Saturday, January 19, 2002
M A I N   F E A T U R E

The Big Fight begins
Battleground: Uttar Pradesh

The Big Fight begins --- Illustration by Parkash

The electoral battle in Uttar Pradesh is likely to be intense this time with all the major players unsure of their traditional vote banks. The mixing and matching of caste groups by the parties may throw up unexpected results, says Ashwini Bhatnagar

IF political leaders from Opposition parties are to be believed, the elections to the 403-strong Uttar Pradesh Assembly are so important that the Bharatiya Janata Party wouldn’t blink twice before dragging the country to war with Pakistan. They claim that the BJP is desperate to win the assembly polls slated for the third week of February because a loss would have a direct bearing on the fortunes of the BJP-led ruling alliance at the Centre. At the moment, it is claimed, the BJP is on slippery ground and may lose as many as 20 per cent of the 174 seats that it holds in the 13th Assembly. Hence, the need to beat the war drums and stoke communal fires through the sant yatra that is scheduled to be flagged off from Ayodhya on January 20.


Shrill propaganda by the Opposition apart, what makes the forthcoming elections in UP distinctive is that the politics in the state has come full circle, for one, and second, for the first time in more than two decades at least three major political parties are going in for a leadership makeover. Mayawati has been officially named as Kanshi Ram’s political heir and would be fully in charge of the polls for the first time in her decade-and-a-half long political career. Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav has voluntarially yielded ground to his ‘friend’ and party general secretary Amar Singh. Gone, it seems, are the days when the only person calling the shots within the SP was Mulayam Singh Yadav. Today, Amar Singh is the prima donna who runs the party on a day-to-day basis and the wily pehelwan from Etawah oversees just the policy aspect. The third major change is the emergence of Rajnath Singh,the BJP chief minister. In just a span of 14 months, the thakur has consolidated his position within the party and has successfully marginalised the warring factions. Kalyan Singh, who had held centre stage for much of the last part of the 80s and the 90s, has been buried and forgotten. Rajnath Singh, if he manages to put together a government in February, may come to be reckoned as the strongest man in the party’s central presidium. He has so far managed to stem the drift that prevailed during the tenure of his predecessor Ram Prakash Gupta and has boldly ventured into areas where many would fear to tread. The sacking of his ministerial colleagues, Naresh Agrawal and Amar Mani Tripathi, even when the party was precariously balanced in a hung House amply demonstrated his skills as a political player.

Simultaneously, he has gone on an overdrive to woo voters. Rajnath Singh was obviously desperate to net the support of every section of society as his predecessor had been a remarkable non performer. Thus, in a year he made as many as 300 announcements to directly benefit various sections of the electorate. As the first political salvo, Rajnath Singh created a quota for the Most Backward Castes from the one already existing for the Other Backward Castes and the Scheduled Castes. The decision was based on a report filed by the Hukum Singh committee within a month of its formation. Though the implementation of the announcement has been stayed by the courts, the move may cut into the vote banks of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP) that have held sway over the Dalits and the OBCs respectively over the last few elections. But it was not only the so-called lower castes that the CM was looking at. He had sops for other sections too. For the Brahmins, he came up with an innovative idea —— tax exemption on the sacred thread (janeu), sacred fruit (rudraksh) and sacred sandals (khadaun). For the Dalits-turned-Buddhists, he promised a statue of the Enlightened One that would be taller than the Bamiyan Buddha and gave a grant of Rs 1 crore to the Muslims for the upkeep of madarsas.

The teachers, who had once been dismissed as kaamchors by Kalyan Singh, received a largesse of Rs 850 crore through the implementation of the pay panel recommendations. By hiking the procurement prices for farmers, Rajnath Singh provided a bounty of Rs 350 crore to them. Another Rs 50 crore went to government staff through relaxation of age of retirement and a further Rs 75 crore to traders through tax relief. The list is too exhaustive to recount even in a summarised form; suffice to say that Rajnath Singh has literally left no stone unturned to attract attention to his ‘people friendly’ government.

Doubts on whether Rajnath Singh will be able to swing it for the BJP, however, linger. Some even say that there are grave doubts on the BJP returning to power. Rajnath Singh is on the defensive whenever the question of his party’s likely performance at the hustings is posed to him by newsmen. "I am not a magician. But in the last 14 months that I have been here, I have done better than they had imagined." What probably weighs very heavily on his mind is that unlike the last few elections when the mandir-mandal issue had caught the imagination of the people, there is still no real emotional element present in the pre electioneering stage. Attempts to whip up nationalistic feelings over the Pakistani build-up on the borders have come a cropper. The sant yatra is also not likely to yield much political dividend either.

The caste issue is also in a state of flux. No party can claim to be the sole preserver of its vote bank. Rather, it appears that the strategy is to move away from the narrow confines of vote banks and enlist general support —a far cry from the days when the BSP held proprietorial rights over the Dalits, the SP over the OBC-Muslim combine and the BJP over the traders. BSP leader Mayawati set the ball rolling by moving away from her shrill anti-upper caste rhetoric and deciding to give a large number of seats to them. She is also wooing the minorities and has held out hopes of tickets to their candidates. The SP, on its, part, is looking seriously at the trading community as well as a chunk of the Thakur-Brahmin vote. The so-called caste Hindu BJP is desperately seeking the Dalits and the OBCs. The quota- within- a -quota scheme of Rajnath Singh is aimed at carving out a constituency from the BSP and the SP strongholds. However, this mixing and matching falls far short of the figure that gets one party to power on its own steam. It also has the potential of creating confusion in the minds of the voters.

The Congress is of the view that the predicament of the three strongest parties may reverse its political fortunes in the politically most dominant state in the country. In the 1996 elections it had barely polled 8 per cent of the votes as against 32 per cent by the BJP, 22 per cent by the SP and 20 per cent by the BSP. It had bagged 32 seats in the 425 seats-strong UP Assembly and had been written off completely from the political scene. However, "given the bad politics of the BJP and its lack of governance," as Salmaan Kurshid put it, "and the casteist outlook of the BSP-SP, people have realised that the Congress was and is the best bet for them."

Congressmen point to the recent local polls in Kanpur as straws in the wind to say that the party is staging a huge comeback. The Congress steamrolled its rivals in this industrial town for the first time in a decade and it is because of the changeover that Sonia Gandhi decided to launch her party’s election campaign from here last week. She called the BJP’s rule Ravana raj and went hammer and tongs at the party for its acts of omission and commission.

The surge ahead for the Congress can also be gauged from the long queues of ticket seekers at its headquarters in Lucknow. According to official sources, over 6000 applications for 403 seats had been received by the first week of January. Says veteran Congress leader Pramod Tiwari, "We will do better than what anyone can expect. Don’t be surprised if we form the government by securing some outside support. The BJP, SP and the BSP have totally exposed themselves during the last 10 years. People want to be rid of them and want the familiar Congress government back." Interestingly, in 1996 over 18 per cent of the vote went to parties other than these four. Independents, communists, etc had bagged 41 seats.

A part of the confidence in the Congress fold can be ascribed to the wranglings that have arisen in the SP and the BSP camps. Mulayam Singh Yadav is under intense fire from his one-time confidantes over the role that he has assigned to Amar Singh. He is certainly not a vote-getter himself and is not trusted by the rank and file of the party. Veterans in the party say that the old spirit of the samajwadis has gone and even Mulayam Singh is a pale shadow of his former self. It is because of this, they point out, that dissidence over ticket distribution is peaking even before the final lists are out. Amar Singh has emerged as one power centre, Beni Prasad Verma as another and Mulayam Singh’s brother as yet another. The cadre, used to only Mulayam Singh at the helm of affairs, is therefore quite perplexed.

The case is just the opposite in the BSP camp. Mayawati is the undisputed supremo. She brooks no interference and keeps no other counsel other than her own. The second line of leadership is quite dismayed by her dismissive style. "The BSP is not a democratic political party. It is Mayawati’s personal kingdom and all exist there only to serve her. She behaves like a maharani. How long can the workers suffer ill-treatment," asks a former BSP legislator who even after leaving the party fears her so much that he doesn’t want his name to go with the quote. To add to the disquiet is the news that Kanshi Ram may not be able to campaign extensively for the party because of ill health.

Though the battlelines are still in the process of being drawn up and electioneering has not started, the picture is hazier than it usually is on the eve of the polls. Many fear that the verdict will be so fractured that the Assembly may be ‘hung’ beyond belief. The reasons are not far to see. If SP-BSP lose even 20 seats of the 1996 tally and the Congress gains at their expense, the political scenario will be a khichchri as only a khichchri can be. In the event of BJP too losing out some of its 174 seats, the scenario nosedives further. The Congress will not go along with the BJP to form a government as the junior partner and the BSP-SP joining hands either with Congress or the BJP looks like another bleak version of the existing coalition in a state that has often been characterised as Ulta Pradesh. As of now, without the help of mandir or war, the BJP looks on a very sticky wicket, frantic efforts of Rajnath Singh notwithstanding. A big leap of faith is required from Rajnath Singh to convince the voters to give his party a second chance through a one-man majority or even let the 174 seats figure remain intact.