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Uttar Pradesh elections

Waiting for the Akhilesh era

Print edition : Mar 25, 2022 T+T-
Akhilesh Yadav, Samajwadi Party president, addresses an election rally in Mau on March 4.

Akhilesh Yadav, Samajwadi Party president, addresses an election rally in Mau on March 4.

Suhaib Ansari, nephew of Mukhtar Ansari, campaigns in Malikpura village in Mohammadabad, where he is contesting on the Samajwadi Party ticket.

Suhaib Ansari, nephew of Mukhtar Ansari, campaigns in Malikpura village in Mohammadabad, where he is contesting on the Samajwadi Party ticket.

Sangeeta Bind of the BJP campaigns in Ghazipur Sadar where she is seeking re-election.

Sangeeta Bind of the BJP campaigns in Ghazipur Sadar where she is seeking re-election.

The undercurrents of Hindutva and Narendra Modi’s sway over the poor through sops have the potential to help the BJP in Uttar Pradesh, but the Samajwadi Party, with its fervent campaign centred on livelihood issues, is putting up an energetic fight.

A narrow, earthen track snakes through the barren fields of Bharuhana, a village deep inside Mirzapur district roughly 60 kilometres north-west of the temple town of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh. Emaciated cattle tied to trees in the vicinity of scattered thatched houses, some of which are crumbling, betray the penury of its inhabitants. Red flags of the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) are everywhere, atop huts, on bicycle handlebars and at the enclosure surrounding hand pumps.

Bittu Yadav, a nonchalant 12-year-old, says he will vote for Akhilesh bhaiya , eliciting laughter among older men. Undeterred, he recounts his ordeal: “It is two years of no school. There are online classes, but few have smartphones.” His cousin Chetan, who is old enough to vote, shares his yearning for change. He says there are no jobs and that price rise is hitting people hard, prompting youths like him, who voted overwhelmingly for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2017, to spurn it. Many of them listen avidly on television to Akhilesh bhaiya, as S.P. president Akhilesh Yadav is called.

Disillusionment with the BJP

The sense of disillusionment with the BJP, which has been the dominant force in Uttar Pradesh since the 2014 national election, manifests itself unmistakably in the hinterland. In Salempur village in Mohammadabad, where five-time legislator Mukhtar Ansari’s nephew Suhaib Ansari is in the fray on the S.P. ticket, three septuagenarian men talk glumly about issues that affect their grandchildren’s future: education, unemployment and price rise. They say they want the S.P.-led alliance to win but are cautious in their optimism. “The BJP is a big party,” one of them sighs crestfallen.

Their apprehensions are not unfounded. Belying the widespread discontent against inflation and lack of jobs are the government’s generous sops and cash incentives to the poor. An interaction with several low-income group families across Ghazipur and Jaunpur revealed that they were inclined to overlook the Adityanath government’s lapses because “he has been giving us free ration ever since the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in March 2020. He has built roads.” The government’s pro-poor schemes such as Ujjwala (to provide LPG connections to poor families) and aawas yojana (housing scheme) are a big draw too.

The problem of chhutta janwar , or stray cattle, has added to people’s woes. Farmers all over Purvanchal complain that their crops are being destroyed by cows and buffaloes, whose numbers have increased exponentially after the government imposed a ban on cow slaughter. Some farmers in Ghazipur, Mirzapur and Mughalsarai said they had incurred losses in tens of thousands of rupees. There is palpable anger against the Adityanath administration, but one is not sure if this will generate any sentiment against the BJP. A villager in Rampur Bantara in Ghazipur said: “The government gives us more grains than the cows plunder.”

But this is not a refrain that you get to hear across the State. In places such as Lakhimpur Kheri, Gonda, Allahabad and the entire Bundelkhand, regions where the stray cattle problem is intense and widespread, affected farmers and agricultural labourers say the ration is a pittance compared with the loss caused by stray cows.

Samajwadi Party’s campaign

The S.P., with its fervent campaign centred on livelihood issues, is leaving no stone unturned to reclaim power in the State; it lost in 2017 to the BJP which won 312 seats in the 403-member Assembly. In the dusty landscape of Malikpura village in Mohammadabad, Suhaib Ansari is canvassing door to door with a band of ardent supporters. “The pandemic exposed this government’s brittle face,” he told Frontline . “The number of billionaires [in India] increased from 90 to 120 plus during the [COVID-19] lockdown and the percentage of the poor grew by 84 points. The BJP has a lot to answer.” Suhaib Ansari is locked in a triangular contest with the BJP’s Alka Rai and the Bahujan Samaj Party’s (BSP) Madhavendra Rai.

The S.P.-led alliance is hopeful that the BJP’s failure to arrest the economy’s downslide will help forge solidarities across caste lines. As the seven-phase election draws to a close on March 7, Akhilesh Yadav is seen loudly venting the frustration of youths and farmers. In a well-attended rally at Mungra Badshahpur in Jaunpur on March 2, he reiterated his promise to relax the age limit for government jobs and begin police recruitment if the alliance led by his party came to power in Uttar Pradesh. “The BJP has halved farmers’ earnings,” he said to a round of applause.

Outside the rally, at a tea stall near Purvanchal University, government employees talk animatedly about the election. They are careful not to reveal their choice, but show signs of resolve not to be swayed by the BJP’s raucous display of Hindu nationalism and its use of the language of hate and division. “The rally is a hit,” quips the tea vendor, as the university staffers nod blithely. It is apparent that the S.P’s call to restore the pre-2004 pension appeals to them.

The S.P. is attempting to redraw the political battle lines by eroding the BJP’s hold on the non-Yadav Other Backward Classes (OBC) and a section of Dalits, which have been key to its staggering electoral victories in the State. At Samogara village in Mirzapur’s Majhawan Assembly segment, S.P’s young turks say that the BJP’s rainbow Hindu consolidation is drastically reduced. “We have assembled a winnable social coalition,” said Bikku Singh, the party’s campaign chief in that village. “You name the castes and all of them are here. Bind. Maurya. Thakur,” he said, pointing to his teammates who come from diverse backgrounds.

The developments in the past few months support their positive outlook. The flight of several OBC leaders from the BJP to the S.P. has given it an edge. They include Swami Prasad Maurya and Dara Singh Chauhan, who were Ministers in the Adityanath government. An influential non-Yadav OBC leader, Swami Prasad Maurya has a support base in many districts of the Purvanchal region. Regional satraps such as Jayanth Chaudhary of the Rashtriya Lok Dal, Om Prakash Rajbhar of the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party and Keshav Dev Maurya of the Mahan Dal are also in alliance with the S.P. The BJP’s coalition is narrower, with just the Nishad Dal and the Apna Dal (Sonelal) in it.

Politics of polarisation

However, the undoubtedly superior organisational machinery of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s (RSS) various constituents is at work to whip up a Hindu-first politics and scupper the S.P’s signs of recovery among non-Yadav OBCs. In Jaunpur Sadar, Amit Shukla, a booth in-charge for the BJP, says it is delusional to think that there is a dent in the BJP’s core support base. He said: “The economy is in bad shape, therefore the opposition has been able to create a buzz. But Hindu nationalist sentiments have not gone anywhere. Our voters are silently backing us.”

He hinted that workers like him were tasked with leveraging the latent religious fervour by nurturing and perpetuating online myths aimed at stirring Hindu pride. “We work until 2 a.m.. Our outreach on social media has no parallels. We are constantly disseminating messages on WhatsApp,” he said.

The BJP’s top leaders add steam to these multidimensional communal polarisation games. Adityanath recently described the ongoing election as a battle between the 80 per cent and the 20 per cent [between the majority Hindus and the Muslims]. BJP president J.P. Nadda alleged that Akhilesh Yadav protected terrorists during his tenure as Chief Minister between 2012 and 2017.

Despite the Narendra Modi government’s many failures on the economy and the collapse of the health care infrastructure during the deadly second wave of COVID-19 in April-May 2021, the Prime Minister’s popularity among voters in Uttar Pradesh is undiminished. The BJP’s well-entrenched social media machinery, along with a compliant prime time TV, has perpetuated his image as a “strong man” and the sole protector of the national interest.

The wide-scale approval for the construction of the Ram mandir and the repeal of Article 370 granting Jammu and Kashmir a special status adds to Hindu nationalism’s enduring appeal, intensifying the magnitude of the challenge for the S.P’s rebound in the State. In Rampur Bantara village, Sangeeta Bind, the BJP’s Ghazipur Sadar candidate, animates her audience on Kashmir. Later, in an interaction with this reporter, she said there was no fallout of the farmers’ agitation as one travelled eastwards in the State. “Look at these people,” she said, pointing to a swarming crowd around her. “They are farmers. They are with us because they know we protect their interests as well as the national interest.”

Crime record

In what could be termed a paradox, Adityanath scores on the law and order front, with sections of people crediting him with ending the “mafia raj” and vowing to vote him back to power. This section of the electorate is evidently unaware that Uttar Pradesh’s record of crimes maintained by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) has shown a significant rise in almost all categories, ranging from rape to kidnapping and dacoity.

A glaring feature of Adityanath’s crime record is the rampant police high-handedness, which has impacted all sections of society from the upper castes to Other Backward Castes, Dalits and minorities. As many as 23 Muslim protesters were shot dead during the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act demonstrations in December 2019. Other atrocities that grabbed headlines were the brutal rapes at Unnao, Hathras and Sonbhadra and the mowing down of farmers using a vehicle in Lakhimpur Kheri. The fact that these were perpetrated by those in power, including Union and State Ministers of the BJP and the police is also a point of discussion.

A group of housewives at Varanasi’s Mint Road said they were upset with the price rise but would prefer the Congress to the S.P. They said they did not have any ill will towards Akhilesh Yadav, but the impunity for mafia elements during his tenure dissuaded them from voting for his party.

The Congress may win only a handful of seats in the State, but Priyanka Gandhi’s affable demeanour and aggressive street politics have popular appeal. There is a group of people, including supporters of Modi and Adityanath, who want her to assume a leadership position in the future.

For now, Uttar Pradesh is seeing a bipolar contest between the BJP and the S.P. The BJP leadership and a large number of observers emphasise that in the ultimate analysis, the undercurrents of Hindutva and Modi’s unswerving sway on the poor, achieved by way of disbursement of freebies, have the potential to prevent the BJP’s five-year-old regime from being written of. The relatively low-key campaign of the BSP is also highlighted as a factor that would propel sizeable sections of the Dalit Jatav community to the BJP.

However, a large section of political analysts and anti-BJP voters believe it is an S.P. wave in the current elections and that the Akhilesh Yadav era is about to begin. Indeed, one will have to wait until the March 10 results to see who is right.