hoping to emerge as an alternative to the BSP in U.P., won just one seat out of the 18 it contested. The Uttar Pradesh Loktantrik Congress, which propped up the BJP government in 1997, contested 25 seats and won two. Sharad Yadav's Janata Dal (United), which tried to make a dent in S.P. leader Mulayam Singh Yadav's vote bank, won two seats out of the 16 it contested. The Shakti Dal of Maneka Gandhi, which contested 14 seats, drew a blank.

The BJP's poor performance did not come as a surprise. What is surprising is that the party's leadership failed to see the writing on the wall. In the Assembly elections in 1996, the party won 174 seats and 32.51 per cent of the votes. In the Lok Sabha elections in 1998, it won 36 per cent of the votes and led in 233 Assembly segments. This upsurge was attributed to the Vajpayee factor. The party could not maintain this trend. In the parliamentary elections of 1999, its share fell to 27.6 per cent of the votes and it led only in 110 Assembly segments.

In contrast, the S.P. and the BSP have consistently increased their shares in the votes and seats since 1996. In the Assembly elections in 1996, the S.P. won 21.8 per cent of the votes and 110 seats and the BSP 19.65 per cent of the votes and 67 seats. In the Lok Sabha elections in 1999, their respective vote shares increased to 25.7 per cent and 22.7 per cent. The S.P. led in 128 Assembly segments and the BSP in 87. This trend alone should have put the BJP on guard, but it chose to live in an ivory tower, playing around with controversial issues such as the reservation scheme and Ayodhya.

Although BJP leaders now say that the February elections did not constitute a referendum on the Vajpayee government, Chief Minister Rajnath Singh had claimed at all his public meetings during the campaign that a defeat for the BJP in U.P would mean a defeat for Vajpayee's anti-terrorism measures. He cautioned the electorate that such an eventuality would embolden Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf to encourage subversive activities in India and promote cross-border terrorism. Having raised the stakes, it was no wonder that Rajnath Singh resigned even before the results of all seats had been declared. He said that he alone was responsible for the poor showing of the party and that he resigned on moral grounds. Kalraj Mishra also offered to resign on moral grounds.

As the single largest party in the Assembly, the S.P. considered itself the natural claimant to the office of power and sought the support of all secular parties. But with the Congress(I) still undecided on supporting Mulayam Singh, it was not clear where he would get the numbers from.

Mulayam Singh's bitter speeches against Sonia Gandhi towards the fag-end of the campaign distanced the Congress(I) from the S.P. further. While a section of the central leaders of the Congress(I) wanted the party to support Mulayam Singh only if he succeeds in mustering the support of other parties and individuals, another section feared that the party ran the risk of splitting if it delayed a decision. But the exchange of words between S.P. and Congress(I) leaders during the campaign, the roza iftaars notwithstanding, made a rapprochement difficult.

Senior S.P. leaders, however, were confident that the Congress(I) would come around ultimately. Amar Singh, party general secretary and Mulayam Singh's confidant, said: "We shall form the government, just wait and see." The party expected support from Kalyan Singh's Rashtriya Kranti Party, which won four of the 335 seats it contested, and the Apna Dal, which won three seats. Besides, a substantial number of independents were expected to support the S.P. The S.P. also hoped for a split in the BSP.

The BJP's decision to sit in the Opposition was widely seen as a case of posturing, aimed at taking away some of Mayawati's bargaining power. A section of State BJP leaders, including Mayawati's one-time friend Kalraj Mishra, was against propping her up once again in view of the bitter experience of supporting her chief ministership last time. This section was said to be enjoying the support of Union Home Minister L.K. Advani. Another section of leaders, which includes Vajpayee, says that the BJP should rather support a BSP government from outside.

Mayawati was only too keen to get the BJP's support but on condition that she would be the Chief Minister. She met Vajpayee in this regard. According to informed sources, Vajpayee, keeping in view the State leaders' reservations about Mayawati, offered her a berth in his Cabinet in lieu of her support for a BJP government in U.P., but Mayawati rejected the suggestion. Mayawati would only say that she and party president Kanshi Ram were assessing the situation.

In the meantime, the Governor's declaration that the "single largest party" criterion would not be enough for him to invite anyone to form the government added to the complexity of the situation. A person claiming this status would have to furnish proof of majority support in the Assembly, he said. This would be an uphill task for Mulayam Singh. In this background the Governor's decision to ask Rajnath Singh to continue as Chief Minister until March 26, when the present Assembly's term would come to an end, pointed to the possibility of the State coming under President's Rule. The BJP hoped that this would give it time to re-work its strategy.

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