Uttar Pradesh

State of flux

Print edition : February 03, 2017

Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav at the flagging-off function of the Samajwadi Vikas Rath Yatra at Lucknow on November 3, 2016. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

BSP chief Mayawati and party leader S.C. Mishra at a press conference at the party office in Lucknow on January 3. Photo: Nand Kumar /PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with BJP's national president Amit Shah at the BJP Parivartan Rally in Lucknow on January 2. Photo: Nand Kumar /PTI

Major political parties in Uttar Pradesh swing between confidence and doubt in the run-up to the Assembly elections in the context of the tussle in the Samajwadi Party and the aftermath of demonetisation.

IT is a unique mixture of confidence and uncertainty that permeates the major political forces in Uttar Pradesh, the most populous State in India, ahead of the Assembly elections to be held in seven phases between February 11 and March 8. The manifestations of this are such that different sections of the three important players—the ruling Samajwadi Party (S.P.), the principal opposition Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which came to power at the Centre in 2014 aided by a stupendous victory in the Lok Sabha election in the State—reflect confidence and scepticism alternately. Factors that boost confidence and instil scepticism also alternately dominate the political and organisational set-up in these organisations from time to time. Of course, they play out with different dimensions and nuances in each of the three parties. The interplay of confidence and doubt within the S.P.’s political and organisational spaces revolves essentially around two factors. The first is the track record of the Akhilesh Yadav government, especially the personal style and drive of the young Chief Minister, which is widely acknowledged as commendable. And the second, the fierce internecine tussle within the party in the last six months, which has acquired unprecedented proportions with the Chief Minister and his father, S.P. founder Mulayam Singh Yadav, battling each other for control over the party organisation and the power to allocate seats to candidates. In the early stages, the perception was that the tussle was between the Chief Minister and his Cabinet colleague Shivpal Yadav, who is also the younger brother of Mulayam Singh Yadav, but as it gathered momentum with manoeuvres and counter-manoeuvres and expulsions and counter-expulsions of supporters on both sides, the contours of a much bigger conflict became visible. Mulayam Singh Yadav’s cousin and Rajya Sabha member Ramgopal Yadav positioned himself with Akhilesh Yadav and guided many of the moves of that faction.

Akhilesh Yadav’s popularity

However, the S.P. leadership exudes confidence because there is a consensus among political commentators that Akhilesh Yadav rates as one of the Chief Ministers who have generated the least anti-incumbency sentiment in the electoral history of the State. Popular opinion on the performance of his government also matches this, with its work on improving electricity and road connectivity, especially rural road connectivity, receiving across-the-board appreciation. There have been no allegations of corruption against the Chief Minister and whenever his colleagues faced charges, Akhilesh Yadav was quick to initiate inquiry and, at times, punitive action. Of course, as in the case of all S.P. governments in the State, the track record on law and order came in for criticism, but even here some of the final-year initiatives of the government, such as the functioning of an IT-enabled dial 100 system and special measures to restrict harassment of women, were perceived as being effective.

The net result of all this is reflected in the pre-poll surveys carried out by different agencies, including the media. In every survey, Akhilesh Yadav has emerged as the most popular choice for Chief Minister, with a support share of 30 to 40 per cent. Other contenders, including BSP chief Mayawati and BJP leaders Rajnath Singh and Yogi Adityanath, have a support share in the range of 18 to 29 per cent.

In a sense, the internal tussle in the S.P. was also perceived by large sections of the population as an extension of the Chief Minister’s efforts to eradicate the image of the party as being “lawless”. Both S.P. workers and sections of non-partisan observers point out that a dimension of the dispute is about accommodating leaders with known criminal records, such as Atique Ahmed and Mukhtar Ansari, in the party. Akhilesh Yadav has taken an open stance against giving space for such leaders. He had taken a similar position in 2012 too when he denied the party ticket to D.P. Yadav, a leader from western Uttar Pradesh who is known as “Bahubali Neta” (muscleman politician).

Sunil Yadav, a close associate of the Chief Minister who was expelled from official positions in the government and the party as part of the internal tussle, said: “Akhilesh ji wants to clean the party and its government of goondagardi, tanashahi aur len-den ki rajneeti [hooliganism, autocracy and wheeler-dealing] as he understands that this is what the people, especially the young people of the State, want. He knows that this is what is required for the better future for the State as well as the party. And that is exactly why his stance has resonated with an overwhelming majority.”

As things unfolded in the last week of December 2016 and the first week of January 2017, Sunil Yadav’s contention on the overwhelming support enjoyed by Akhilesh Yadav in the party got underscored. After he was anointed the national president of the S.P., replacing Mulayam Singh Yadav, the balance of power within the party shifted dramatically in his favour. As party vice president Kiranmoy Nanda put it succinctly, 99 per cent of the MLAs, 96 per cent of the MPs and 90 per cent of the executive members of the national committee support Akhilesh Yadav. Technically, the takeover by Akhilesh Yadav as party national president meant there was a split with Mulayam Singh Yadav terming the convention that effected the organisational change “unconstitutional”. It also led to both factions making claims before the Election Commission of India for the long-standing party symbol, “cycle”. Even as the arguments on this is going on, the dominance of Akhilesh Yadav in the S.P. is evident. As many as 220 of the 229 MLAs of the party have reportedly signed up in his favour.

However, despite this the fact remains that at the ground level the S.P. has not been able to begin its election campaign effectively. Nor has it been able to give out firm indications on the selection of candidates. Evidently, this is the primary factor that has accentuated the scepticism within the S.P. After the elevation of Akhilesh Yadav as national president, there were several rounds of conciliatory talks between Mulayam Singh Yadav and him. Apparently, the senior Yadav agreed to allow Akhilesh Yadav to have the final call on allocation of seats but wanted the national president’s post to be returned to him. However, team Akhilesh Yadav was not ready for this. According to a senior leader, a few BJP agents had smuggled themselves into the good books of “Netaji” (Mulayam Singh Yadav) and their aim was to destroy the S.P. “So, we shall accede to his request only after the elections are over,” the leader said.

Evidently, the state of flux has put back the S.P.’s campaign on the ground. So much so that S.P. workers across the State aver that it would require Herculean efforts from the party, particularly its main vote-catcher Akhilesh Yadav, to drive home the advantage from the lack of the anti-incumbency factor. There is also apprehension about the persistence of the split during the elections, driving large segments of the Muslim support base of the party to the BSP and a segment of even the Yadav voters—the core base of the party—to the BJP.

Growing disconnect in

the BSP

Under normal circumstances, this sense of disarray in the S.P. should have benefited the principal opposition, the BSP. However, a number of factors seem to be limiting the party’s efforts to take advantage of the situation. First, the connect between the top leadership of the BSP, dominated by the personality of Mayawati, and the lower hierarchy is no longer as creative and effective as it used to be. BSP activists across Uttar Pradesh complain about this growing disconnect. The desertion of a clutch of State-level leaders from the party, including former State president Swami Prasad Maurya and former national secretary R.K. Chaudhary, was indicative of this sense of unrest.

However, Mayawati has sought to overcome these reverses by making her party the first major political force to announce its list of candidates. The BSP’s list for 401 out of the 403 seats in the State contains 97 Muslims, 87 Dalits, 106 Other Backward Class (OBCs) members and 113 upper-caste candidates of whom 66 are Brahmins and 36 are Thakurs.

The emphasis on a higher number of seats to the Muslim community and the upper castes is in keeping with her aim to add other community votes to the party’s core constituency of Dalits. This was a tactic that worked for the BSP in 2007 when it won the election on the slogan of “Dalit-Brahmin Bhaichara” (Dalit-Brahmin fraternity). However, the Dalit base of the BSP has undergone fluctuations since 2013 when the Hindutva communal polarisation engineered by the BJP and its allied organisations in the Sangh Parivar led by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) drew to it sizable sections of Dalit communities. This Dalit consolidation under Hindutva suffered reverses after the suicide of the research scholar RohithVemula in University of Hyderabad and the resultant national outrage it caused against the Narendra Modi-led BJP government at the Centre. Still, given its diminished connect with the grass roots, the BSP leadership has not been able to quantify exactly how far this disillusionment with the BJP is working in its favour.

Overly confident BJP

On its part, the top leadership of the BJP, including Prime Minister Modi and national president Amit Shah, has been predicting a stupendous victory for the party in the Assembly elections. Leaders have even quoted publicly and at inner-party functions the number of seats the BJP is likely to win. Apparently, in a party meeting Modi put the figure at 275 out of 403 while Amit Shah has talked about 300 plus seats. The recently appointed State BJP president Keshav Prasad Maurya went one step ahead and said in a public meeting that the party’s tally would cross 330 seats.

Top BJP leaders say that these projections are based upon a number of factors. To start with, these leaders say the BJP had commissioned as many as eight surveys by different agencies, which uniformly recorded this trend. They further argue that the primary reason for this confidence is the calculation that the sociopolitical factors that influenced the outcome of the 2014 Lok Sabha election remain more or less unchanged. A combination of Hindutva polarisation on the one side and a hyperdriven campaign on the development-man image of Modi on the other gave the BJP and its allies 73 out of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in the State and an astounding 42.03 per cent of the vote.

In the Assembly elections after 2014, the BJP lost an average of 10 percentage points. It was the highest in Delhi, where it lost close to 12 percentage points. In other States such as Bihar, Jharkhand and Haryana the loss was 7 to 9 percentage points. “If this is the yardstick, even if we lose close to 10 percentage points in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP will romp home in the first-past-the-post electoral system that we have. More importantly, Prime Minister Modi’s demonetisation drive has evoked such support that we may even see a revival of the Modi magic in 2017, though it had dipped in 2015 when the BJP lost Delhi and Bihar,” said a national BJP leader closely associated with the election work in Uttar Pradesh. In his opinion demonetisation has recast Modi’s political identity as a socialist seeking to help the poor by punishing the rich.

However, this cocky assuredness that is manifest at the top level of the party leadership is not reflected at the level of Lok Sabha members, Legislative Assembly members and party functionaries on the ground. In fact, these segments of party activists have sought to flag some concerns they face on the ground, especially on account of demonetisation. “This drive has given rise to a situation where the commonest of common people are using expletives against Modi and the central regime. What electoral impact it will have needs to be seen,” a senior BJP leader based in Lucknow told Frontline. A group of Lok Sabha members from eastern Uttar Pradesh apparently sought to raise this aspect of the demonetisation decision in a meeting with Amit Shah a couple of weeks ago, but they were reportedly put down rudely by Shah.

The Lucknow-based leader pointed out that the BJP had lost almost all Assembly byelections since 2014, including seats vacated by leaders who went on to become Lok Sabha members. “Down the line in the party,” he said, “there is a creeping feeling that the top party leadership is missing out on some X factors, including the wide acceptance of Akhilesh Yadav cutting across the caste and communal divide.” According to the leader, this sense persists despite many survey results showing a sweep by the party.

Other players

Evidently, there is a strange balance of hope and fear in all major political players in the State. Amidst all this are two other, not-so-major, players, the Congress and the Rashtriya Lok Dal, each of whom has realised that its efforts at building its own political constituency and vote base have not resulted in tangible gains. Both parties are looking forward to forging alliances with the S.P. It remains to be seen how far the S.P. will be able to respond to their overtures given the unrest within its own leadership and rank and file.

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