Lucknow: With three crucial phases gone and four more to go, the long-drawn Uttar Pradesh assembly polls is now hanging over the proverbial cliff. Each political party’s performance in the last four phases – which also cover the densest areas of UP – will decide the electoral outcome to a great extent.
Naturally the stakes are very high, with each party trying to outscore the other in the unpredictable eastern UP terrain. The tectonic last-minute shifts in political rhetoric reflect different contextual ploys being used by all political parties to expand its voter base in the region.
A majority of the remaining 194 seats is not dominated by a single community and as a result, none of the parties in fray can solely rely on its traditional political formula in eastern UP.
The composition in a majority of the remaining 194 constituencies is an eclectic mix of caste and community groups. With each of them being substantial in number, the electoral outcome will depend greatly on which party manages social alliances between these groups better.
This single factor explains how each political party has been responding to the challenges ahead.
A considerable population of non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav Dalits – which seems to be supporting the BJP elsewhere in the state – will work only partially in the remaining phases.
Therefore, the BJP has shifted away from its development plank to invoking religious and caste fault lines. The weak organisational presence in the region and relatively weaker candidates in the fray has turned the remaining four phases into the most difficult battle for the saffron party.
In the Shamsahan Ghat-Kabirstan binary that the prime minister raised in his recent speech at Fatehpur, he drifted away from his usual criticism against the SP-Congress combine – that dynasts borne with a silver spoon (Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi ) are leading the alliance – and instead resorted to the BJP’s Hindutva political card.
According to a few BJP insiders in Lucknow, the party has been trying to consolidate the Hindus as it lags behind the other parties in the electoral arithmetic of eastern UP.
“Unlike western UP, where we focused on lawlessness and nepotism in UP, our workers are focusing on larger issues in eastern UP – that of poverty and Hindu ekta (unity). As we know, Muslims will not vote for us, we are telling our voters to unite on these two broad issues. That way we think we will be able to neutralise the complex matrix of caste equations in the region,” a mid-level BJP leader in Lucknow told The Wire.
The BJP leader’s analysis of the political scenario indicates that the “complex matrix of caste equations” may not be favourable to his party as it for other parties,and especially the SP-Congress combine, which has traditionally been stronger in the region.
As one of its biggest support groups, the Jats, deserted the party in western UP, the BJP had until now been cautious about advancing its Hindutva political campaign, fearing other alliances-led by Muslims outnumbering its remaining voter base.
However, after the third phase, Muslims will play a much smaller role in a majority of constituencies. Thus, a scenario where Hindus across castes unite will clearly prove to be beneficial for the BJP. Exactly for this, both Modi and BJP’s president Amit Shah have gone all guns blazing in their rallies to attack the so-called discriminatory attitude by the Akhilesh Yadav-led government towards non-Muslims and non-Yadavs.
While this may be a round-about way to label the SP government as a namazwadi sarkaar – the most-used term by the Hindutva activists in the aftermath of 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots – the purpose it fulfills remains the same.
At the same time, they have always targeted the SP government as running a Yadav rule in UP. It is understood that both Muslims and Yadavs will not vote for the BJP, and so, a Hindu unity plank mounted on the premise of taking UP out of the poverty chain will become the primary campaign of the saffron party in the days to come.
While the SP has been traditionally stronger in the remaining seats, it has found itself in a sticky terrain in 2017. The alliance with the Congress has not taken off to the extent that Akhilesh Yadav had initially thought it would. The SP-Congress duo may look formidable on paper, but given the poor organisational presence of the Congress, it is left to the SP to consolidate its electorate as much as possible.
However, its formula of a Muslim-Yadav social alliance has only a limited potential in the remaining seats. Both these groups are dispersed throughout the region and a constituency-wise analysis would show that although these groups have independent areas of influence, they come together as a combined force only in a few seats.
Knowing this, the SP has always relied greatly on regional strongmen, often called Bahubalis, to garner votes in its favour. However, this method fell flat in the 2014 parliamentary polls amidst a Modi wave.
Thus, while Akhilesh Yadav has premised most of his campaign on highlighting his “efficient” governance and his achievements over the last five years, he has now begun to take on what he calls is the BJP’s “divisive agenda” in his last few rallies and contradict BJP’s accusations of nepotism.
In these areas, the SP’s performance will depend on how many upper caste votes it receives from communities like the Thakurs, Bhumihars, and Brahmins – all of whom have a good number.
For BSP too, it will be tough to get non-Jatav Dalits in its favour. In western UP, most non-Jatavs who had voted for the BJP in 2014 parliamentary elections and 2012 assembly polls, had switched sides to the BSP.
However, in eastern UP, Dalit groups like Pasis, Dhobis and Khatiks are a divided lot. Many of the respondents from these groups The Wire spoke to swore their allegiance to either the BJP or the BSP.
Mayawati, BSP’s chief ministerial candidate, therefore has been very particular to address the concerns of these groups, knowing fully well that a majority of Jatavs would anyway vote for her party.
She has mounted an energetic campaign and have promised that she will not build any more memorials in the state, and instead use those funds for welfare activities.
Her government from 2007 to 2012 was branded as “Pathar ki Sarkaar” (Government of the Stone) and many groups among Dalits thought that her immense concentration on building parks and monuments was to establish Jatav hegemony over them.
She has made herself more accessible in the last few days and has made an effort to connect with a wide range of people in her rallies.
However, the bigger challenge for her will be to win the favour of non-Dalit groups, especially Muslims who have traditionally voted for the SP in the region. With this in mind, the BSP, too, has employed the SP’s yardstick and has been warming up to Muslim Bahubalis in various regions. The most notable instance of this effort on the part of BSP was when it inducted Mau’s strongman Mukhtar Ansari just ahead of the polls.
Impact and conclusions
All these political factors have been at play before the decisive last four phases. With each party trying to forge unconventional alliances, the UP polls have become a numbers game rather than a battle among different brands of politics.
But only because of this, one can safely draw certain conclusions.
One, there is no-wave-like condition. Although the 2012 assembly poll was a decisive mandate against the BSP’s high-handedness, which turned in favour of the SP, and the 2014 parliamentary election was swept by Modi’s acche din promise, no single factor is all-pervasive this time around.
While political parties have gone to the people with big issues like demonetisation, governance and welfare, the lack of a perceptible wave in favour of any party has reduced the election to regional caste arithmetic and preference for individual candidates.
Most respondents The Wire spoke to favoured or criticised steps like demonetisation or Akhilesh’s governance according to their caste and party loyalties.
Summing this up, Lucknow-based senior journalist Ramdutt Tripathi told The Wire, “In a scenario like this, where there is no visible pro or anti-incumbency working on ground, people generally look for a representative who they think is more accessible than others, especially in the assembly polls. No widespread hostility against either Modi or Akhilesh or Mayawati exists at present.”
According to political analysts, this state of affairs is due to lack of any substantial opposition to the SP government in the last five years. “Both the BJP and the BSP were relatively silent both inside and outside the assembly. Suddenly as election came closer, the opposition parties became active. In such a context, neither one political party nor any particular political issue becomes dominant in a voter’s mind,” said a Lucknow-based academic who declined to be named.
Choosing representatives on the basis of accessibility is driven by economic concerns. “In a state like Uttar Pradesh where social and economic conflicts are driven by caste loyalties, the rich look for candidates who will help them land government and other private contracts and the poor look for those who can influence the village and block-level official in their favour,” said a journalist with a Hindi daily in Lucknow.
Secondly, unlike the last few elections elsewhere in India, UP polls will not be presidential in nature.
While Akhilesh remains popular and is being perceived as the one who is cleaning up his party after the internecine feud that went on for months until January this year, this may not be enough for the SP to win the election easily. Similarly, Mayawati remains the undisputed leader of the BSP but successfully forging winnable electoral alliances still remains a roadblock for her.
Both Akhilesh and Mayawati have an advantage over the BJP, which is facing a serious problem of state-level leadership currently and has naturally not declared its chief ministerial candidate.
Despite this, the shifts in political campaigns of all the contesting parties and constituency-wise analysis indicate clearly that leadership is not one of the governing factors in the polls. Instead, a whole lot of issues that differ from region to region will dictate the electoral outcome.
Thirdly, because of the last-minute SP-Congress alliance and Amit Shah’s weighing in on the final list of BJP candidates, both the political formations face an unprecedented number of rebel candidates. In many seats of Amethi and Raebareli, Congress and SP candidates are fighting against each other.
This will further complicate the electoral arithmetic. The only party which is not facing this trouble is the BSP, which had announced its candidates much before the other two. However, to draw non-Dalit votes will still remain a challenge. Giving more than 60 seats to Brahmins – a social engineering formula that saw her winning in 2007 – has not cut much ice with the community.
Finally, the electoral outcome will be a great test for the BJP as far as employing political tactics is concerned. The Modi-Shah duo, in trying to forge a non-Yadav, non-Jatav alliance, has rubbed its traditional voter base of upper caste Brahmins, Thakurs, and Bhumihars the wrong way.
Many Brahmins across UP who had voted for the BJP most times told The Wire that they will vote for the BJP but if the OBCs and Dalits are given further prominence, they will have to look at other parties.
A large chunk of Brahmins, who comprise almost 12% of UP’s population, have voted for the BJP in the last few years. However, a substantial section of Brahmin leaders in UP’s BJP unit have been expressing their anguish to journalists over being pushed to the background.
If BJP wins, it will cement the supremacy of the Modi-Shah duo in the party. Their agenda to advance Hindutva among OBCs and Dalits – something that political commentators term as “OBCisation of Hindutva” – will receive greater support in the party. If it loses, the duo might have to face strong resistance from the party’s traditional supporters, given that the loss in Bihar is still fresh in the memory of many of its leaders.