POLITICIANS CONTEST elections and campaign for votes to get elected and capture power. Above all, they campaign for validation. For individual politicians, some elections become a moment of truth, a referendum not just on an immediate issue or manifesto but on one’s entire career or on years of work in a particular direction. For instance, the 2004 United States presidential election was the iconic election for President George W Bush. It would determine his place in history, and his leadership and record since 9/11. It would establish his fellow citizens thought of him as a failure — or validate his record.
In many respects the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election of February-March 2012 is Rahul Gandhi’s moment of truth. Ever since he formally entered politics in 2004, Rahul has more or less concentrated on Uttar Pradesh, on presenting himself as a man devoted to the state, and on rebuilding the Congress in a province it once ruled virtually uncontested. This year is his test of validation. In 2007, the Congress had won only 22 seats in the state Assembly of 403 legislators. If Rahul can treble or quadruple that number — even Congress loyalists aren’t hoping for anything more — he would have won his spurs. If not, of course, it would be a very different story.
The Uttar Pradesh verdict will be known only on 6 March but there is an unmistakable bounce in the step of the average Congressperson in the state. Much of this is attributed to Rahul, a man who, for better or worse, has transformed the caste and community equations of the Congress platform and led an astute foray into the politics of social engineering. Whatever the ultimate result, the Congress general secretary has shaken up the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the ruling BSP, challenging their entrenched caste constituencies like no Congress politician has in the 20 years since the Mandalisation era began.
Where is the evidence for this? Actually, there are several little pieces of evidence. Rahul has run a most un-national party like campaign in that he has focussed not on the big picture but a series of small pictures — in the hope that the sum of the parts will add up to something greater.
What are these small pictures all about? On 5 January, one of them became evident in Dudhi, a tiny town in Sonbhadra district, in the southeast corner of Uttar Pradesh. Vijay Pratap Gond has been MLA from Dudhi for 27 years. He believes the SP, his party for years, will probably finish first in the state election. Yet he decided to join the Congress. “Vijay Pratap is no lightweight,” a senior Congress leader says, “and he knows Samajwadi will win more seats than the Congress. Despite that…”
Mainpuri district is far away from Dudhi, deep in the centrewest of Uttar Pradesh. This is Yadav country, the borough of Mulayam Singh Yadav, founder and chief of the SP. Last December, Karhal constituency in Mainpuri saw a preview of the Dudhi switch. Urmila Yadav is a two-time SP MLA. She is not an ordinary politician. Her son Ajnesh Yadav is married to the sister of Dharmendra Yadav, MP from Badaun and Mulayam’s nephew. Yet Urmila too moved to the Congress.
To be fair, her decision was more personal than political. Urmila, 60, does not speak much about her decision to leave the SP, but the hostility is evident even in a short conversation. She made up her mind when her son was denied an SP ticket. She could have gone anywhere — but chose the Congress. The party now has a realistic chance of winning a seat it could not have dreamt of taking a year ago.
The examples go on. In Etah, not far from Mainpuri and part of the same Yadav belt, Shishupal Singh Yadav too is a former SP MLA who is now a Congress candidate. Indeed, half-a-dozen Yadavs have been nominated by the Congress in the region, all of them SP veterans. So striking was the trend that Akhilesh Yadav, Mulayam’s son, was forced to take notice and disparage the Congress for using “udhaar ke” (borrowed) candidates.
Depending on how you see it, this election marks the “Samajwadisation” of the Congress, or more accurately its Mandalisation. The party has focussed on OBC voters like never before, believing they will become its new core, in the absence of firm commitments from the traditional upper castes, the Brahmins and the Jatavs (the largest Dalit group and the BSP’s principal voters). Depending on how you see it as well, this “OBCisation” is Rahul’s biggest achievement — or his biggest gamble.
FOR TWO decades following VP Singh’s announcement of the implementation of the Mandal Commission report on OBC reservation, caste and identity have reigned supreme in Uttar Pradesh. The process of Mandalisation and OBC empowerment has overtaken and transformed even the BJP’s Hindu consolidation project. For the practitioners of caste politics, it became a habit, bordering on perverse pride, to describe Mahatma Gandhi as a Teli, Vallabhbhai Patel as a Kurmi and Ram Manohar Lohia as a Bania. Every stalwart was reduced to his or her caste identity.
The Congress scoffed at this and longed for a return to normal, to the pan-state appeal of a national party and its rainbow coalition. In 2012, Rahul seems to have decided this is not going to happen or not happen soon enough. A seminal moment came at a public meeting in Kanpur when he described Sam Pitroda as a Badhai (traditional carpenter caste). In one defining phrase, Pitroda — a man with dozens of patents to his name, an inventor and entrepreneur who made millions in the US, a technologist who revolutionised Indian telecom and the sort of meritocratic achiever who defined the first flush of Rajiv Gandhi’s Camelot — was boxed into a narrow sub-caste framework by his political mentor’s son.
For the Congress’ Nehruvian ideal, it couldn’t have been an easy occurrence. For those who prefer a politically astute Congress, however, it was recognition long overdue of the reality of identity politics in Uttar Pradesh. This year, of the 325 candidates the Congress has announced so far, 80 are OBCs and MBCs (the so-called ‘Most Backward’ among the OBCs).
OBCs and MBCs have not been a natural constituency for the Congress. As such, the party has had to rely on turncoats and new arrivals. This has led to one Congress old-timer describing the ticket distribution as a “tatkal process”, a reference to the reservations available to last-minute passengers using trains of the Indian Railways.
RAHUL STARTED off in Uttar Pradesh seven years ago, talking of farmers’ rights and good governance, law and order and job creation. He is still referring to those ideas. In the coming week, the Congress is likely to release its Vision Document 2020 from 10 different locations in Uttar Pradesh. Its theme will be ‘Justice, Development and Rights’; it will describe plans to revitalise the education and health sectors, to set up 1,000 skill development centres to create 2 million jobs. A special plan for the Bundelkhand region, the BSP’s bastion in 2007 but now an emerging Congress borough, and for specialinterest groups such as Muslim weavers in eastern Uttar Pradesh — beneficiaries of a scheme recently announced by the Union Ministry of Commerce — are all part of the Congress mix.
In the fundamental analysis though, they are not the Congress’ calling card: caste is. How did the “get the OBCs” strategy evolve? A Rahul aide smiled and said, “Frankly, the only reality in Uttar Pradesh politics is whether your caste arithmetic is right or wrong. If the Congress wants to make a breakthrough and emerge as a party in reckoning both in 2012 and 2014, it has to talk this language, whether the national media likes it or not.”
While the Congress will certainly need a good performance in Uttar Pradesh in 2014 to come to power in New Delhi, the new approach is showing results this year itself, at least in the campaign. Using caste, promising 4.5 percent reservations to minority OBCs — in effect a Muslim quota, though the Election Commission has put it on hold — and picking up caste chieftains from other parties was seen as a quick-fix method to make up for the fact that the Congress had no organisational structure. Despite Rahul’s herculean efforts, travels across the state and identification with Uttar Pradesh, the grassroots organisation was just not solidifying.
While the Yadav influx from the SP has made news, the nub of Rahul’s method has been provoking revolts by non-Yadav OBCs against the SP and by non-Jatav Dalits against Mayawati. For the latter, the Congress is already proposing a Maha-Dalit quota, for those (primarily non-Jatav) Dalits who are the contemporary underprivileged even among the historically underprivileged.
Badrinarayan, professor of history at the Govind Ballabh Pant Institute and a writer on Dalit issues, sees merit in the strategy. “The Congress is trying to take care of the diversity of caste equations in Uttar Pradesh. Of late, Kurmis have been attracted towards the Congress in a big way. Apart from Kurmis, MBCs like Gaderiyas, Nishads and Mallahs are moving towards the Congress, especially the Gaderiyas. The MBCs may prove to be the biggest factor in the Congress revival.”
Rahul has jumped right into this cauldron. At his public meetings, hoardings and posters of heroes and iconic figures of specific MBC groups are visible. He mentions these castes by name. To reach out to non-Jatav Dalits, Rahul went to the Ravidas temple in Varanasi. However, the inroads into the MBCs seem greater, political observers say, than those into non-Jatav Dalits.
THE SECTION of the population known by the convenient shorthand of OBC is a decidedly heterogeneous one. In the caste hierarchy of the past, these groups came below the so-called upper caste (Brahmins, Thakurs and so on) and above the Dalits. However, there was great variation in their ranks. Many but not all OBCs are agriculturalists and peasants (Yadavs and Kurmis being examples) or, like the Nishads, dependent on rivers for their livelihood, whether as fisherfolk or boatmen. In the early years of Independence, the break-up of the old zamindari estates, the growth in agriculture and finally, the prosperity of the Green Revolution made many of the OBC groups politically assertive. They found the Congress, with its Brahminical leadership, constricting.
In the late 1960s, the OBCs famously walked out of India Gandhi’s Congress, under the leadership of their Jat leader Charan Singh. This was the first revolt against the “Congress system” in Uttar Pradesh and eventually reduced it to a cipher in the state by the 1990s. Rahul is attempting to reverse this entire course.
In the western part of Uttar Pradesh, the Congress has tied up with the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), led by Charan Singh’s son Ajit Singh. The reconciliation — even if its longevity can never be predicted — of Charan Singh’s son and Indira Gandhi’s grandson has brought the Congress into the reckoning in western Uttar Pradesh. Here a Jat-Muslim combine is theoretically formidable.
In the central and eastern parts of the state, Rahul has placed his trust in the Kurmis, and in Beni Prasad Verma, a former SP rebel who is now Union minister for steel. He hopes Verma will emerge as a magnet not just for Kurmis but disaffected OBCs upset by Yadav domination. “Looking at Bihar,” says Ashutosh Mishra, professor of political science at Lucknow University, “where the 15-year grip on power of Lalu Prasad was broken by a Kurmi leader, Nitish Kumar. The same story is being repeated in Uttar Pradesh.”
But introducing such thinking in the Congress was easier said than done. When Verma was consulted on ticket distribution, all hell broke loose. The Congress old guard was upset. The fact that 150 seats have gone to recent entrants to the party, and that Muslim leader Rashid Masood has gone straight from being SP defector to member of the Congress Working Committee has caused heartburn.
At a rally in Utraula in Gonda — Verma’s constituency — when the minister rose to speak, he was booed. It took Rahul Gandhi to placate the crowd and stress that “Beniji is big Kurmi leader and we should listen to him.” Such protests and interventions recurred at other public meetings.
Not everybody in the Congress is convinced of Rahul’s Verma-specific card. “Beni is being projected as the tallest Kurmi leader,” one Congress functionary said privately, “someone who can influence Kurmi votes in a big way all over Uttar Pradesh. The reality remains that there is not a single pan-state Kurmi leader. Kurmis always had regional satraps. If in Gonda, Bahraich, Barabanki and Shrawasti, Beni is the leader, then in Bareilly, Kurmis have Santosh Gangwar as their leader. In Lakhimpur Kheri, it is Hargovind Verma. If you go to Banda, it is the Dadua family.”
Nevertheless, the party has accepted Verma’s ascendancy as a fait accompli. As a Congress senior put it, “Right now, Rahul is banking heavily on Beni and he has a huge say in the way tickets are being distributed. Whether a tall leader or a short one, the fact is he is the only reasonable Kurmi leader the party has.”
Aside from accepting the verities of caste and sub-caste politics, Rahul has also compromised on candidate selection. Far from seeking new faces and genuine grassroots workers and attracting fresh talent, the “winnability factor” has become paramount. As a result, the rump Congress in the state has been ignored, a well-calibrated strategy of acquisitions resorted to, and caste and local appeal — rather than character certificates — given their due. “There was clear-cut thinking,” said a Congress functionary who works with Rahul on Uttar Pradesh matters, “that if we don’t make this kind of positional change, we won’t stand a chance. And all the hard work will go down the drain.”
Having said that, the Congress, which won only 22 Assembly seats five years ago, had improved to 21 parliamentary seats (and 95 Assembly segment leads) in the 2009 Lok Sabha election. Why was the party not able to build that? Party insiders offer a cold assessment of the 2009 verdict, which at the time had been attributed to Rahul’s image and canvassing.
In 2004, Uttar Pradesh sent nine Congress candidates to the Lok Sabha. In 2009, six of them lost; Sonia Gandhi (Rae Bareli), Rahul Gandhi (Amethi) and Sriprakash Jaiswal (Kanpur) being the only exceptions. The Congress won 18 fresh seats, but its votes and Assembly leads were geographically concentrated and associated with strong constituency-level individuals. There was no surge of votes across the board, cutting across Uttar Pradesh’s diverse communities and regions. The Congress perhaps hoped this would happen in the following two years, but it didn’t. This meant there was no alternative to caste — and to Muslim mobilisation.
MUSLIMS MAKE up 18 percent of the Uttar Pradesh electorate and influence some 100 Assembly seats. Their distrust of the Congress goes back to 1989, when Rajiv Gandhi permitted the shilanyas (bricks consecration) for a Ram temple in Ayodhya, and to 1992, when PV Narasimha Rao’s Congress government was in power and the Babri Masjid was demolished.
Rahul represents the Congress’ return to its Nehru-Gandhi positioning as well as a post-1992 Congress leadership, untouched by the tempests of 20 years ago. However, the absence of a core vote also means Muslims have been wary of voting for the Congress, especially in an Assembly election, as Rahul’s party is not seen as a contender for power. For two decades, the SP has been the default party of the Uttar Pradesh Muslim.
Rahul has made desperate and fervid attempts to win Muslim support. He has met elements of the clergy. Digvijaya Singh has batted for Muslim youth in eastern Uttar Pradesh, who were accused of Indian Mujahideen connections, arguing they have been unfairly charged with terrorism. The 4.5 percent quota for OBC minorities (a description co-terminus with OBC Muslims) is being promised to be doubled to 9 percent by Union Law Minister Salman Khurshid.
After the entry of Masood, the prospect of a Jat-Muslim consolidation in western Uttar Pradesh has particularly excited the Congress, which sees itself gaining about 12-15 seats. The quota announcement, though it has been put on hold by the EC, has also had its impact. After the Union government proposed the 4.5 percent reservation sub-quota, Beni Prasad Verma told a group of journalists it would make the “Sapa saaf, Maya half and Congress taap (SP will be wiped out, Maya will be reduced to half and Congress will be on top).”
TO USE the vocabulary of the social justice movement, Rahul is fighting for not so much Congress empowerment as Congress self-respect. Nobody is even talking of a Congress majority. At best the party can hope to win 70- 80 odd seats, its MPs say, and have a say in the formation of the next government in case of the anticipated hung Assembly.
Sources in the Congress say Rahul wants to be in a position to force a potential coalition partner to back a Congress CM, even if the other party is numerically larger. Alternatively, he is said to be willing to sit in the Opposition and wait for an early Assembly polls and for the 2014 Lok Sabha contest. Whether this maximalist line is posturing or not is another matter. It depends on if Rahul sees his succumbing to caste and identity politics as a temporary necessity — or a sustainable imperative.
In a few minutes of candour, a Congress leader burst out his party’s hopes, fears and aspirations. “In 2007, 323 of our candidates lost their deposits and we won only 22 seats. We don’t have anything to lose. Our graph can only go up.” The question is: how much? India will know on 6 March, when the electronic voting machines are opened. That graph will be more than just a numerical indicator of the Congress’ strength. It may as well be Rahul’s fate line.
Brijesh Pandey is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.
Virendra Nath Bhatt is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.