The caste factor, together with the anti-incumbency sentiment, holds the key to the outcome of the U.P. Assembly elections.VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN in Lucknow
UTTAR PRADESH, the country's most populous State, is going through the rigours of the longest electoral battle in its history. It would witness a campaign stretching for more than two months, from late February to early May, and polling, in the 403 constituencies, spread over seven days in a 30-day period starting on April 7. The Election Commission is putting in place unprecedented security arrangements for this mammoth exercise.
Both the ruling Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the Opposition Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) have been in campaign mode for the past three months, while the two national parties, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), are trying to get their act together with some new initiatives. The most notable of these came from the Congress, which launched Rahul Gandhi, Lok Sabha member from Amethi and the son of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chairperson Sonia Gandhi, on a public meeting-cum-road show in the western and central parts of the State.
Within 48 hours of the launch, Rahul Gandhi presented the party with a first-class controversy by stating that the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992 would not have taken place if a "Gandhi was in the Prime Minister's chair". The young leader's attempt, obviously, was to make a forceful appeal to the minority Muslim community to turn towards the Gandhi-Nehru family and the Congress, but the statement raised more questions than it sought to answer. The country had a Congress Prime Minister then - P.V. Narasimha Rao - and the present Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, was the Finance Minister. The apparent question in this background was whether Rahul Gandhi was denying the very legacy of the 1992 Congress Ministry at the Centre. The induction of the Gandhi-Nehru family element in the statement was also castigated as an expression that smacked of feudalism and an anti-democratic streak. Given the adverse reactions, the Congress found it difficult to persist with the younger Gandhi's line of campaigning and stopped further movement in that direction.
The S.P. and the BJP, for their part, were wrought by internecine battles on the issue of ticket allocation. The fight within the BJP was between the factions led by national party president Rajnath Singh and former Chief Minister Kalyan Singh, with each faction trying to upstage the other. The party leadership as well as the ticket allocation committee were forced to stop allocating the ticket for many seats on account of this. According to BJP insiders, the scale of infighting is such that the upbeat mood among the cadre caused by the recent electoral victories in Uttarakhand and Punjab is dissipating steadily.
However, the most high-voltage internal strife was witnessed in the ruling S.P., which was relatively free from such implosions in earlier electoral campaigns. Former Union Minister and senior leader Beni Prasad Verma left the party and launched the Samajwadi Kranti Dal (SKD) because he was kept out of the candidate selection process even in his own constituency of Kaiserganj. Verma has even decided to contest the Assembly polls though he is an S.P. member of the Lok Sabha.
There is a growing feeling in political circles in the State that the revolt by as senior an S.P. leader as Verma is basically a reflection of the strong anti-incumbency sentiments against the Mulayam Singh Yadav-led government and the party that he leads. Whether this assessment is true or not, there is little doubt that the anti-incumbency sentiment is the strongest factor in the coming elections. Smaller parties such as the Jan Morcha, led by former Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh, and the Rashtriya Lok Dal, led by Ajit Singh (which was a partner in the government until January this year), have also trained their guns at the S.P. government. The fact that the present government has had the longest term for any Ministry in the State since 1991 could well accentuate the anti-incumbency feeling.
Central to the anti-incumbency feeling is the law and order situation. A number of incidents, ranging from the mass murder of children in Nithari in Noida to the unrest in the Lucknow University campus to the assaults on bureaucrats by local leaders of the S.P. in various parts of the State, have sharpened the focus on the issue. The deficiencies in power supply and the resultant impact on agriculture as well as domestic and commercial consumption is another rankling factor. Issues such as the disproportionate assets case against the Chief Minister and his family also aggravate the feeling.
The Opposition campaign against the ruling party is based on these issues. The S.P., on its part, is trying bravely to counter the campaign by highlighting the "development record" of its three-and-a-half-year-old government, the party's "proven commitment to the ideals of secularism" and the "ill-treatment meted out to the State government and the S.P. leadership by the Congress and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Ministry at the Centre". S.P. activists across the State aver that their party and its leader Mulayam Singh Yadav have been subjected to even worse slandering in earlier elections. "In 2002 Mulayam Singhji was branded an anti-national with nefarious international connections, while in 2004, the Congress accused him of having a tacit electoral understanding with the BJP. The party overcame these campaigns with resounding electoral victories. We shall do the same this time too," Janeshwar Mishra, veteran S.P. leader, told Frontline.
In a sense, the various campaign planks are derivatives of the ones used in the last major election in the State, the 2004 Lok Sabha polls. At that time, the S.P., the Congress and the BSP attacked the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government for its Hindutva-oriented policies. The difference this time around is that the focus has shifted to the record of the S.P. government.
But the moot question is whether these campaign issues will have any decisive effect on the electoral outcome. All elections (Assembly as well as Lok Sabha) in Uttar Pradesh since 1996 have demonstrated that the electorate is mainly motivated by caste considerations and votes are cast along those lines. Traditionally, the S.P.'s mainstay is the Yadav community, which belongs to the Other Backward Classes (OBC). It has some following among Kurmis, an OBC community, and among the Dalit Pasi community.
The BSP's principal support base is the Dalit Chamar community while the BJP derives support from the upper-caste Brahmin and Thakur communities. The latter also enjoys a not-so-negligible backing among OBC communities such as Lodhs and Kurmis. The Congress claims a small share of the upper-caste and Dalit votes.
With the objective of defeating the BJP, the minority Muslim community, which forms a decisive part of the electorate in a large number of constituencies, has exercised tactical voting in the elections since 1996. The results of past elections have shown that among the secular parties in the fray in the State, the S.P. has secured much of the community's support.
On the basis of their broad caste support bases, the S.P. and the BSP have, over the past decade, undertaken intricate caste-based permutations and combinations to enhance their winning chances. Since 1998, the S.P. has been portraying its general secretary Amar Singh as an emerging Thakur leader and giving the ticket to a number of Thakur candidates, thus weaning away a chunk of the Thakur vote from the BJP. The supplementary Thakur votes brought in by such individual candidates ensured the party's victory in many seats that were not otherwise winnable. The same strategy was more effectively implemented by BSP leaders Kanshi Ram and Mayawati - they used Brahmin candidates to wean away upper-caste votes from the BJP.
This strategising helped increase the vote and seat share of the S.P. and the BSP while effecting a proportional decrease in the share of the primarily upper-caste party, the BJP, in the last four elections in the State. The other national party, the Congress, got pushed into a state of fixed low score. In the 2002 Assembly elections, the S.P. emerged as the single largest party with 143 seats and a vote share of 25.37 per cent. The BSP won 98 seats with a vote share of 23.06 per cent. In 1996, the seat tally was 103 for the S.P. and 67 for the BSP. In the 2004 Lok Sabha polls, the S.P. and the BSP increased their vote shares to 26.74 per cent and 24.67 per cent respectively.
On the other hand, the seat tally of the BJP and its allies fell from 157 in 1996 to 109 in 2002, of which the BJP's share was 88. The seats won by the Congress came down from 33 in 1996 to 26 in 2002. The BJP's vote share fell from 32.52 per cent in 1996 to 20.08 per cent in 2002. In the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP slightly improved its vote share to 22.17 per cent. The Congress, which had approximately a 9 per cent vote share in 1996 and 2002, increased its share to 12.04 per cent in the 2004 Lok Sabha polls.
Given this background, the most important question now is whether this trend will change in 2007. Certainly, in the early stages of the campaign there are no indications that this will happen. However, the BSP's slogan of Dalit-Brahmin unity, which party leader Mayawati has been espousing for the past two years, is bound to augment the party's vote and seat share. Mayawati has projected Brahmin leader Satish Chandra Mishra as the Number Two in the party and has also given as many as 88 seats to Brahmin candidates. A large number of these candidates are reportedly strong on money and muscle power. The BSP has also the advantage, compared with the other parties in the fray, of being the least affected by internal dissent.
But, at the same time, Mayawati alienated large sections of her Muslim support base recently by branding the whole community as one influenced by extremist and fundamentalist views. The S.P., on the other hand, has used even international issues, such as the Manmohan Singh regime's diffidence to support Iran in its spirited stand against the United States and its failure to condemn strongly Saddam Hussein's assassination to strengthen its bond with the Muslim community. However, sections of the minority community are upset with the Mulayam Singh Yadav government for not issuing fresh notifications on the Babri Masjid demolition case, which would have led to the prosecution of BJP leaders such as L.K. Advani.
Obviously, there are no overriding issues that would help any one of the parties in the fray to secure a decisive number of seats in the Assembly, though the BSP seemed to have the upper hand in the early stages of the campaign. The campaign of the two national parties, despite the shrill noises made by them against the S.P. government, does not point towards any strategy to get ahead of the S.P. and the BSP.
Since the 1993 elections, when the S.P. and the BSP fought jointly and emerged as big players in State politics, Uttar Pradesh has repeatedly thrown up hung verdicts. If early indications from the electoral scene are anything to go by, the State will repeat this performance.