A first round in Uttar Pradesh

Published : Jan 10, 1998 00:00 IST

The Kalyan Singh Government's announcement of grants to local bodies just before their members were to elect 39 MLCs betrays his party's nervousness during the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections.

UTTAR PRADESH was in the grip of a cold wave in the last two weeks of December, but the political atmosphere was remarkably hot. What caused this rise in the political temperature was the Kalyan Singh Government's announcement regarding grant of substantial funds to the local bodies, which were to elect 39 members to the State Legislative Council on December 29, and the Election Commission's intervention. The Commission ordered the postponement of the elections to January 11.

The Council elections, in which over one lakh members of local bodies would vote, were important particularly in the context of the Lok Sabha elections. The three major political parties in the State, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), saw them as means to determine the way in which the social and caste equations were developing. Now the parties are struggling to work out winning combinations. Predictably, this has had its impact on parties such as the Congress(I), the Uttar Pradesh Loktantrik Congress (UPLC), the Janata Dal and the Bharatiya Kisan Kamgar Party (BKKP), for they do not know where they stand vis-a-vis the bigger parties. The constitution of alliances is crucial to the survival of the smaller parties.

The Kalyan Singh Government's grants to the local bodies amounted to Rs. 250 crores. The fact that the order, meant to fulfil "its constitutional responsibility," was issued just five days before the date of polling is seen as sign of the BJP's political nervousness - despite the advantage it enjoyed as the ruling party.

According to a section of BJP leaders who are opposed to Kalyan Singh, the party's own estimate before the Government announcement was that it would win at the most 17 seats. Such a result would have embarrassed the party, whose ambition is to capture power in New Delhi very soon. According to some leaders of the party, a setback in the Council polls would affect the media hype favouring the BJP.

The main problem, according to some BJP leaders, was that its new allies, such as the UPLC and the Janatantrik BSP, may not bring in the expected number of votes although these parties enjoyed power in some local bodies. Secondly, despite the best efforts of the Kalyan Singh Government, there was no sign of the upper-caste voters who were alienated from the party during BJP-BSP rule between March 1996 and October 1997 returning to the BJP in a significant way. The S.P. seemed to retain a sizable portion of these votes, especially in western Uttar Pradesh.

It was against this background that the decision on the funds was taken. By all indications it was the Chief Minister's idea. A senior BJP leader told Frontline: "Kalyan Singh tried to kill several birds with one stone." The calculation, he said, was that if the sops worked, the BJP would improve its position. On the other hand, if they generated a controversy leading to the Election Commission's intervention, the Council polls would be postponed until after the Lok Sabha polls and the party would be spared the embarrassment of having to face the Lok Sabha elections after suffering a setback in a key State, he added.

As it turned out, a controversy did arise and the Election Commission intervened. However, the elections will now be held on January 11, a date closer to the Lok Sabha elections than the date fixed earlier was. This has made the BJP's position all the more uncomfortable.

The State Government and the BJP's organisational machinery have gone into overdrive after the Election Commission order. The contention is that the Opposition parties tried to scuttle an effort to decentralise development. The BJP argues that it only followed the Planning Commission's recommendations to allocate 11 per cent of the State's revenues to local bodies.

The S.P. seems to have better prospects in the Council polls; it hopes to win 17 to 20 seats. This would be a good score considering the fact that the party does not have the advantage of being in power. The BSP, which has fielded mainly upper-caste and backward caste candidates in an effort to add to its predominantly Dalit support base, is not very optimistic. The party leadership has demanded the postponement of the polls beyond the Lok Sabha elections.

THE run-up to the Council polls indicated that regional and local socio-political factors, rather than national issues, will dominate the Lok Sabha election campaign. The major parties have hit the Lok Sabha campaign trail. Leaders such as Atal Behari Vajpayee, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Kanshi Ram, Jitendra Prasada and Ajit Singh have addressed public meetings in different parts of the State and the issues that were highlighted at the meeting mostly related to Uttar Pradesh. Even the BJP, which has adopted the slogan of stability in New Delhi, tends to focus only on local issues such as the funding of the local bodies. The party proposes to take certain administrative measures that it hopes would help in its electioneering. One such measure could be a drive against corruption in the administration.

THE S.P. too is working on similar lines. It lays more stress on suitable social and caste equations than on the performance of the United Front Government and the unity of the Front. The party has a strong base among the backward-caste Yadavas and Muslims, and is happy that it retains the upper-caste votes it believes it has attracted from the BJP in the last one year. The S.P. has also been able to attract from both the BJP and the Congress(I) some leaders with influence in some pockets of the State. One of these leaders is Balram Singh Yadav, former president of the Uttar Pradesh Congress(I) Committee. He gave up years of opposition to S.P. president Mulayam Singh Yadav and hailed him as the hope of the country. Balram Singh Yadav claimed that his joining the S.P. would improve substantially the support Mulayam Singh Yadav enjoyed among Yadavas. This may not be fully true; however, Balram Singh Yadav's entry into the S.P. has further strengthened the party in central U.P., particularly in Etawah, Mainpuri and Farukhabad districts where the former Congress(I) leader has a following.

All these developments have, however, failed to answer the question whether new political alliances will emerge in the State. Balram Singh Yadav's admission into the S.P. is seen as an indication of the S.P.'s disinclination to have a formal election understanding with the Congress(I). The indications are that the party will fight the election in the company of its United Front constituents such as the Left parties and the Janata Dal. But some State Congress(I) leaders still expect an alliance. A senior leader said that Mulayam Singh Yadav's "positive response" to Sonia Gandhi's decision to campaign for the Congress(I) indicated the possibility of at least a tacit understanding in some constituencies.

Sonia Gandhi's decision is expected to bring about a change in the BSP's attitude towards the Congress(I), notwithstanding the repeated assertions of BSP leader Mayawati that the party will contest all the 85 Lok Sabha seats in the State. According to a senior BSP leader, Sonia's decision has invigorated the Congress(I)'s rank and file and led to rethinking in the BSP leadership about the need to strike an alliance. Mayawati's major objection to an alliance was that the Congress(I) would be a liability as an electoral partner. However, at least in the view of some BSP leaders close to party president Kanshi Ram, that situation has changed with Sonia's entry.

The BJP is beset with difficulties created by its alliance partners. The UPLC has demanded 15 Lok Sabha seats and the Samata Party has demanded 10. While refusing to oblige these parties, the BJP has put forward a proposal that the alliance partners contest on the BJP symbol. "Only the lotus has voter appeal," says State BJP president Rajnath Singh. The UPLC and the Samata Party have rejected this proposal.

With the announcement of the Lok Sabha election dates, the process of striking alliances and sharing seats will gain speed. But the major parties have still to surmount the hurdle of the January 11 elections to the Legislative Council. A clear picture of the political situation in Uttar Pradesh will emerge only after these elections.

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