Assembly elections: Uttar Pradesh

Tall claims, latent fears

Print edition : February 17, 2017

Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav addressing a Samajwadi Party election rally in Sultanpur on January 24. Photo: PTI

BJP national president Amit Shah. There is resentment in the State unit over his choice of party candidates. Photo: V. Sudershan

The Samajwadi Party and the Congress announced their alliance in Lucknow on January 22. Here, State Congress chief Raj Babbar (right) and S.P. State chief Naresh Uttam (middle), with senior S.P. leader Kiran Nanda at the press conference. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

BSP supremo Mayawati. Photo: PTI

As Uttar Pradesh goes into campaign mode, confusion prevails on the ground even as leaders of all major parties exude confidence.

A PATTERN of tall claims from the pulpit in combination with organisational confusion on the ground seems to be the hallmark of campaigning in the 2017 Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh. Even before the formal announcement of the elections, this was evident in the conduct of all the three major contestants—the ruling Samajwadi Party (S.P.), which recently aligned with the Congress; the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which was the principal opposition in the Assembly; and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) , which made an impressive showing in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The singular absence of an overpowering election factor or issue adds to this unique political situation.

The leaders of the major parties had expressed confidence that this state of disconsonancy would be set right once the candidates were finalised and their organisational machinery was pressed into serious campaigning. However, the situation remains the same, and in some cases has been made worse, after the filing of nominations. Campaigns are under way for the elections scheduled for the first two phases of polling on February 11 and 15. The elections in the State will be held in seven phases concluding on March 8.

S.P.: Hopes and fears

The S.P.’s manifestation of confidence and confusion has been striking. Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav presented a picture of supreme confidence in his first election rally, at Sultanpur on January 24, following the formal announcement of the party’s alliance with the Congress. He claimed that the party on its own would win 250 of the 403 seats and that the combined tally of the S.P. and the Congress would cross 300. He also said that the alliance with the Congress was initiated only to ensure that secular votes did not get split and thus benefit the “communal” BJP and its associates. The alliance, however, was struck after much turbulence in the negotiations between the two parties. Even after the alliance was formalised, there were intermittent eruptions of rebellion within the two parties on different aspects of the political understanding.

The alliance had been anticipated for a good three months, but the discussions actually got rolling only in the third week of January after Akhilesh Yadav’s faction was notified as the real S.P. by the Election Commission of India (ECI) and granted the party’s cycle symbol. Until then, the S.P. was in a state of continuous tumult with Akhilesh Yadav and his father, Mulayam Singh Yadav, waging a battle for supremacy. Akhilesh had shown his strength even before the ECI order as the majority of the party’s legislators and office-bearers across the State rallied round him. The formal presentation of this domination through affidavits and other legal documents led the ECI to give its verdict in the Chief Minister’s favour.

The talks between the Congress and the S.P. were not smooth also because right from the beginning there was the impression that the grand old party of India was bargaining beyond its real worth. They almost collapsed on January 21 when the Congress asserted that it would not accept anything fewer than 125 seats, whereas the S.P. was ready to give only 99. The Congress also wanted to fight all the 10 seats in its traditional strongholds of Amethi and Rae Bareli, though the S.P. had won seven of them in the last Assembly elections. The S.P. apparently offered half of those 10 seats. Finally, negotiations at the highest levels late into that night led to a compromise that gave 105 seats to the Congress.

But the confusion did not end there, for the S.P. had already fielded its own candidates in 28 of the seats allotted to the Congress. Many of these candidates have refused to withdraw from the race. The Mulayam-Shivpal Yadav faction, which was squarely defeated in the inner-party tussle, are apparently backing these “dissidents”. By all indications, the Amethi-Rae Bareli seat-sharing imbroglio has not been resolved and could ultimately lead to what is euphemistically called “friendly fights” in political parlance. It is against this background that the S.P. is preparing to face the first two phases of polling in western Uttar Pradesh. It is a region where the party is traditionally not strong because of the numerical weakness of the Yadavs, an Other Backward Class (OBC) community, unlike in other regions of the State where the Muslim-Yadav combination provides a strong base.

The S.P. allied itself with the Congress to overcome this weakness in western Uttar Pradesh, political activists and observers feel. The alliance is expected to get a section of the upper castes, especially Brahmins, to vote for it. This, in turn, is expected to consolidate the Muslim vote because the minority community has a history of tactically shifting towards whichever political formation is capable of defeating the BJP. In the past, minority voters of western Uttar Pradesh preferred the BSP with its strong base among Dalits, especially the Jatav community among the Scheduled Castes. The S.P. hopes that this time the alliance with the Congress and Akhilesh Yadav’s positive image will turn the minority votes in its favour. Some voices from the ground also reflect this expectation. But there is also the apprehension that if the combine is not able to draw a significant segment of the minority votes in western Uttar Pradesh, it may trigger a chain reaction in the central, eastern and Bundelkhand regions, which go to polls in later phases.

BSP losing ground to BJP

It is too early to predict how these hopes and apprehensions will actually play out in reality. But there is little denying that the BSP is no longer the well-organised political outfit that it was in the first decade of the 2000s. The party has been steadily losing ground, especially to the BJP, since its defeat in the 2012 Assembly elections. The BJP, on the other hand, has worked steadily to build up a huge Hindutva-oriented vote base in the non-Yadav OBC and Most Backward Caste (MBC) communities and among the non-Jatav Dalit communities on the basis of an anti-minority, pan-Hindu social and political agenda. The gains made by the BJP on this plank were strikingly manifest in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. In fact, a segment of the Jatav voters, the core support base of the BSP, also drifted to the BJP in that election. This trend is evident in many of the western Uttar Pradesh constituencies going to polls in the first phases in February. Many Dalit voters in constituencies such as Thana Bhawan in Shamli district, and Shahbad and Sikandrabad in Bulundshahar district blamed the BSP leadership’s growing distance from the people for this depletion of support.

A group of college students of Agra, belonging to different Dalit sub-castes, told Frontline that they had expected the BSP leadership to take up issues like the suicide of Rohith Vemula of Hyderabad and the flogging incident at Una in Gujarat to galvanise the Dalit population of Uttar Pradesh. “But nothing of that sort happened,” one of them said. “This election would have been a sure-shot win for the BSP if the party leadership had taken up such issues. Now, leaders like Mayawati continue to talk rhetorically about easily winning a majority, but at the ground level the BSP cadre does not exude similar confidence.”

BJP: tall talk & angry murmurs

The situation in the BJP, too, is one of striking discordance between tall claims and creeping trepidation. Top leaders, starting from BJP national president Amit Shah, talk about winning 300-plus seats. Their primary argument is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political brand value has become stronger following the demonetisation exercise and that this should lead to a repeat of 2014, when the party won 71 Lok Sabha seats on its own and helped its ally Apna Dal win another two seats. Cumulatively, this victory in 73 seats translated into a lead in over 325 Assembly segments. The party leadership also calculates that the broad consolidation of non-Yadav OBC-MBC communities and non-Jatav Dalit communities holds good three years into the Modi regime. There is also the calculation that the Chief Minister’s positive image will get neutralised by the constant complaints about the dominance of anti-social and criminal elements during the S.P. regime. However, party workers, and even district-level BJP leaders, do not buy into this optimistic projection. They point to the mixed social reactions to demonetisation and the widespread lampooning of the “Ache Din” (good days) slogan coined by Modi during the 2014 elections.

There are other problems. A large number of regional leaders across the State have started complaining about the arbitrary selection of candidates by a small, arrogant group led by Amit Shah. A senior leader based in Lucknow said: “The first list of 149 for the first and second phases of elections is a complete travesty of all the established norms and practices in the selection of candidates normally followed in the BJP. Remember, similar violations and haughtiness were observed in Bihar, too, and we all know what happened there.” He added that a sizable number of regional and local leaders and BJP voters were upset with the way in which relatives of politicians were given the party ticket. Pankaj Singh, son of Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, and Mriganka Singh, daughter of the veteran BJP MP Hukum Singh, are among those who have thus benefited in western Uttar Pradesh. Vimlesh Paswan, brother of the BJP’s Bansgaon MP Kamlesh Paswan, and Salempur MP Ravindra Kushwaha’s brother Jainath have got the party ticket in eastern Uttar Pradesh.

Santosh Mishra, once a resolute Brahmin supporter of the party in western Uttar Pradesh, said: “While the BJP has promised to put an end to dynasty politics, it is doing exactly the opposite. Amit Shah is listening to wrong counsel of local leaders. We will ensure the BJP does not win from our seat this time.”

Sections of the BJP also feel that some senior leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the BJP have decided to take on the haughtiness of the “Big Two” by embarking on a sabotage mission. The RSS ideologue Manmohan Vaidya’s comment that it is not caste-based reservation but opportunities that the oppressed communities need is seen as indicative of this mission. Those who believe that a conspiracy is afoot point to a similar statement by the RSS leader Mohan Bhagwat in the run-up to the Bihar elections, which had serious consequences. Similarly, the sidelined former State president Vinay Katiyar’s disparaging and sexist comment on Priyanka Gandhi is suspected to be a deliberate ploy to pull down the BJP.

As the State prepares for the first round of polling, confusion on the ground and high expectations seem to mark the situation in all the major parties. Some political observers believe, however, that the trends in the first two rounds of polling will turn the tide one way or the other.

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