ARE we taking one step forward to take two steps backward or are we moving one step backward to take two steps forward? a State Mahila Congress leader wondered aloud, looking at the scores of agitated party workers outside the Uttar Pradesh Congress Committee (UPCC) office on the afternoon of July 16.
The obvious reference was to the events of the past two days: the arrest of UPCC president Rita Bahuguna Joshi for making objectionable comments against Chief Minister Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the burning down of a portion of Rita Joshis house in Lucknow allegedly by BSP activists, and the demonstrations in protest against it by Congress workers in different parts of the State. Evidently, the leaders words smacked of confusion as to which way the political balance would tilt in Uttar Pradesh.
Many other senior party functionaries that Frontline interacted with expressed similar sentiments. The response of the Congress central leadership, including party president Sonia Gandhi and general secretary Rahul Gandhi, to the episode also reflected this. Putting up a defence for the State party chief, they alleged that Mayawatis government had failed to protect the interests of women and other underprivileged sections of society, as Rita Joshi had pointed out rightly. They also held that the Mayawati government was high-handed in its approach to opposition leaders.
However, the Gandhis termed the tone and tenor of Rita Joshis statement against Mayawati as inappropriate. Her speech on Mayawati, made in the context of giving compensation to Dalit rape victims, turned out to be controversial. It is the extremist streak in Rita Joshis speech that has raised the backward or forward query in the leadership and a large number of party activists.
This confusion was compounded by the ground-level political response to the speech. The arrest of the UPCC president certainly did galvanise a section of Congress workers. But at the same time Rita Joshis speech angered a significant chunk of BSP activists, who felt the need to spring to their leaders defence. The BSP rank and file, in many parts of the State, had become more or less inactive after the partys failure to make expected gains in the Lok Sabha elections held a few months ago, but all that changed as they reacted angrily to Rita Joshis anti-Mayawati speech.
Many BSP Ministers and leaders in Uttar Pradesh feel the Joshi slur on Mayawati was a godsend when the Chief Minister was desperately trying to reassert the BSPs Dalit credentials and reactivate the partys core cadre. Mayawatis assessment after the reverses in the Lok Sabha elections was that the party had overplayed its Dalit-Brahmin bhaichara (Dalit-Brahmin brotherhood) card and needed to tone it down. Polling figures indicated that a sizable number of Brahmins had gone over to the Congress, breaking their affiliation with the BSP which was evident in the Assembly elections held in 2007. This was one of the reasons that contributed to the partys plans to reassert its Dalit credentials and reactivate its core cadre.
Mayawati took a number of steps in order to push her plan forward. A significant move in this direction was to divest Satish Chandra Mishra, the partys tallest Brahmin leader, of all political responsibilities. This was intended to send a message to the partys core support base of Dalits that the BSP was essentially theirs. She also restructured a number of district organisational units, emphasising the Dalit character of the party. The BSP workers reaction to Rita Joshis speech supplemented these efforts.
In the Congress camp, a number of its State leaders feel that Rita Joshis speech could be detrimental to some of the organisational plans formulated by the party after the Lok Sabha elections. The principal thrust of the plans was on strengthening the base of the party among the upper-caste Brahmin and Thakur communities as well as in the Muslim minority.
Brahmins and Muslims had moved towards the party in large numbers in the Lok Sabha elections and a section of Thakurs had also followed suit. The calculation was that with the right efforts, the party would be able to win back the support of a section of Dalits too, particularly those belonging to non-Jatav castes. (Mayawati belongs to the Jatav caste.)
In fact, Rita Joshis initiatives in Moradabad, where she made the controversial speech, were aimed apparently at attracting non-Jatav Dalit communities.
Now that the speech has spiralled out of control, Congress leaders are not sure whether they will be able to achieve this. Still, some leaders close to Rita Joshi assert that Hemvati Nandan Bahugunas daughter has come up with a shrewd and calibrated initiative through the speech and that it would propel a sizable chunk of anti-Mayawati forces, including many fence-sitters, to rally around the Congress. They maintain that her effort was for the party to emerge as the principal opposition to the ruling BSP.
The moves by the two parties become all the more significant in view of the byelections that are due in a couple of months. Thirteen seats are vacant in the Assembly; elections to four of them, Malihabad, Moradabad West, Bidhuna and Morena, will be held on August 18. The remaining seats including the Barthana seat, which was vacated by former Chief Minister and Samajwadi Party (S.P.) president Mulayam Singh Yadav following his election to Parliament; the Kushi Nagar and Jhansi seats, which Congress leaders R.P.N. Singh and Pradeep Jain vacated to contest the Lok Sabha elections successfully; and the Rari seat of BSP leader Dhananjay Singh will go to polls later.
In addition, there will be byelections to the Ferozabad Lok Sabha seat, which was vacated by S.P. leader Akhilesh Yadav, who was elected from Kannauj too.
The Congress held only two of the 13 Assembly seats, and the party aims to improve this tally. For the BSP, failure to retain its three seats is unthinkable. The Bharatiya Janata Party, too, had three MLAs (one of them, Kolasala MLA Ajay Rai, joined the S.P.) among the 13. The saffron party, however, does not expect a miracle to happen in the present political situation.
In the numbers game, the byelections will be crucial for the S.P., which held five of these seats. The principal opposition party in the State, it is, however, not ready to look at the elections as a battle for prestige. By all indications, the partys leadership is aware that a section of its Muslim votes could shift to the Congress.
According to a senior S.P. leader, the party, at the moment, is in waiting mode and is drawing medium- and long-term plans. These could involve a political association with the Congress. The comments of Akhilesh Yadav, president of the partys Uttar Pradesh unit, in the wake of Rita Joshis arrest gave an indication of this. He said the Congress, as the ruling party at the Centre, should decide whether to ally with the despotic BSP or the democratic S.P.
The S.P. leadership is of the view that Rita Joshis campaign against Mayawati will not be sufficient to make the Congress the rallying point of the opposition forces, as some Congress leaders in the State visualise. To start with, the Congress has no unified organisational machinery in the State and, except Rahul Gandhi, they do not have any leader with popular appeal across the State. The controversy created by Rita Joshi is too small an issue to have a widespread impact, said a senior S.P. leader.
Clearly, all the major parties in Uttar Pradesh are in a state of flux in spite of the heat and dust generated by the Rita Joshi speech. In all probability, the byelections will signal what direction the politics of the countrys most populous State will take in the days to come.