UP Elections: The Battle for Poorvanchal is Fierce but Inconclusive

Much is at stake for every political party: the survival of the BSP and of Mayawati as a Dalit leader, the credibility and standing of two young leaders Rahul and Akhilesh and the future of the BJP as a dominant Hindu nationalist party.

BJP president Amit Shah with party MP Yogi Aditya Nath during an election road show in Gorakhpur district on Thursday. Credit: PTI

BJP president Amit Shah with party MP and Hindutva firebrand Yogi Aditya Nath during an election road show in Gorakhpur district on Thursday. Credit: PTI

With the sixth and seventh phases of the Uttar Pradesh elections set for March 4 and 8, the spotlight is on Poorvanchal – the poorest and most backward region in the state with 89 seats up for grabs. As there seems to be no wave for any particular political party, though all claim to be winning, a fierce, increasingly ugly three-way contest is expected here between the Bahujan Samaj Party, Bharatiya Janata Party and the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance. Despite the high stakes involved, the results look inconclusive as the contestants are well matched.

In the post-independence period, the Left and Socialist parties were strong in this region and led a number of radical movements. With their decline, the Congress was able to gain the votes of the Dalits, Muslims and poorer sections of the population, until its own collapse in the late 1980s. In the 1990s, eastern UP became the stronghold of the ‘social justice’ advocates – the SP and the BSP – as the Dalits and OBCs came to believe that these parties would improve their condition, something the Left forces had failed to do. Both Kanshi Ram and Mulayam Singh Yadav have considered Poorvanchal their citadel. But with the ideological and organisational deterioration of these parties, it has become a region where bahubalis or mafia dons reign supreme.

In eastern UP, three important developments have taken place in the 2000s that could impact the voting pattern in the sixth round of elections.

Phase-wise election break up of Uttar Pradesh constituencies. Credit: ECI

Phase-wise election break up of Uttar Pradesh constituencies. Credit: ECI

The pasmanda movement of the poorer and lower caste Ansari Muslims – most of whom are handloom weavers in Mau and surrounding districts – that has swept eastern UP and Bihar since the early 1990s has constructed a new ‘backward’ Muslim identity and heightened political consciousness that has empowered them to challenge the dominance of the upper caste/class Ashraf elite. The movement coincided with the acceptance of the Mandal report, which granted them reservation as a backward class. Consequently, they have today emerged as a significant critical mass, heralding a new kind of Muslim politics which is more about secularism and redistributive justice including reform of personal law, quality education, business skills and protection of their handlooms, than about identity and representation. This is seen in the rise of small, independent Muslim parties in eastern UP, the most important being the Peace Party supported by the younger and educated sections of the community.

During the same period, globalisation and the decline of the handloom weaving industry has created a crisis which has impacted on the livelihood of the Ansari Muslims. Political empowerment has been accompanied by loss of livelihood, leaving them unhappy and hostile, rendering them vulnerable to mobilisation and conflicts with Hindu traders. Today, the textile industry is facing problems due to the exorbitant increase in electricity charges, limited supply of power, rise in prices and non-supply of raw material, which have pushed the weavers to look toward other jobs. Simultaneously, the continuing economic backwardness of the region and decay of political parties into feudal and corrupt organisations interested only in the capture of power, has promoted the criminalisation of politics and supported and encouraged communalism.

These changes have significant implications for the relationship between Muslims and Hindus in eastern UP, including, in more recent years, the Dalits. The Ansari Muslims are in search of a party that will provide them development and are divided over voting for their traditional identity-related party, the SP, and others that promise development. They are unhappy that no government has tried to improve the condition of the poorer sections of the region and that local problems are not an issue in the ongoing election campaign. While in the earlier phases of the campaign, development was given importance, in the later phases, identity based on caste and communalism has returned and is occupying a central position. Clearly, in their perception, despite the din of the elections, no acche din seem imminent here.

The BJP and its affiliates have taken full advantage of the changes in the polity and economy of the region, which has made the Hindu traders and Muslim weavers, and the poorer and disadvantaged sections of the population vulnerable to communal mobilisation. The region has witnessed since the late 1990s the rise of a new Hindutva communal power centre – fairly independent of and which often challenges the BJP-RSS organization – headed by Yogi Adityanath, mahanth (head) of the Gorakhnath temple near Gorakhpur. The Yogi is attempting to create communal polarisation and tension to build a strong and inclusive Hindu identity, most importantly by bringing the Dalits and backwards – who constitute a large number here – into the saffron fold and pitching them against the Muslims. Today, Poorvanchal is the Yogi’s experimental Hindutva laboratory of social engineering. When he first emerged on the political scene, his supporters shouted, “Gorakhpur mein rahna hai toh yogi yogi kahna hoga!” (To live in Gorakhpur one has to chant, Yogi, Yogi). As his area of influence expands, this slogan is also taking new forms. “Poorvanchal mein rahna hai toh yogi yogi kahna hai!” (To live in Purvanchal one has to chant, Yogi, Yogi).

Yogi Adityanath’s influence is strong in the region from Bahraich to Gorakhpur. An important reason is that the region, except for Gorakhpur, has a large Muslim population and the emergence of a number of madrassas has created intensive media attention on the Muslims of the region, leading the BJP-RSS to join hands with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad to fight “these anti-national” elements which the Yogi has labeled as the ‘hub of terrorism’.

The region is also the focus of attention of Hindutva forces because it is the hotbed of Naxalite activities and the CPI (ML) and, in their assessment, is expected to be the breeding ground of Muslim insurgents. Consequently, Hindutva politics is more intense in this region and the BJP hopes to do well in the election here.

Yogi Adityanath functions through different cultural organisations. The most important is the Hindu Yuva Vahini (HYV), formed in 2002, that comprises mostly unemployed youth, petty criminals and young men striving for an identity. It has been involved in much communally sensitive activity, including the Mau riots of October 2005 and the Gorakhpur riots in January 2007, leading to the burning of trains and buses in Padrauna and reports of arson in Mau, Basti, Kushinagar, Deoria and Maharajganj. These incidents have created a rift between Hindus and Muslims in the region.

However, the presence of the Yogi since the late 1990s has not helped the BJP in assembly elections; the party is not in a strong position here. The party had won only 11 assembly seats out of 89 in the 2012 assembly elections; the SP won 50, BSP 14 and the Congress 7. This explains the almost desperate, highly aggressive stance of the BJP leaders– including the use of terms such as ‘Kasab’ by Amit Shah and the attempts to polarise communities by Narendra Modi by referring talking of graveyards and cremation grounds.

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav addresses a press conference at party headquarters in Lucknow on Friday. Credit: PTI Photo by Nand Kumar

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav addresses a press conference at party headquarters in Lucknow on Friday. Credit: PTI Photo by Nand Kumar

In the 2014 elections, the BJP performed well in Poorvanchal, but this was due to the Modi wave; it is not an area where it traditionally had a base. Modi’s selection of Varanasi as his constituency, his addressing the largest number of rallies in this region in the entire state – combining promises of development with a highly communal campaign – enabled the BJP to win all the seats in the region. The only exception was Azamgarh, which was won by Mulayam Singh Yadav despite the Modi wave. The BJP hopes to repeat this performance but is not sure. Although Mulayam Singh has not campaigned in his Yadav stronghold, Akhilesh has addressed a large number of rallies in Azamgarh and the SP-Congress alliance, by presenting a united face, hopes to win all the 10 seats in Azamgarh district.

The BSP had a strong base here in the late 1980s and 1990s and was the biggest challenger to the Modi wave in 2014 by coming second in 34 Lok Sabha constituencies – many of them in eastern UP. The party hopes to perform well here, which explains Mayawati’s belligerence during her recent rallies. What is critical for Mayawati is obtaining the support of the Muslims and non-Jatav Dalits, particularly the Pasis, Khatiks and other smaller sub-castes in the region who are politically alert and aware that they have choices beyond behenji today. The number of anti-Dalit incidents in 2016, beginning with the Rohith Vemula suicide and the public thrashing of Dalits in Gujarat by cow vigilante groups did seem to lead to Dalit consolidation behind Mayawati. But it remains to be seen if this gets translated into voting and seats. Mayawati has also given a ticket to Mukhtar Ansari, the biggest Mafia don of the region, who has somewhat of a ‘Robin Hood’ image here, in the hope of increasing her Muslim support in Mau and surrounding districts.

The remaining stretch of the UP campaign in Poorvanchal is clearly a no-holds barred fight between the three principal players. Much is at stake for every political party and its leaders: the survival of the BSP and of Mayawati as a Dalit leader, the credibility and standing of two young leaders Rahul and Akhilesh and their secular and development-based alliance in a backward but politically aware region, and the future of the BJP as a dominant Hindu nationalist party and its leader Narendra Modi, who is keen to surge ahead of these parties and go forward to win in 2019. Uttar Pradesh has always been a key state in Indian electoral politics but what is at stake this time is the kind of polity and society that we wish to establish in the country.