The Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies will find the next Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh a very difficult battle.
"UTTAR PRADESH is the real test. Take us on in U.P.," said Bharatiya Janata Party president Jana Krishnamurthy, challenging the Congress(I), after his party's soul-searching exercise in Mussorrie on May 20-21. The BJP put up a dismal performance in the recent Assembly election, whereas on May 10 the Congress(I) made remarkable gains.
But does the challenge not have a familiar ring about it? Before the May 10 Assembly elections, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has made the famous claim that the people would give a rousing mandate to the BJP and its allies, and then his even more famous retraction, that the elections would not be a referendum on the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government's performance.
Vajpayee and other senior BJP leaders had declared that the elections would prove Tehelka to be a non-issue and give the NDA a fresh mandate to rule. However, as the campaign progressed and a clear picture started emerging, the Prime Minister had to eat his words. One wonders whether the BJP president will also have to do the same thing in the context of U.P. If one thing is clear in the puzzle game called U.P. politics, it is that the BJP is going to find it difficult to retain power in the State. The Congress(I) appears to be nowhere in the electoral race at the moment; the BJP too seems to be in a similar muddle. The sense of dissatisfaction with the government's performance is all-pervasive. This sentiment is evident even among its traditional upper-caste voters.
"Sharif aadmi ka to jeena haraam ho gaya hai saheb. Shikaayat kisse karein, sabhi goonde badmaash to mantriyon ke apne aadmi hain (It is difficult for a decent man to survive. Where do we go to complain? All criminals have the patronage of ministers)," says a businessman in Lucknow. He narrated stories of extortion, kidnappings, loot, robberies at gun-point and house grabbing, which have become the order of the day in this city of nawabs which once prided itself on being the city of tehzeeb (sophistication). A senior State government officer said: "Uttar Pradesh is fast going the Bihar way where criminals run the show." These comments come mostly from people from the Brahmin, Kayasth and Thakur castes, which form the backbone of the BJP in U.P. It was this upper-caste vote bank, combined with the backward classes, that delivered the State to the BJP and hence paved the way for it to take power at the Centre. This segment of society is now frustrated with the BJP and is looking for an alternative.
This is bad news for the BJP. If the upper-castes desert the party, then it is left with a shrunken support base consisting of only a small section of Other Backward Classes (OBCs). These sections had associated themselves with the BJP in the Ram Janmabhoomi movement; they found representation for their aspirations in the persona of Kalyan Singh, the former BJP Chief Minister who belonged to the Lodh caste. Kalyan Singh, who floated his own party called Rashtriya Kranti Party (RKP) after being expelled from the BJP, had helped combine the caste factor and the sentiment that drove the Ram Janmabhoomi movement in favour of BJP. Without Kalyan Singh, the BJP cannot boast of any backward class leader who can attract the votes of the OBCs en masse. The other OBC leaders in the party, including Irrigation Minister Om Prakash Singh, at one stage a strong contender for the post of party president, are a disgruntled lot now because they have no say in party's affairs. "It is once again back to the same old Brahminical order. While a Brahmin (Kalraj Mishra) leads the party, a Thakur leads the government. What do we get?" asked a prominent OBC leader, ruing the fact that OBCs have been relegated to the sidelines.
Anyone who knows the caste equations in U.P. would agree that the State's politics is dictated mostly by caste considerations, unless there is one single overriding factor.
For instance, the 1991 elections were held when the Ram Janmabhoomi movement was at its peak, after L.K. Advani's rath yatra and the firing on karsevaks at Ayodhya in 1990, ordered by the then Mulayam Singh Yadav-led government. The frenzy created by the movement overrode all other considerations and helped the BJP sweep the Assembly elections. Kalyan Singh took over as Chief Minister. However, in December 1992 the Babri Masjid was razed to the ground as the BJP government looked the other way, and the party lost the next elections in 1993. This round of elections also saw the rise of Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati, and the virtual decimation of the Congress(I) in the State's politics. It was a time when the U.P. electorate was split in three ways along caste lines: the upper-castes and some OBCs went with the BJP; the Dalits consolidated in favour of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP); and the Yadavs, a politically dominant OBC segment, rallied round Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party (S.P.). Another significant shift in the State's politics was that Muslims deserted the Congress(I) and associated themselves with the S.P., thus forming a winning Muslim-Yadav combination, which still helps the S.P. in a major way.
With this kind of political polarisation on caste and community lines, a simple majority for any single party is an unthinkable prospect. The Assembly elections held in October 1996 once again saw a three-way split in the electorate, between the BJP, the BSP and the S.P. Since then the State has witnessed several permutations and combinations of caste-based and communal politics. The current BJP-led government is propped up by an assortment of parties, which broke away from the Congress(I) and the BSP. However, in that process the BJP lost its tag of being a "party with a difference". It was seen indulging in blatant power games - of splitting parties, associating with criminals, even making persons with a criminal background ministers. Its leaders fought among themselves in their lust for power. Things came to such a pass that the Prime Minister himself had to intervene and sacked the Chief Minister (Kalyan Singh) early last year to appease one section of the war-torn party. Later, the State president had to be replaced to appease some others. The murky power games robbed the BJP of the moral high ground it occupied.
Having seen all this, the upper castes are obviously doing some rethink on their options. The backward classes have found their own niche - the Kurmis have the Apna Dal, the Lodhs have the RKP, the Jats have the Rashtriya Lok Dal led by Ajit Singh and the Vaishyas have the Loktantrik Congress Party headed by Power Minister Naresh Agrawal.
With the emergence of caste-based parties and the onset of pressure group politics, alliances became important. Political observers believe that the major party that manages to capture the largest number of allies in the next elections will form the government in U.P. In this race, the S.P. appears to be ahead of the rest: it has by and large managed to retain the support of Yadavs and Muslims. However, it is another matter that Muslims are with the S.P. because there is no better alternative. "The Congress is nowhere in the race and Mayawati has proved to be as unpredictable as Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal. You never know when she will join hands with the BJP to form the government. Hence Muslims are left with no other credible alternative," says a senior Muslim leader, who belongs to the Congress(I). Political observers refer to the Shahjehanpur Lok Sabha byelections and consider this a pointer. The Shahjehanpur seat fell vacant with the death of veteran Congress(I) leader, Jitendra Prasada. In the byelection, Prasada's widow, Kanta Prasada, who contested as the Congress(I)candidate, lost to the S.P. candidate by a margin of 23,000 votes. While the BSP candidate came third, the BJP finished a pathetic fourth, with its candidate Satyapal Yadav, considered a political heavyweight, losing his deposit.
However, the fact that the Congress(I) came second in Shajehanpur should not lead one to the conclusion that despite losing the seat the party remains a force to reckon with in U.P. The party has so far drawn up no strategy to overcome its state of inertia. It was announced that State party president S.P. Jaiswal would continue to occupy the post despite the fact that his leadership proved to be singularly uninspiring: the party lost every byelection since Jaiswal took over last year, replacing Salman Khursheed. Even the central leadership of the Congress(I) has not tried to set matters right. Except for constituting a high-level committee - headed by Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh and with Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dixit, former Lok Sabha Speaker Balram Jakhar, Chaudhary Prem Singh, Furkan Ansari, L.P. Shahi and D.P. Yadav as members - nothing has been done in this regard. Incidentally, not a single member of the committee is known to have first-hand knowledge of U.P. politics. Moreover, Digvijay Singh and Sheila Dixit hardly get the time to meet. Although the party plans to have "mass contact programmes" in the State, in which party president Sonia Gandhi will also participate, that is obviously not enough. "We should be happy being even at the fourth place in the next Assembly. There is a singular lack of cohesion in our U.P. policy," said a senior Congress(I) leader from the State.
According to U.P. leaders, there are no worthwhile allies the party can hope to get. And without allies there is no possibility of coming to power. "Why should they (S.P. and BSP) come to us? Besides, we had to accept the status of a junior partner when we joined hands with the BSP in 1996 despite the fact that we were the ruling party at the Centre. Now that we are in a worse condition, we are left only with parties like the RLD," said a senior leader. The RLD is only a marginal player in the State's politics because its presence is confined to the Jat-dominated area of western U.P. In the rest of the State the Congress is on its own, and only a miracle can bring it into reckoning. The party's worst performance was in 1996 when it scored a pathetic 8.3 per cent of the votes polled and won only 33 of the total 126 seats it contested.
As for the BSP, there are no two views that it has held on its own. Byelections have proved that no other party has been able to dent its Dalit vote bank. The party had won 67 of the 296 seats it contested in 1996. Although many of its MLAs defected to the ruling combine later, political observers believe that the BSP's vote share of 19.6 per cent is more or less intact and it is expected to do well in the coming Assembly elections. Although senior BSP leader and former Chief Minister Mayawati has announced that the party will go it alone, party supremo Kanshi Ram told Frontline in an interview that he would join hands after the elections with any party that agreed to make Mayawati Chief Minister.
Things could not have been better for the S.P. too. The S.P. is a constituent of the People's Front (P.F.) at the Centre, along with the Left parties. After the Left Front swept the West Bengal Assembly elections, the mood in the P.F. is upbeat. Leaders of the P.F. met on May 28 to formulate a minimum programme of action and declared that the Front constituents would contest the U.P. election under a single banner. "We will form the government in U.P. We will win the required numbers on our own," declared Mulayam Singh Yadav, the P.F. convener. The S.P. had contested 281 seats in 1996 elections and won 110 and secured 21.8 per cent of the votes polled. Moreover, the Shahjehanpur byelection has shown a certain upswing in the support for the S.P., and if this is any indication, the party is on a very strong ground. One reason for the optimism in the S.P. camp is the fact that in a World Trade Organisation-dictated regime, farmers' problems have emerged as the most dominant issue and in this matter the P.F. has an edge over others because it has already mobilised farmers on a large scale. Its leaders such as former Prime Ministers V.P. Singh and H.D. Deve Gowda have been touring various parts of the country, addressing farmers' meetings. V.P. Singh has floated the Kisan Manch, and his meetings have attracted large crowds in rural areas of Uttar Pradesh. "V.P. Singh is going to be our trump card. There is none better-placed to talk about farmers," said Mulayam Singh. Hence, even if the S.P. fails to get the required majority, it is confident of getting enough seats to attract allies and form the next government. "The parties that are at present with the BJP will not hesitate to support us if they find us in a better position to form the government," said an S.P. leader. Naresh Agrawal and a section of the Jantantrik Bahujan Samaj Party, the breakaway BSP faction which is supporting the BJP government, are learnt to be in touch with the S.P. leaders.
Meanwhile, undaunted by the adverse prospects staring it in the face, the BJP, which also has realised that farmers are going to be decisive in the elections, is busy chalking out "mass contact programmes" for its leaders. Party leaders have been asked to visit villages, hold chaupals (village meetings) and speak to farmers about their problems. "We are going to focus on fundamental issues - basic facilities, link roads, education, health and so on. This time ours is going to be a village-oriented strategy," said BJP State president Kalraj Mishra. However, the timing has proved to be wrong for the BJP. The farmers are not rising to the bait. Incidents like the police firing on farmers protesting against the acquisition of their land for the expansion of the airport in Varanasi could not have come at a worse time. One farmer was killed in the firing while several others were injured. This has only served to highlight the plight of the State's farmers, who are also facing problems because of a bumper potato crop and the non-payment of prices to sugarcane growers.
Maybe Jana Krishnamurthy will prove right, after all: in the sense that UP will really be a test for the BJP.