BY now, Uttar Pradesh’s election campaign by the principal players — the BJP/National Democratic Alliance and the Samajwadi Party (SP)-Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) and their allies — have got delineated in outline, form and substance and could not be more mutually antithetical. The BJP speaks the language of divisiveness and negativity and its discourse seems strangely reactive after years of setting the terms of engagement for its opponents. So far, the SP-RLD has avoided tangling itself in the BJP’s allegations and innuendoes that have often cost the Opposition dear in the past. The duo has crafted its own narrative, shorn of emotions and passions, and stuck to issues it believes will resonate with UP’s economically distressed population.
In the past election in 2017, the BJP’s thrust was layered: Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the focus. The discourse was themed around his government’s policies before Hindutva was infused with vikas to play to a gallery of the committed and the converted. On Monday, in his first virtual speech to UP’s voters, Modi attacked the SP, which was described as dabang (overpowering) and dangai (prone to rioting). He reminded the audience that one word from the rioters was the commandment when the SP was in power. Its government, he alleged, “patronised” the mafia which pillaged traders and forced their women into homes. His words conjured images of the “jungle raj”, a phrase the BJP had effectively used to annihilate Lalu Prasad and the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar. He warned listeners that ‘revenge’ would be the order of the day if the Opposition was elected.
Modi’s address was an extension of what was said over months by the Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath, and the Home Minister, Amit Shah. The leitmotifs were borrowed from the past: the SP would restore Mughal rule; the SP only raised walls around kabristan and legalised the ownership of the land earmarked for graveyards while the BJP government channelled funds into the development of sacred places; the SP had engineered the exodus of Hindu traders from western UP and nearly created a Kashmir inside the state; the firing on the kar sevaks who laid siege to the Babri mosque in 1990; skull caps, iftar parties, Aurangzeb and such like pictorial and mental ideas embedded in the party’s history texts. It seemed as though communalism was stretched to its limits.
It is a replay of 1993, when the state went to polls after a spell of truncated BJP rule because its government was dismissed after the Babri demolition. Logically, the referendum on this act was there for the BJP to win. Its posters claimed, ‘Jo kaha, so kiya’ (What was promised was fulfilled). Yet it lost the mandate. Was the communal fare served up over two years excessive even for its adherents? This time, the Adityanath government comfortably completed a five-year tenure, and laid out more fulsome helpings to satiate the appetite for communalism. The minorities were silenced. They are rarely seen, much less heard, except for veteran politicians given to speaking out of turn. Even the clergy stopped issuing statements for fear of a backlash against the minorities.
Western UP votes in the first three phases. It is traditionally a BJP stronghold where the RSS first established itself following the exodus of Hindu refugees from Pakistan. Many of them made this region their home and set up business. UP’s worst communal violence, several during Congress regimes, occurred here: Meerut, Maliana-Hashimpura, Moradabad, Aligarh, Bareilly, Badaun, Etah and Muzaffarnagar in 2013. These were long-drawn riots. In contrast, although Varanasi in the east was prone to religious conflicts, the episodes were short and limited to pockets.
For the past month, videos have surfaced from western UP, depicting BJP MLAs hooted out of their constituencies and in places close to being attacked. In 2017, the SP’s candidates were subject to similar treatment in eastern UP. UP is not an anarchist state. Protests rarely erupt unless they are spearheaded by politicians. Adityanath was lucky that his tenure witnessed one set of demonstrations against the amended citizenship law which he put down with brute force. Then came the farmers’ agitation whose ramifications were felt beyond the epicentre, western UP. The Lakhimpur-Kheri tragedy, involving the killing of farmers by the son of a Central minister from the area, became the focal point of the agitation and the issues it signified because the protests were peaceful, true to UP’s tradition. It appears that farmers’ patience with the BJP government’s unwillingness to listen to their woes and its inability to act might have run out. We will know on February 10, after the first phase of voting is over.
The SP-RLD, which started off a bit belatedly, has found its feet. Its leaders, Akhilesh Yadav and Chaudhary Jayant Singh, have homed in on the agrarian sector and not deflected their attention from it, despite the BJP’s provocations. If voted to power, like the BJP, they will be held to their promises which include clearing the payments backlog to sugarcane farmers in 15 days, free irrigation, no tariffs on 300 units of power consumption, setting up a revolving corpus of farmer funds, compensation for the families of victims killed by rogue cattle and so on.
In addition, Akhilesh and Jayant jointly campaigned in the west principally to dispel the speculation that the BJP had made overtures to the RLD to ditch the SP and become its ally.
In the polemics over emotions versus the economy, it is hard to assess what predominates. UP’s voters often speak of bread-and-butter issues, as though these alone matter, and get swayed by the Hindutva discourse. Akhilesh and Jayant signalled their ‘commitment’ to the farmer by displaying two symbols: a stick of sugarcane and a potli (bundle) of grains wrapped in auspicious red cloth. Will ganna win over danga (riots) or will it be the other way around?
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