Assembly elections

Not a one-man show

Print edition : February 17, 2017

“IT is as though our elections have come back to normal. Unlike the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and the elections in 2012 to the Assembly, this time it is not dictated by a single overwhelming factor. In 2014 it was a Modi aandhi [storm] where no other factor mattered. In 2012, it was a popular surge to defeat the then incumbent Bahujan Samaj Party [BSP] and its Chief Minister, Mayawati. But this time around there are multiple issues and factors with national, State-wide, regional and even micro-local import playing out in different parts of Uttar Pradesh and across different constituencies. And once again, caste and community alignments have become central to the elections and they have varying dimensions from region to region.”

These words of Ashok Chaudhary, a farmer from Sikandrabad in western Uttar Pradesh, aptly summed up the thematic contours of the election scenario in the country’s most populous State. The Frontline team had sought responses from voters across scores of constituencies spread over 11 districts from Lucknow in central Uttar Pradesh to Ghaziabad in western Uttar Pradesh, adjoining New Delhi. Quite a few of them expressed similar opinions, but Chaudhary’s summing up was the most succinct.

The “multiple issues and factors” that he mentioned may be listed thus: the State government’s performance under Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party (S.P.); the Narendra Modi government’s performance at the Centre; the personality dimensions of the two leaders; the fallout of the recent demonetisation; efforts at communal polarisation, essentially advanced by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Sangh Parivar led by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS); issues relating to the agrarian crisis, especially those of sugar cane farmers; the efforts of the BSP to win back and regroup sections of the Dalit electorate that had drifted away in 2014 under the impact of the Modi wave; the internal wrangling in the S.P. between the faction led by Akhilesh Yadav and that led by his father, Mulayam Singh Yadav, and uncle Shivpal Yadav. How people look at these issues and react to them is unmistakably coloured by caste considerations.

Government performance

It is generally accepted across the State that Akhilesh Yadav’s governance, especially at the level of expanding social welfare projects and building up infrastructure, is commendable. However, there is widespread criticism of his government’s track record in law and order and in handling the agrarian crisis. Still, Akhilesh Yadav’s regime seems to be appreciated more than the Modi government. The general consensus is that there has been no substantive fulfilment of Modi’s “Ache Din” (good days) promise. While a section of his erstwhile supporters are so disillusioned that they see him as a jumlebaaz (trickster) given to loud-mouthed proclamations, a larger segment of the people Frontline spoke to perceive him as a well-meaning leader who is taking earnest, though not completely successful, measures. “He inherited such major problems from the earlier governments. Wait for some more time, he will still make good the promise of Ache Din,” argued Sanjay Bakshi, a small-time businessman from Lucknow.

Such contradictory responses are also heard on demonetisation. Interacting with Frontline, merchants at the Moradabad market, almost to a man, vociferously criticised demonetisation as a thoughtless and reckless move that smashed business prospects in the current year. They clearly signalled a moving away from Modi and the BJP. But in Malihabad, known as the mango capital of the country, Radhey Shyam Maurya, who runs a small-time carpentry enterprise, was of the view that demonetisation was a decisive move to clean up the finance sector. A more interesting take came from Ram Ashray, a Dalit labourer at Shahbad: “There are problems caused by demonetisation, but the big shots are facing the biggest problems.” That the rich were in a fix would ultimately benefit the poor, Ram Ashray felt.

Voters across the 11 districts of central and western Uttar Pradesh felt that the Hindutva drive for communal polarisation was not as powerful this time as it was in 2014. In western Uttar Pradesh’s Sardhana, Ainuddin Shah of the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) said that people had seen through the games of Sangeet Som of the BJP and Atul Pradhan of the S.P. who were putting all their efforts into polarising Hindus and Muslims. Still, the districts of western Uttar Pradesh, close to Muzaffarnagar and Shamli, which witnessed horrific riots in 2013 and continue to simmer with Hindu-Muslim tension, do reflect a certain degree of communal polarisation. Reports from some eastern Uttar Pradesh districts like Gorakhpur and Azamgarh also suggest that the communal divide is an important factor in a number of seats.

Agrarian crisis

On the crucial question of handling the agrarian crisis, no political organisation has any sympathy from the State’s sizable agricultural community. In large parts of western Uttar Pradesh, the double burden of demonetisation and delayed payments by sugar cane mills have made people disillusioned with both the S.P. and the BJP.

“I have one acre of land but live on the kindness of my sons who work in the city. I can show you many households that own several acres but have no money to buy winter clothes. They sleep huddled in one room under covers made of sugar cane skin,” said Rambeer Singh of Hastinapur. He voted for the BJP in 2014 but is now mobilising farmers to vote for a new party called the Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Party. A number of farmer suicides, including the recent one by Jaibeer Singh at Khatoli in Muzaffarnagar in January (he shot his daughter and wife and then himself with a pistol), keep the anger simmering against both the Central and State governments among farmers.

As for the BSP, farmers and agricultural labourers are of the view that the party leadership has not taken up the agricultural crisis in earnest. “Our leaders, including Mayawati ji, have distanced themselves from the people so much that they do not evoke the kind of confidence they did before 2014,” said one of a group of Dalit youngsters that Frontline met at Goherni village in Shamli. But they added that they would still vote for the BSP. This mood among core Dalit communities is making the BSP’s comeback efforts increasingly difficult.

The other big organisation-related factor is the infighting in the S.P. With the near-total domination of Akhilesh Yadav in all spheres of the party, there is greater organisational cohesion in the S.P. now than earlier. But, as is evident, that by itself will not be the ultimate deciding factor in the 2017 elections.

Venkitesh Ramakrishnan and Divya Trivedi