Uttar Pradesh

Stemming the communal tide

Print edition : May 16, 2014

Voters queue up outside a polling station in Mathura in Uttar Pradesh on April 24. Photo: ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP

Supreme Court directs, CBI to file First Information Reports, (FIRs), against former Uttar Pradesh, Chief Minister, Mayawati , and six officials in the Rs. 175-crore Taj scam. Picture shows former UP, CM, Mayawati addressing a press conference in connection with corruption charges against her by the CBI, in New Delhi. Photo: V. Sudershan Photo: V. Sudershan

Mathura: Samajwadi Party Chief Mulayam Singh Yadav is garlanded at an election meeting in support of party candidate Chandan Singh in Mathura on Wednesday. PTI Photo (PTI4_16_2014_000047B) Photo: PTI

Voters crowd around polling officials to search for their names on the electoral list at a polling booth in Mumbai on April 24. Photo: INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP

AS the electoral process in Uttar Pradesh moves along with intense campaigning, and with polling spread across seven phases between April 10 and May 12, India’s most populous State with the highest number of Lok Sabha seats is witnessing interesting, diverse political stirrings. Its outcome is of vital importance to the two major national parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress. While the BJP’s plans to capture power at the Centre hinges to a large extent on a creditable performance in Uttar Pradesh, the Congress is trying to retain the gains it had made in the 2009 elections, which had added a qualitatively new dimension to political practice in the State. In the past 10 years, the primary political battle in the State had been between the two major regional forces, the ruling Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the principal opposition. In 2009, the Congress too emerged as an important pole, winning 21 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats, and pushed the BSP to the third spot with 19 seats. The S.P. won 23 seats and the BJP 10.

The central message that emerged from the 2009 result was that the electorate of Uttar Pradesh voted differently in the Lok Sabha elections and that national parties could make inroads into large segments of the population, which were in alignment with the caste-identity politics pursued by the S.P. and the BSP.

The BJP’s preparation for the current elections and the manner in which it has gone about electioneering make it clear that the party has imbibed the message that emerged from the 2009 result. The BJP started positioning itself over a year ago to make big electoral gains in Uttar Pradesh. The branding and positioning was done on the twin-track tactics that the Hindutva-oriented political outfit has sought to pursue nationally—one, the cultivated image of its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi as a development icon, and two, calculated generation and perpetuation of a Hindu-Muslim communal polarisation exploiting a number of micro and macro issues.

On the other hand, the Congress was nowhere near the position of advantage it had enjoyed in 2009. This was essentially on account of the colossal loss of credibility suffered by the party and the second stint of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) it leads at the Centre. The party had built up a successful campaign in 2009 on the basis of its social welfare and empowerment programmes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, loan waiver for farmers, Right to Information Act and the Forests Rights Act. This time around, the party has been dogged by the charges of rampant corruption and ineptitude that had captured headlines over the past four years. A section of the Central and State leadership of the Congress had suggested in the early run-up to the elections in January that the party should tie up with the BSP. The proposal was apparently shot down by the Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi.

POLARISATION IN WESTERN U.P.

The assessment of the BJP as well as the larger Hindutva conglomerate, the Sangh Parivar led by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), was that among all the Indian States, the party’s twin agendas have gained the maximum traction in Uttar Pradesh. Along with the propagation of the Gujarat model of governance as the solution to a large number of socio-economic maladies affecting the country, the Sangh Parivar was also able to engineer intense communal polarisation in various parts of the State. The Muzaffarnagar riots of August-September 2013, which resulted in huge loss of life and property, as well as other related developments in the following months, were exploited by the BJP and its associates in the Sangh Parivar through various stratagems.

One such manoeuvre was the “hate speeches” delivered by senior party leaders such as Amit Shah. (The BJP general secretary in charge of Uttar Pradesh, who had been hand-picked by Modi to oversee the election preparations in the State, had reportedly asked Jats to avenge the killing of their community members by voting for the BJP.) The net result was widespread communal polarisation, which was most intense in about half a dozen districts around Muzaffarnagar, in western Uttar Pradesh.

The impact of the polarisation was such that the BJP and the Sangh Parivar had successfully cracked the commitment of sections such as the Jatavs and Yadavs to the assertive politics of the Dalit and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) varieties respectively. “They had all been sucked so comprehensively into the Hindu-Muslim polarisation paradigm that large segments of these communities replaced their caste-based identity politics for a religion-oriented identity politics,” Megh Singh, a Muzaffarnagar-based political analyst, told Frontline.

Megh Singh added that the BJP had been working on non-Yadav OBC communities such as Lodh, Kurmi, Koeri and Nishad for over a year employing social and religious programmes such as the Ganga Yatra, which emphasised the connection between these communities, and the Ramayana. At the same time, it sought to clean up the river in the interests of the rural economy. Efforts were made to reach out to the Dalit communities such as Pasi, Valmiki, Kashyap and Dhobi using similar ploys. These efforts reinforced the communal polarisation following the riots.

The first two phases of polling were held on April 10 and 17 in 21 constituencies in western Uttar Pradesh. Several political observers have assessed that, in the context of widespread communal polarisation, the BJP could walk away with more than two-thirds of the seats in this region. However, Sangh Parivar insiders admit that the response to the BJP’s campaign in the remaining 59 seats spread across central Uttar Pradesh, Bundelkhand and eastern Uttar Pradesh is not as overwhelming as what it received in western Uttar Pradesh. “What we are seeing is that as one moves away from the epicentre of the riots towards the periphery, the impact of the communal polarisation is getting lesser and lesser. Consequently, caste-based identity politics, which has held sway over the State over many years, has come to the fore in many of these constituencies,” the political analyst Sheetal Prasad Singh told Frontline.

Travelling through several constituencies in the different regions of Uttar Pradesh, this correspondent found much merit in this assessment. The diminishing impact of communal polarisation as one moves from western Uttar Pradesh to the central, eastern and Bundelkhand regions has naturally increased the expectations of the Congress, the S.P. and the BSP. A number of other related factors have contributed to this. These include problems that have come up in many district- and constituency-level BJP units over the selection of candidates, the treatment meted out to senior leaders such as former Union Minister Murli Manohar Joshi and Lalji Tandon as well as their own reaction to the domination of Modi in the party.

The fallout of this is such that BJP stalwarts such as party president Rajnath Singh and Joshi are facing tough contests in Lucknow and Kanpur from Congress candidates Rita Bahuguna Joshi and Union Minister Sri Prakash Jaiswal. The Congress appears to be the principal beneficiary of the internal feud in the BJP. Domariaganj is another constituency in eastern Uttar Pradesh where the BJP is facing revolt. The party has nominated the former Congress Chief Minister Jagadambika Pal, who joined the BJP as recently as March, just before the elections were announced, in Domariaganj much to the chagrin of the local BJP unit. The BJP cadres have opposed this and are openly supporting the Congress candidate, Vasundhara Kumari, in the constituency.

The candidature of S.P. president Mulayam Singh Yadav in Azamgarh seems to have had a salutary effect of stemming the tide of communal polarisation among the OBC Yadav community in these parts of the State. Mohammed Zahid Khan, a lecturer in Azamgarh’s Shibli National College, told Frontline that until Mulayam Singh decided to contest, the OBC communities were falling for the communal campaign of the Sangh Parivar. But his entry into the electoral fray put a stop to all that. “His candidature electrified the Yadav community to such an extent that communal polarisation was replaced by assertion of caste identity. Naturally, this has motivated the Muslim community to once again move closer to the S.P.,” he said.

Zahid Khan is of the view that the trend prevailing in Azamgarh would have an effect on constituencies such as Lalganj, Ambedkar Nagar and Ghosi in its immediate neighbourhood. These seats may not lead to victory for the S.P., but the reassertion of the Yadav identity has certainly minimised the scale of the BJP’s likely gains.

AAP PRESENCE

The nascent Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has also put up a good a fight in a number of constituencies, challenging both the BJP and the Congress. Apart from the high-profile election struggles of the party convener, Arvind Kejriwal, against Modi in Varanasi, and senior leader Kumar Vishvas against Rahul Gandhi in Amethi, AAP candidates such as Javed Jaffri (Lucknow) and Yogesh Dahiya (Saharanpur) have also succeeded in generating a vibrant response from the electorate.

The internal assessments of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar reflect these interesting political stirrings. About two months ago, BJP leaders were of the view that the party would be either in the first or the second place in all the 80 constituencies. That was considered to be the combined result of the Modi image and the Muzaffarnagar effect. However, as the election process has started moving into the last phases of polling, the assessment is that the party is a contender for the first and second positions in about 60 constituencies.

However, the saffron party is still hopeful of touching the 40-seat mark. “It is generally accepted that we will win more than two-thirds of the 21 western Uttar Pradesh seats that went to the polls in the first two phases. Even if we manage to win a little over one-third of the remaining 59 seats, we will get close to 40 seats,” said a senior RSS activist based out of Lucknow. The fulfilment or collapse of these expectations would depend largely on how far the BJP is able to sustain the impact of its campaign based on Modi and communal polarisation and on what scale caste identities would reassert themselves.

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