Advantage Akhilesh

The S.P.-Congress combine appears to be on a strong wicket in Uttar Pradesh in an atmosphere of disenchantment with demonetisation and reduced communal polarisation.

Published : Feb 15, 2017 12:30 IST

Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav at a joint election rally in Agra on February 3.

Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav at a joint election rally in Agra on February 3.

THREE trends with a wide thematic import are making an increasingly significant impact on the election scene in Uttar Pradesh, even though local issues continue to be the primary factor in the majority of the 403 Assembly constituencies of the State.

First, the steadily rising appreciation of the track record of Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (S.P.) government and the consequent acceptance of the S.P.-Congress alliance. Second the virtual disintegration of the pan-Hindu vote that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) mobilised during the 2014 Lok Sabha election in the context of rampant communal polarisation after riots in different parts of western Uttar Pradesh, including Muzaffarnagar and Shamli.

Three, the growing disapproval of the November 8 demonetisation launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with more and more people turning to the view that its disadvantages outweigh the benefits. These trends are becoming progressively conspicuous as the 140 constituencies in western Uttar Pradesh get ready to vote on February 11 and 15.

The three principal stakeholders in the contest are the S.P.-Congress combine, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the BJP, and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). A sizable number activists in these three political parties and political observers are of the view that unless something extremely dramatic happens, these trends could gather momentum as polling progresses from western Uttar Pradesh to the eastern parts of the State. The Assembly elections will take place in seven phases between February 11 and March 8.

Akhilesh Yadav effect

Each of these trends has specific and interesting manifestations on the ground. The growing acceptance of the Akhilesh Yadav government and the S.P.-Congress alliance, termed the “Akhilesh Yadav effect” in Uttar Pradesh’s political circles, is most strikingly felt in the constituencies of western Uttar Pradesh and in the urban regions across the State. The S.P. has never been able to make much headway in western Uttar Pradesh right from its inception essentially because its core vote base, the Other Backward Class (OBC) Yadav community, is numerically insignificant in the region. The Muslims of western Uttar Pradesh also traditionally went with the trend and veered towards the BSP, whose core vote base comprising the Dalit Jatav community has greater numerical strength there. However, field reports from the region this time point towards growing support for the S.P.-Congress alliance cutting across caste lines, which can translate into a respectable number of seats.

Anuj Tyagi, a young upper-caste voter of Baraut constituency, told Frontline that he supported the BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha election but was rooting for Akhilesh Yadav this time on account of the good work and governance vision of the young leader. Echoes of the mood resonate across all the major divisions of the region such as Meerut, Saharanpur, Moradabad and Agra.

The S.P.-Congress alliance has also effectively rallied large segments of Muslims in western Uttar Pradesh. The combine is also drawing votes from other, especially Hindu, communities this time. A near total alignment of the minority communities with the S.P. was conventionally exploited by the BJP and its associates in the larger Sangh Parivar to generate a reverse polarisation among Hindu communities. However, in the absence of a communally charged social situation, in contrast to the 2014 atmosphere, this reverse polarisation has not happened in this election. The principal reason for this is that the socially and economically powerful Jat community has drifted away from the BJP. With a vote percentage of 17-18 per cent in western Uttar Pradesh and 4 per cent in the State as a whole, Jats consider themselves as kingmakers in any election. Egged on by Yashpal Malik of the Akhil Bharatiya Jat Arakshan Sangharsh Samiti, Jats organised several panchayats in western Uttar Pradesh and called upon the community to vote against the BJP.

Dharmendra Malik, associated with the Balyan khap and spokesperson of the Bharat Kisan Union, a farmers’ organisation with a presence in the region, said: “When we voted for the BJP in 2014, we expected it to do a lot for us. Instead, we are saddled with a long list of grievances against them. They did not include us in the reserved category as promised, and when we protested our young people were made to languish in jails across Haryana. Men in their early forties died in police firing, which was extremely tragic. While we got a bad name because of the riots in 2014, we also lost our identity. From being leaders and kingmakers, we were reduced to being just voters. It took us some time to understand these games, but I can tell you, 60-70 per cent of the Jats will vote for the Rashtriya Lok Dal this time.”

Another important development is the return of a section of Dalit communities to the BSP. In 2014, a large segment of the Dalit communities, including the Jatav community, in the region had moved to the BJP, driven by the communally charged atmosphere and Modi’s development rhetoric. The return of these communities has prompted renewed efforts by BSP leaders Mayawati and Satish Chandra Mishra to revive the party’s social engineering formula and rally upper-caste Hindu communities such as Brahmins, Banias and Tyagis. This is producing an impact in select pockets of western Uttar Pradesh. A significant gain has been the winning back of the Akhil Bharatiya Brahmin Mahasabha’s support. It had been with the BSP in 2007 but moved away after 2012.

The BSP has also strengthened efforts to hold on to its Muslim support base, though perhaps not as effectively as in earlier elections. But that is because of the widespread acceptance of the S.P.-Congress alliance among the minority community, for both ideological and political reasons, including considerations of strategic voting. Still, there are Muslim voices like that of the brick kiln owner Haji Ilys Ansari of Budhana, who asserted: “During Behenji’s rule, neither a Hindu nor a Muslim dies.” He was of the view that loot and violence marked Akhilesh Yadav’s regime. In her election speeches, Mayawati promised to reopen the riots cases and secure the release of Muslim youngsters wrongly confined in terror cases. Still, a big majority of the Muslim minority population is perceived to be with the S.P.-Congress combine.

Domonetisation woes

There is widespread disenchantment with demonetisation. The nature of the campaigns of the principal forces highlights this aspect. Although top leaders such as Narendra Modi and Amit Shah do make references to demonetisation, local BJP leaders and most of the candidates do not say anything at all about this so-called “surgical strike on black money”. In constituency after constituency, the Frontline team was met with the thundering silence of BJP candidates on the issue.

According to the pollster and political observer Mathew Vilaysseril, who has been criss-crossing Uttar Pradesh with his team since mid November to tabulate electoral factors and prospects, the turnaround in the attitudes of the Uttar Pradesh population on this issue has been the most dramatic in this election season: “In the second week of November and in early November, our polls had shown a 70 per cent approval rating for demonetisation. Large sections of people, especially the poor, actually believed that this was a godsend to teach the black-moneyed rich a lesson. This reflected in electoral projections for the BJP too. But by early January, disillusionment started setting in among the poorer sections as they saw that their lives were not improving and the rich were not affected as badly as they thought they would be. Thus in early February 2017, our polls are showing an approval rate of 30 per cent, a huge drop of 40 percentage points in a matter of just two months. This could well take the form of an electoral revolt by the farming community in Uttar Pradesh.”

The election analyst’s projections reflect strikingly on the ground. “Note- bandi [demonetisation] has made beggars of us all!” said Tafseer Alam, sitting on a cot in Akbarpur village of Bulandshahr district in western Uttar Pradesh. He asserted that the people of the State would vote for anybody who was in a position to ensure the BJP’s defeat in the Assembly elections. Such voices abound across Uttar Pradesh.

Evidently, all this has put the BJP on the back foot. The party leadership has chosen to focus on political attacks on the Congress and its track record in governance at the Centre. Leaders such as Modi and Shah have pursued this line of attack and asserted that the Union government’s allocations for various projects were not being properly used by the Akhilesh Yadav government. But scores of local BJP leaders from different districts told Frontline that these campaigns had not been able to generate the kind of vibrant enthusiasm that was evident in 2014. Still, the majority of them hope and believe that the party will emerge triumphant on the strength of the massive vote percentage advantage it gained in 2014 and also its superior organisational machinery.

hyped goodwill

A senior Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) activist in Lucknow told Frontline : “The desertion of the Jat community and some Dalit groups’ return to the BSP cannot by themselves knock off our vote percentage. We had a towering 42-plus percentage in 2014. Even if we lose 10 percentage points, we will have 32 per cent, which is much higher than that of any other force in the arena. Our core strength in 2014 was the consolidation of non-Yadav OBC votes from communities such as Kashyaps, Kurmis and Sainis. That remains intact even now. It is too early to write off the BJP.”

Many other BJP leaders are of the view that despite the generation of a hyped goodwill, the S.P.-Congress combine could be waylaid by internal sabotage. The RSS activist added: “The alliance has myriad problems between the Congress and the S.P., particularly in areas such as Amethi and Rae Bareily. The family tussle within the S.P. has also not died down. Mulayam Singh Yadav and Shivpal Yadav still have enough election tricks up their sleeve to bring down the S.P. in very many seats. Moreover, Shivpal Yadav has announced that he will float a new party after the results. The cumulative effect of all this will be to stop this big march of the combine.” The BJP and the larger Sangh Parivar are obviously looking to negative factors to scuttle the chances of Akhilesh Yadav and his allies. The polling in the first two phases are expected to give clear indications of how these expectations will play out.

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