Cover Story: Uttar Pradesh Assembly Elections

Communal twist

Print edition : March 17, 2017

BJP president Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: V. Sudershan

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at an election rally in Allahabad on February 20. Photo: Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP

Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav at an election rally in Lucknow on February 13. Photo: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg

S.P. supporters wave as Akhilesh Yadav leaves in a helicopter after addressing a rally in Moradabad. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

A truck with the S.P. campaign slogan "kaam bolta hai" (work speaks). Photo: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg

BJP supporters at a rally addressed by Modi at Andawa village on the outskirts of Allahabad on February 20. Photo: SANJAY KANOJIA/AFP

BJP president Amit Shah at an election campaign rally in Allahabad on February 21. He coined a new acronym, KASAB, to put down the Congress, the S.P. and BSP. Photo: PTI

The Bharatiya Janata Party plays the communal card in Uttar Pradesh, indicating that desperation has begun to consume the party as the Assembly election process progresses.

AN animated discussion that sprang up on the Allahabad University campus on the morning of February 20, a day after the third phase of polling in the seven-phased ongoing Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, reflected the larger debate in the State among the principal contestants and a section of political observers. The participants in the impromptu campus debate were a clutch of students and non-teaching staff. Between them they represented all the major political formations of the State as well as a significant stream of thinking among non-partisan evaluators of the ongoing elections.

Shambub Yadav and his three friends had no doubt that the development-oriented “Kaam bolta hai” (work speaks) slogan of Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav and the ruling Samajwadi Party (S.P.) had no match on the election scene or in the campaign of the rival parties and that the S.P., along with its ally, the Congress, was set to romp home with a decisive majority.

Sudhanshu Pandey contested this theory by saying that, as in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the primary factor in the 2017 Assembly elections was Narendra Modi and his political personality, including the unique governance initiatives he had taken up as Prime Minister. “The BJP’s score must have reached close to 150 after the completion of polling in 209 seats in the first three phases. A majority is just a matter of course now,” he maintained. Ramkishan, another student, pooh-poohed these arguments, saying that while these so-called front runners fought on supremacy claims, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), led by Mayawati, was quietly consolidating its position as the number one party in the State. Ajay Pal, who claimed to be a non-partisan observer, interjected to assert that the elections would throw up a hung Assembly and that although the S.P.-Congress combine may be the single largest pre-election combination, post election a BJP-BSP coalition would form the government. Shambub Yadav retorted: “If Mayawati takes the path of betraying the voters again, the BSP will split with its minority community MLAs shifting in large numbers to the S.P.-Congress combine.”

Leaders of various political formations had advanced arguments on similar lines a day earlier. The BJP, the BSP and the S.P.-Congress combine had claimed to have secured a lead in the first three phases of polling. Leaders of each of these parties had claimed that they were marching to a comfortable majority, with approximately 300 seats in the 403-member Assembly. Of course, these claims were made from the respective forums of the formations, but they got represented on a common platform in the discussion on the Allahabad University campus. Interestingly, the projection made by Ajay Pal and Shambub Yadav’s retort found reflection in some discussions among political observers in Lucknow. The dominant view among them was that the identical “show of confidence” among the leaders of all the three major formations pointed to a situation where they had reasons to be optimistic and apprehensive at the same time.

More significantly, this context brought out significant new twists in terms of strategies and campaign thrusts, which were strikingly manifest in the BJP’s actions. The BJP and its associates started their campaign by “projecting the progress and benefits that India has gained from the Modi regime” as well as “highlighting the positive effects of demonetisation on the Indian economy and the people of the country”. The campaign also branded the S.P., the BSP and the Congress with the acronym “SCAM”, and promised to relieve Uttar Pradesh of corruption and misrule through the Modi imprint in development politics. But by the third phase of voting, the BJP leadership, including Modi himself, was pushing a blatantly Hindutva communal agenda. On the day of the third phase of voting, Modi campaigned at Fatehpur, which was to go to the polls in the fourth phase, on February 23, and stated: “If you create kabristaan [Muslim graveyard] in a village, then a shamshaan [cremation ground] should also be created. If electricity is given uninterrupted during Ramzan, then it should also be given during Deepavali without a break. Bhedbhaav nahin hona chahiye [there should be no discrimination].”

Amit Shah, BJP president, followed this up by asserting that the S.P. government’s welfare schemes were discriminatory on the basis of caste and community. He coined a new acronym, KASAB (after the terrorist Ajmal Kasab who was involved in the 26/11/2008 Mumbai terror attacks), to put down the Congress, the S.P. and the BSP. Lower-level BJP functionaries were even more aggressive in terming the incumbent government as pro-Muslim and pro-Yadav and sought to whip up divisive Hindutva sentiments.

Desperate turn

Perceptions of the reasons for and the effect of this communal campaign have forced the non-BJP players to vacillate between hope and apprehension about the electoral outcome. Speaking to Frontline, Rakesh Sinha, political observer and a former Professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Benares, said Modi’s flagrantly communal utterances were a clear indication of the desperation that had begun to consume the BJP as the polling progressed.

“A party and its Prime Minister who had promised to campaign on the strength of governance track record have shifted gears to such an extent that they are making direct appeals to baser human instincts. The fact that demonetisation as a poll plank has not resulted in expected gains seems to be one factor behind this desperate turn. The other factor is that the coming together of Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi [Congress vice president] is perceived to have a special appeal to the youth. It is in this context that we are seeing this vulgarisation of politics.”

Subhash Deswal, a retired colonel, progressive farmer and political observer from Sikandrabad in western Uttar Pradesh, presented a counterargument, holding that the BJP had resorted to an audacious communal line around polling in the first phase basically because it had realised that once again that brought electoral benefits. “There is no rocket science here. The BJP has sensed that Hindutva communalism still has potency although it may not be as intensive or as widespread as it was in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, which were held in the shadow of the Muzaffarnagar riots.”

Other voices from the ground, too, expressed conflicting perceptions on Modi’s “ kabristaan versus shamshaan” rhetoric. Sudhanshu Pandey found much merit in Modi’s contention. “There is nothing base or unacceptable about what Modi said. Discrimination is a fact of life in Uttar Pradesh and as Prime Minister he has to highlight it.”

Kumar Mangalam Appu Singh, a young businessman of Ramnagar in Varanasi, said Sudhanshu Pandey’s support was misplaced. “Modi has brought down the prestige of the office of Prime Minister. He is stooping to this level because his acche din [good days] promise is in tatters and he has no other achievement to show the people. Now, he wants to be the proxy Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh in order to ring in the so-called acche din. At this rate, he will argue that acche din can come to a district only when he becomes a district panchayat president.”

A gardener-cum-household help working for a senior administrator at Benares Hindu University had a more nuanced take. He was of the view that there was a big difference between kabristaan and shamshaan. “Muslim graveyards can be anywhere, but custom has it that Hindus cremate only near a water body. By calling for shamshaans in every village Modi is trying to force us to cremate even in places without water bodies, thus bringing more distress to our lives. He brought one round of distress with notebandi [demonetisation] and he seems to be following it up with this.”

State BJP leaders felt such views were isolated. “The majority of Hindus understand the import of Modi’s statement. At the level of minute electoral politics, too, the discrimination angle is in keeping with the BJP’s game plan. The party has built up its electoral edifice around non-Yadav Other Backward Class [OBC] communities and because of this some sections of the core BJP support base felt sidelined, including upper-caste communities such as Brahmins and Banias. When Hindutva becomes the central point of the campaign, their resentment is getting minimised,” a senior Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh activist in Lucknow said.

While it is too early to judge which of these assessments will turn out right, there is little doubt that these signify a significant twist in the electioneering in the State. It also marks a change in the electoral mood, although it is too early to gauge or quantify the depth and reach of this change. This change must be seen in the context of the situation that prevailed in the week prior to the first phase of polling. That week had shown signs of the emergence of some definitive electoral characteristics marked by a pronounced ascendancy of the “Akhilesh Yadav factor”. This, in turn, generated a conspicuous tilt towards the S.P.- Congress combine. The consensus at that time among political observers and even among political players, including those in the BJP, was that the momentum was with the combine and that this could take it close to a majority if not a clear majority itself.

However, certain happenings a day prior to the first phase of polling and the manner in which the polling itself progressed unravelled some other factors that relatively reduced the dominance of the “Akhilesh Yadav factor”. The most important development in this regard was the killing of a 17-year-old Jat Hindu boy at Pedda village in Bijnore district in western Uttar Pradesh on February 10. Bijnore, incidentally, went to the polls only in the second phase on February 15. However, news spread on February 11, the day of the first phase of polling, that the boy had been killed allegedly by a group of Muslims. The incident was apparently a continuation of past rivalries triggered by the events of September 2016, which included an alleged incident of eve-teasing leading to the death of three Muslims. Notwithstanding these factors, the incident triggered efforts at communal polarisation, essentially by the BJP and its associates in the Sangh Parivar such as the RSS, the Viswa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal. Social media sites were used extensively to propagate this.

Following this concerted campaign at the grass roots, the BJP’s own estimate after the first round of polling was that it had managed to pull back at least 30 per cent of the dominant Jat community in the region. In the week prior to the elections, the situation was such that Jats had more or less completely forsaken the BJP and gone back to Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), which has been for long considered the original party of the Jat community.

The return of sections of the core Hindutva vote to the BJP had apparently triggered a reaction from sections of the Muslim community, which moved to the BSP on the pretext that the party’s Dalit base would rally better to defeat the BJP. The S.P.-Congress combine, on the other hand, was not able to take extremist positions essentially on account of the fact that its campaign revolved around the development plank which sought to steer clear of communal polarisation. The net effect of all this was that perceptions about the first phase of polling changed. In the week before polling, the S.P.- Congress combine was expected to win 40 plus seats of the 73 seats that went to the polls in the first phase, with the BJP possibly getting reduced to the third spot in the region. But, calculations after the polling were that the communal polarisation had divested the combine of its advantage in at least 10 seats, although it may be marginally ahead of the BJP and the BSP in the seats that went to the polls in the first phase.

It is this turn of events that triggered the BJP’s revived and aggressive communal electioneering. Whatever its moral and ethical deficiencies, there is no denying that it has injected a new energy into the BJP. Leaders of the State BJP told Frontline that while the revival of Hindu sentiments lifted the BJP in the first and second phase of polling (73 and 67 seats respectively), the ramifications of the internal fight in the Yadav family between Akhilesh Yadav and uncle Shivpal Yadav imparted some advantage to it in the third phase, which witnessed polling in central Uttar Pradesh’s 69 seats, conventionally termed as the S.P. bastion. “Even on polling day, Shivpal and his associates were campaigning against official S.P. nominees,” said a senior State BJP leader.

Communally sensitive region

By any yardstick, the communal drive of the BJP is bound to aggravate because the remaining four phases are in central-east and eastern parts of Uttar Pradesh. This region, called Poorvanchal, is also communally sensitive. That the region is the base of Yogi Adityanath, the BJP Member of Parliament from Gorakhpur who is known for his outrightly Hindutva communal campaigns even in normal, non-election times, could add sting to this revived Hindutva line. The region has a sizable Muslim population and there are certain elements, such as the jailed gangster Mukhtar Ansari and his brother Afzal, who rejoined the BSP recently after flirting with many options, including the S.P. Akhilesh Yadav resolutely refused to accommodate the brothers.

The popular feeling in this region is that the Ansari brothers and their supporters could respond to the BJP’s communal propaganda with their own form of Muslim communalism. The Ansaris have varying influence in different parts of eastern Uttar Pradesh, including Varanasi, Ghazipur and Mau. The Ulema Council, an outfit formed in 2008 with pronounced affiliation to Muslim identity politics and with pockets of influence in the eastern districts such as Azamgarh, has also apparently moved closer to the BSP on account of the Ansari brothers’ clout.

The S.P. leadership, however, asserted that the shifting campaign thrusts of the BJP and the BSP only underscored their desperation. “The people have made up their minds and they are going to opt for a continuation of the development narrative and a younger political leadership. All fervent attempts at communalisation are being gauged on merit by the people and they will give a fitting reply to these political desperadoes,” Akhilesh Yadav told Frontline (see interview).

Campaign misadventure

The BJP and its associates in the Sangh Parivar and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) had tried similar tactics aimed at creating and aggravating communal polarisation during the Bihar Assembly elections in November 2015. Just as during the current elections in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP had campaigned initially for Modi’s development model but after two rounds of polling, resorted to an aggressive Hindutva campaign. This began with Amit Shah’s warning that “firecrackers will go off in Pakistan if the BJP loses Bihar” and was followed up by a series of localised moves, including a sensational depiction of a cow and a girl in posters, which had textual content accusing the Janata Dal (United)-Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)-Congress alliance of not doing enough to protect the cow mother. This campaign was at its peak during the last phase of the election, but failed to create the desired effect for the BJP and its associates in that election.

Commenting on the campaign misadventure, veteran BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi had told Frontline then that the enterprise was bound to fail right from the word go. “To start with, the electoral arithmetic that came up with the alliance of the JD(U), the RJD and the Congress was formidable. Even going by the 2014 Lok Sabha voting pattern, the grand alliance had 45 per cent of the vote share compared with the BJP alliance’s 39.5 per cent. The attempt was perhaps to make up for the gap, but the caste foundation of the grand alliance, especially the RJD’s OBC Yadav base, was too strong to be swayed.” The BJP leadership in Uttar Pradesh believes that there will be no repeat of Bihar this time. Unlike in Bihar in 2015, the S.P. and the Congress do not constitute a formidable alliance. Going by the 2014 figures, the combine has only 29.70 per cent of the vote (S.P. 22.50 per cent and the Congress 7.50 per cent) whereas the BJP and its allies have a 42.30 per cent vote share. Although a section of this vote base has deserted the BJP (a section of Jats and Dalits who supported the BJP in 2014 have shifted allegiance to the RLD and the BSP respectively), the decrease in the BJP’s vote may not be that drastic.

Right from the run-up to the campaign, the State BJP leadership has been maintaining that only a 15 percentage point drop from the 2014 vote share will cause its defeat. The average vote drop for the BJP in all the Assembly elections since 2014 has been to the tune of 10 percentage points.

“We will have no problem in managing that,” the RSS activist from Lucknow told Frontline during the early stages of the campaign. However, the momentum built up by the S.P.-Congress combine in the week prior to the elections has created the impression, even in the BJP State leadership, that the party and its allies were bound to lose more than 15 percentage points from the 2014 vote share. But with the relative slowdown in the S.P.-Congress momentum and the communal thrust in the BJP’s campaign, the sense of alarm seems to have come down in the BJP.

According to Rajendra Choudhary, chief spokesperson of the S.P., the BJP’s communal campaign may have had a limited impact in the first phase of polling, but it failed to gain traction in the second and third phases. “The S.P. bastions in the third phase have stayed firm,” he told Frontline. On the ground, too, activists and supporters of the S.P.-Congress combine exude confidence. “Even in the five Assembly segments of the Varanasi Lok Sabha seat represented by Modi, the BJP is fighting with its back to the wall. The party may end up losing all these seats. This is because of a variety of factors, including the strong reaction to demonetisation from the large trader community in the region and the arbitrary ticket distribution by Amit Shah, bypassing the local leadership with long association with the party and favouring turncoats. Sections of the Brahmin community in urban centres such as Allahabad and Varanasi, too, have turned against the BJP because of its abandonment of the traditional and core support base,” pointed out Naresh Kumar, a small-time tea vendor at Assi Ghat in Varanasi, who wears his support to Akhilesh Yadav on his sleeve.

Varanasi-based observers such as Kumar Mangalam Appu Singh broadly share this view but at the same time express concern over the communal narrative advanced by the top leadership of the BJP, including Modi and L.K. Advani.

“The murmurings that I hear from the bylanes and villages of Varanasi are that given the BJP’s bleak situation in the Prime Minister’s constituency, Amit Shah is planning to camp in the region for about a week. There are obvious suggestions about turning the election communal by foisting events that would cause a flare-up. God save this holy land when the Prime Minister’s closest political associate is seen to be setting communal fire to it,” said Appu Singh, whose observation resonates in Varanasi and other parts of eastern Uttar Pradesh as the election process moves on.

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