An uphill task in Uttar Pradesh

Published : Sep 24, 2004 00:00 IST

The absence of a capable leader and the political skills of Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav hamper the Congress(I)'s efforts to reclaim its lost support base in Uttar Pradesh.

IT may be party time for the Congress(I) elsewhere in the country, but as far as Uttar Pradesh is concerned it is going to be a long haul before the party can return to a respectable position. The Congress(I) is in a Catch-22 situation in the State. On the one hand it is supporting the Mulayam Singh Yadav-led government, and on the other it is trying to play the role of an Opposition party. The result is a continuous tug of war between the ruling Samajwadi Party and the Congress(I) on one issue or the other. The competition between the two parties is most visible in their efforts to attract the Muslim vote. For the Congress(I), winning over the Muslim community is important for its revival in the State, while for the Samajwadi Party, retaining Muslim support is crucial for its existence itself.

In Uttar Pradesh, the Congress(I)'s seat tally has been coming down since 1999. It won only nine of the 73 seats it contested in the recent general elections despite the fact that the party's star crowd puller duo, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Vadra, children of Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi, had spent much of their time campaigning there. Sonia herself, whose charisma ensured votes for the Congress(I) elsewhere in the country, was a candidate from the State's Rae Bareli constituency. As against 14 seats and over 15 per cent of the votes in the 1999 elections, the party could manage only 12.04 per cent votes this time - a figure significantly lower than its all-India average of 26.53 per cent of the votes.

Even though the party leadership realises that it has to revive itself in U.P. in order to come closer to enjoying power on its own, it has so far not been able to evolve an effective strategy. Right now, the party remains almost defunct; it becomes active only when its newly elected Member of Parliament from Amethi, Rahul Gandhi, visits the State. Rahul, who has shown a keen interest in reviving the party in U.P., though, is still learning the ropes while Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav, a seasoned politician, has effectively countered his offensive.

Rahul Gandhi, who has been raising the issues of poor law and order situation and lack of development in the State, was stumped when the Chief Minister convened an all-party meeting of MPs from the State in the last week of August for a "complaints and suggestions" session. The dinner meeting was essentially a trap set for the Congress(I), which had lately taken an aggressive posture against his government on the development front. Mulayam Singh got senior officials to note down every MP's suggestion and complaint and promised to look into them. He handed over to the MPs a list of projects worth Rs.18,000 crores pending with the Centre for clearance and urged them to pursue the projects with the Centre. The meeting, which was attended by all MPs from the State barring those of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which boycotted the meet, will keep the Congress MPs silent for some time on the development issue. Rahul Gandhi now takes up the law and order issue to attack the Mulayam Singh Yadav government.

Senior Congressmen from U.P. know that if the party is to be revived in the State, action has to be taken at the ground level itself and that Rahul Gandhi will have to get down to the brass tacks. "Mere waving of hands and beaming bright smiles might make people happy, but a lot more needs to be done to revive the party at the grassroots. The (Nehru-Gandhi) legacy can work to a limited extent only," said a senior State leader. According to him, the biggest problem facing the party in U.P. is that of leadership. "There is no one among the present lot of leaders who is in a position to carry everyone along and who can actually identify with real-life issues troubling people. Besides, there is no one who can actually be called loyal to the party. The present lot of leaders are only loyal to their own interests," he said.

This is precisely why Jagdambika Pal continues to lead the party in the State despite the fact that he had earned Sonia Gandhi's ire during the Lok Sabha elections for the way in which he forcibly pushed himself into the fray in the Basti constituency. By losing the seat, he further angered Sonia Gandhi. Since then there has been talk of replacing him, but the party has not been able to find a suitable replacement. "The choice of leadership in a difficult one. We are trying to figure it out," said a senior leader. But this ostrich-like attitude has only meant that the party's slide continues unabated, so much so that there is no hope of the party winning even a single seat in the byelections to the 12 Assembly seats and two Lok Sabha seats, due in October.

According to senior leaders, the party also suffers because there is no leader who can bring any dominant caste section, which was loyal to it earlier, back to the party. There is a realisation among senior leaders that the party can be revived if it can recapture its erstwhile bases of upper castes and Muslims. The State leadership has ruled out Dalit support because of the BSP's obvious hold over the segment, but it is certainly eyeing the upper castes, especially Brahmins and Thakurs. The hope is that if the party can win the upper castes over, it can bring the minorities too to the party fold. "But there is no leader in our ranks who enjoys the loyalty of these sections," confessed a State leader.

According to party insiders, it was the minority vote that accounted for the party's 12.04 per cent vote share in the Lok Sabha elections. But there seems to be no strategy yet to retain this support. "We could fill the slot of an effective Opposition in the State, but there is no strategy by which we can initiate the process," confessed a senior State leader.

The Congress(I)'s plight is Mulayam Singh Yadav's gain. His government completed one year on August 29 and hopes to complete the Assembly's full term in February 2007 without any hiccups. "Where is the threat to my government? Who can destabilise me? The people are with me because of the decisions I have taken in their favour. The government will certainly complete its term," said the Chief Minister with undisguised smugness.

But he is aware that the Congress(I) will try to wean away Muslims from him and hence he has gone all out to ensure that they stay with him. He has doled out generous grants to madrassas to promote free computer education for Muslim children, announced jobs for 3,000 Urdu teachers in primary schools, decided to set up the Maulana Ali Gauhar University in Rampur to promote the study of the Urdu language, brought madrassas under the State government's purview by giving the district administration the power to grant them recognition and thus making them eligible for government assistance, declared 62 years as the retirement age for madrassa teachers, initiated measures to modernise education in madrassas, and provided enhanced and easy credit to Muslims for starting their own enterprises.

The Congress(I) finds itself in a bind because it cannot even criticise any of these moves for fear of being painted anti-Muslim by the Chief Minister. It has, however, been trying to stall the setting up of the Maulana Ali Gauhar University since the Ordinance to set up the university anoints State Urban Development Minister and Rampur MLA Mohammad Azam Khan with its pro tem vice-chancellorship for life. Interestingly, the U.P. Governor had raised an objection to this clause when the government moved a Bill for the setting up of the university in the last session of the Assembly, and the Bill had to be withdrawn. But after the session, the government issued an Ordinance for the same. The Ordinance has been pending the Governor's assent for the same objection that he had raised earlier. The Congress(I) too has raised the same objection, supporting the Governor.

"We are not opposed to the university as such but we are opposed to the idea of making someone like Azam Khan its Vice-Chancellor for life. If the person concerned was some scholar or some other renowned person we could have given it a thought, but certainly not Azam Khan," said the Uttar Pradesh Congress Committee (UPCC) spokesman Akhilesh Pratap Singh. Speaking to Frontline, he said the Congress(I) had extended support to the Mulayam Singh government hoping that it would provide good governance, but all those expectations had been belied. Asked whether the party would withdraw its support to the government, he said: "That will be our last resort."

The two parties, however, are careful enough to ensure that their verbal duels do not get out of hand, paving the way for a " communal" government. The Left parties, significantly enough, play an important role in keeping the bickering in check. According to a senior Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader, the verbal combat between the two was inevitable because the Congress(I) could reclaim lost ground in Uttar Pradesh only at the expense of the Samajwadi Party. "But we have to ensure that this fight does not get out of control," he said.

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