In the congested mofussil towns of Uttar Pradesh, cracks can be seen in the BSP citadel and a Samajwadi revival seems a distinct possibility. Ashok Malik reports on Akhilesh Yadav’s yatra
FOR A political obsessive of the old, pre-globalisation India, National Highway (NH) 24 would be familiar territory. The road that takes you from New Delhi to Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh — and once the second most important city in India’s power calculus — is more than a route into the proverbial cow belt. It is (or has been) a parable for the dynamic politics of the Hindi heartland.
Perhaps the most politically evocative and physically exhausting segment of NH 24 used to be the 275 km journey from Lucknow to Gorakhpur, from the fraying gentility of Avadh, in central Uttar Pradesh, to Poorvanchal, the state’s wild east. With its combustible mix of crime, caste and religion — and its proximity to Nepal — Gorakhpur had all the aura of a frontier town. It gave the metropolitan journalist a taste of small-town India and of its priorities and pace of change (or sometimes absence of it) as few other places did.
Gorakhpur took a lot out of you, literally. In the 1990s, it would take eight hours to finish the trip from Lucknow. At the end of it, driving on virtual dirt tracks, the back aching, the body having undergone every contortion, one would wonder if the roads in Bihar, which was only a few hours east, could actually be worse. The infrastructure deficit in the region, the fact that “development issues” didn’t figure in political discourse, that identity politics seemed to be overwhelming, would convince the political tourist that this was the land time forgot. It would remain this way forever.
Has it? At the superficial level, at least, going back down a once-familiar route a week ago was a revelation. NH 24, the Lucknow-Gorakhpur stretch, is now a spanking continuum of smooth roads and flyovers that bypass busy towns, allow drivers to hit speeds of 100 km per hour for significant lengths — and get you from the state capital to the city of Gorakhnath in four hours. Whatever else it may or may not have done, the National Highway Authority of India has delivered in this part of the country.
Yet, once you get off the highway, it looks distressingly familiar. The little cities and towns are as crowded, Gorakhpur seems as much of a civic nightmare. In Ghantaghar, the old bakery still stands a minute away from the gun shop; and the conversation, industry and enterprise still seems to be politics, with dollops of religion, caste or some similar phenomenon thrown in for adjective value.
AKHILESH YADAV was not in Gorakhpur when TEHELKA reached there. He was due in the evening and was coming in from further east, from neighbouring Deoria, where the Samajwadi Party (SP) MP — son of the redoubtable Mulayam Singh Yadav — was in the middle of phase seven of his Kranti Rath Yatra. With its flies, overflowing drains and crowds just hanging around, Deoria, it appeared, had changed even less. Perhaps it had, but like in the rest of the state, the pace of change had been glacial in comparison to much of India.
Many of those who had collected at various junctions in Deoria, waiting for Akhilesh to arrive, were SP old-timers, or children of SP old-timers. As one of them put it, his father remembered working for Mulayam’s original Kranti Rath Yatra in 1987, when the OBC empowerment project — later known by the shorthand of Mandalisation — was just gathering steam. Today, he was working for his father’s leader’s son. Loyalty, hierarchy, time itself, it seemed, was determined to stay still — or repeat itself.
Even so, right there by the sewers of Deoria, this reporter also experienced a moment of epiphany. Just as the highway offered a vertically removed, but ultimately erroneous idea of contemporary Uttar Pradesh, the conventional wisdom in New Delhi too was upturned by empirical evidence and grassroots assessment in the state. The reference, of course, is to speculation about the April-May 2012 state Assembly election — an election that will decide the fate of Mayawati and her BSP government, test Mulayam’s legacy, make or break Rahul Gandhi’s medium-term future, and maybe determine the UPA government’s longevity as well.
A series of assumptions being made, whispered and iterated in the power corridors and television studios of New Delhi would seem to be at variance with street experience in Uttar Pradesh. For instance: Mayawati’s rainbow coalition, which won her a majority in 2007, is far from intact. There are significant cracks in it, and many elements/communities are beyond being wooed back. The lady’s re-election has never seemed more doubtful.
The strongest challenge to Mayawati is coming not from the Congress but the SP. As things stands, it is not just the SP but even politicians in the BJP and the Congress, and pundits in the bureaucracy, who feel Mulayam will have the largest band of MLAs behind him on counting day, although nobody is betting on him (or anybody) winning a majority.
The strongest challenge to Mayawati comes not from the Congress but the SP
Despite the Anna Hazare movement, despite inflation, despite the urban anger with the UPA/Congress and the BSP, the BJP is making only limited gains. State-wide yatras by two of its stalwarts, Rajnath Singh and Kalraj Mishra, which concluded with a public meeting in Ayodhya on 17 November, drew a decidedly tepid response.
While the Congress is much more visible and talked about than in 2007 and while Rahul Gandhi’s herculean efforts may even have it doubling its 22-seat tally from the previous Assembly polls, it is still difficult to see the party of Nehru and Indira finishing higher than fourth.
Finally, whatever one may say about the politics of aspiration trumping the politics of identity, caste seems to be the only game in town. In the Lok Sabha poll of 2009 — when the Congress and the BJP won 36 percent of the vote between them, the best finish for national parties in a decade — it appeared the politics of Uttar Pradesh was finally moving on from regional, caste-based equations. In two years, there has been a regression. If you’re an SP backer, you’d probably call it a recovery.
Each of the pointers above is a story on its own. None of these is set in stone but the trends are obvious. However, there is ample room for intersections — subliminal or in the form of formal alliances — between these trends and their practitioners. That is why, for instance, even if the Congress finishes fourth, it could still end up in government if the SP — or the BSP for that matter — falls short of the halfway mark. It is not for nothing that Uttar Pradesh is India’s once and forever Ulta Pradesh (topsy-turvy province).
THE LEADING protagonist must necessarily be Mayawati, the CM hoping to get re-elected. The BSP actually faces a moment of truth. After two decades of unremitting growth, it saw its vote share drop in 2009 — 27.42 percent as opposed to 30.43 percent in the 2007 Assembly contest.
The urban middle classes that queued up for her in 2007 are no longer certain voters. The Brahmin consolidation behind her is not as robust. Key MBC (Most Backward Castes, the so–called “lower OBCs”, who are socio-economically closer to Dalits) communities such as Nishads and Kushwahas have moved away. The rebellion of former minister Babu Singh Kushwaha is emblematic of this.
That aside, the powerful bureaucracy is at odds with Mayawati. Working through a small group of officers — led by cabinet secretary Shashank Shekhar Singh, a former pilot and outside the IAS fraternity — she has made many senior officials seem redundant.
“There is both fear of her and anger,” says a secretary-level officer, “for five years, the state IAS and IPS Associations have not had their annual meetings. The chief minister, who is the chief guest at these meetings, has just not given time.” The bureaucracy can’t win or lose an election for her. However, with its propaganda potential and logistical capacities, it can make life difficult for the party on voting day.
The cracking of the rainbow coalition is Mayawati’s bigger problem. From 206 seats (in a house of 403) in 2007, the BSP came down to only 100 Assembly segment leads (21 Lok Sabha seats) in 2009. Part of the reason for this was that Dalit and MBC voters stayed home, upset that Mayawati’s outreach to the upper caste, particularly to Brahmins, was diluting her appeal.
Uttar Pradesh has 80 Lok Sabha constituencies of which 17 are reserved for the SCs (Dalits). In 2009, the BSP won just two of these (Lalganj and Misrikh). The SP won 10, seven of them being BSP seats in 2004. It was estimated BSP loyalists did not come out to vote in large numbers.
After 2009, Mayawati began a damagecontrol exercise, concentrating on welfare programmes for Dalits, and snubbing Brahmins. Her closest Brahmin confidant, SC Mishra, was sent into exile, accused of providing state patronage just to his extended family. In recent weeks Mishra has been rehabilitated, as Mayawati has sought to arrest Brahmin desertion this time.
Mayawati is also charged with serious corruption, and with facilitating embezzlement of National Rural Health Mission and National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme funds. This has cost her middle class sympathy, especially in the cities.
Mayawati’s rainbow coalition, which won her a majority in 2007, has cracks in it now
To be fair, the hostility from these quarters is not at par with the seething rage against the Mulayam government in 2007. Mulayam was accused of practically encouraging aggressive Yadav-Rajput political mobilisation and criminal gangs. Mayawati has compromised with some of these, but the idea of a Dalit mafia is almost an oxymoron. As such, she is better placed than the SP was five years ago.
Will that be enough? In a best case scenario, Mayawati will be able to rebuild her Dalit-Brahmin alliance. In a worst case situation, she will be left with only her core Dalit constituency, a diminished vote share and an inability to check a downward momentum. That is why this election means more to her than is often realised.
A BACK-TO-BASICS mantra is also motivating Mulayam. While the SP patriarch has just undergone his second prostrate surgery, it has fallen on his son Akhilesh, 38, to re-energise the party’s Muslim-Yadav base. Muslims had walked away from the SP in damaging numbers in 2009.
“The entry of Kalyan Singh into the party in 2009,” says a party insider, “and his presence on the same stage as Netaji [as Mulayam is known] in Agra was something that shocked Muslims.” Kalyan was the BJP chief minister during the Ayodhya demolition of 1992. While Mulayam sought to repackage him as an OBC chieftain, rather than a Hindutva icon, it didn’t quite sell.
Today, Azam Khan, who had left the party two years ago, is back as Mulayam’s chief Muslim lieutenant. “Netaji” himself has rebuilt bridges with estranged members of the community — he has written it a public “letter of apology”, spoken out in favour of Muslim reservations, criticised the Supreme Court judgement partitioning the disputed land in Ayodhya as essentially cheating Muslims. It seems to be working.
The demographic profile of Mulayam’s voters also means he will never slip beyond a point. In 2007, he won 25.43 percent of the vote for 97 seats. In 2009, he won 23.26 percent of the vote but led in 118 Assembly segments (23 Lok Sabha seats). The reason for this is Yadavs are not spread thin across the state, as Dalits are. The 14 percent Yadavs are concentrated in the “Yadav belt” towards the west of the state (Etah, Etawah, Farrukhabad and so on) and in central and eastern Uttar Pradesh.
Unlike Amar Singh, Akhilesh has stayed away from movie stars and the glamour world
This advantage is something Mayawati hopes to negate if Uttar Pradesh is split into four. Should that happen, the SP will be a strong player in Paschim Pradesh and Poorvanchal but will be near wiped out in Bundelkhand and very weak in Avadh. In contrast, the uniform 20-21 concentration of Dalits will make the BSP a factor in all four daughter states.
Mulayam comes into the 2012 battle somewhat chastened. He has removed the trappings of the Amar Singh period and allowed his son to guide him back to the straight and narrow path of 1970s socialism. While half his father’s age and blessed with a degree in environmental sciences from the University of Sydney, Akhilesh is not talking of a new paradigm or a new economic idiom. His focus is still on cottage and small-scale industries — glassware in Firozabad, zari work in Varanasi. His solution to crime is more closed-circuit cameras in major cities.
Akhilesh’s big achievement has been removing the accoutrements of the Amar era. Asked how different the party was today from the time its most controversial general secretary left, he ducks the question. Then he looks back and throws a teaser at you: “Where are the movie stars?” The retort is telling. The glamour, the dazzling array of actors, models and tycoons, and big-time American visitors sponsored by friendly businessmen: Akhilesh has diligently moved away from all that.
Not adventurist, Akhilesh is telling his audience what he believes it wants to hear — transmitting the certitudes his father has weaned his flock on. For example, though educated in English-medium schools, he is not about to throw away Mulayam’s Hindi-chauvinist identity. “Why can’t we have computer software in Hindi and Urdu?” he asks rhetorically. He points a finger towards his phone and states, with cultivated emphasis: “Why can’t Blackberry services be available in Hindi?”
AKHILESH HAS also adopted an old-fashioned jan sampark (mass contact) mechanism that, to be fair, Rahul is trying to emulate but most politicians seem to have forgotten in this age of helicopter tours. By the end of the past week, Akhilesh’s yatra had covered 110 Assembly constituencies in 2.5 months. “We begin early in the morning and do some 20-odd meetings a day,” Akhilesh says, “We end up touching some 70,000-1,00,000 people a day.” Some meetings are large, others are small, street-corner affairs. On occasions Akhilesh’s bus stops, a collection of people bearing garlands is spotted. Everywhere, Akhilesh seems to know the local leader or candidate. In his own, quiet way, the young Yadav has galvanised the SP cadre.
But leading campaigners in both national parties — and specifically Rahul Gandhi in the Congress — too are adopting a jan sampark approach. Why is this not paying dividends in the manner it is for the SP? A comparison between Rahul and Akhilesh, the national yuvraj and the regional yuvraj, as it were, is made often. Akhilesh is accessible in a way security protocols will never allow Rahul to be. That aside, Akhilesh has a party infrastructure to fall back on; Rahul has none.
“In a national election,” says a senior BJP politician, “the Congress and Rahul will do better in Uttar Pradesh. In a state election, the party is not seen as in the reckoning. There is no local mascot.” Pramod Tiwari and Rita Bahuguna Joshi, the Congress faces in the state, are scarcely credible vote catchers.
Brahmins backed the Congress pre-1989, the BJP in ’90s and the BSP in 2007. This time, they seem split
In 2007, the Congress had won 22 Assembly seats and only 8.61 percent of the vote. By 2009, this had gone up to 18.25 percent of the vote and 95 Assembly segment leads (21 Lok Sabha seats). The upturn was due to a critical mass of Brahmins (10 percent of Uttar Pradesh’s voters) and Muslims (18 percent) moving back to the Congress.
If these two groups had completely consolidated behind the Congress, Rahul’s party would be contemplating a big, big victory in 2012. This has not happened, not yet at least. “The Congress,” says an observer in Lucknow, “is paying for the absence of a core vote, around which accretion could take place.”
The search for Muslim support is reflected in party general secretary Digvijaya Singh’s pronouncements and frequent — and sometimes a trifle over-the-top — criticism of the BJP and the Hindu right — and in Rahul’s demand for more concessions to the community. Such as asking Industry Minister Anand Sharma for a package for predominantly Muslim weavers in eastern Uttar Pradesh.
The Brahmin vote, on the other hand, is divided. “The Brahmin has stopped thinking strategically,” rues a former civil servant, “When you used to speak to a Brahmin earlier you felt you were speaking to a political person, today you feel like you are speaking to a member of just another caste.”
While that statement is astonishingly exaggerated and politically incorrect, the fact is Brahmins tended to gravitate towards power — backing the Congress pre-1989, the BJP in the 1990s and the BSP in 2007. This time, they seem split, and guided by local candidates rather than a bigger, pan-state picture. Both the Congress and the BJP are focussing on the Brahmin vote. If a large plurality of Brahmins embraces one of these parties, it could end up doing better than expected.
IN SOME senses, the BJP effort is the most tired and cynical. The same faces, the same rhetoric, the same semiotics, the same belief that anti-incumbency (national and state) in the cities will somehow boost its votes and seats: the BJP is scarcely bothering with anything new. At any rate, it is not likely contender for office.
Neither is the Congress, but it is trying one innovation. Having bought into the assumption that the bulk of the Dalit vote will not leave Mayawati, it is courting MBCs and non-Yadav upper OBCs such as Kurmis, especially in the central-eastern Uttar Pradesh area. These are groups that have not voted for the Congress in 50 years and to win them back will be an enormous feat of social engineering.
Not everybody is convinced it will happen. “Rahulji is viewing things through Beni’s prism,” says a Congress veteran, referring to Beni Prasad Varma, Union steel minister and Kurmi strongman who left the SP to join the Congress. A coalition of Brahmins, Muslims and non-Yadav OBCs is what the Congress hopes for. Should it firm up, it would be unprecedented.
WHAT DOES it all add up to? Jaatiya samikaran — caste equations — that old chestnut of Uttar Pradesh politics is the dominant idea in this election. Those who hoped Uttar Pradesh had turned the corner like its neighbour Bihar and begun to use a more modern grammar of politics, one guided by new economic thinking and the power of middle class aspiration, will have to wait for another election.
For India, that must be something to worry about. With 200 million people, Uttar Pradesh is home to a sixth of all Indians. It is the receptacle of India’s demographic dividend. As the many young faces at Akhilesh’s whistle-stop meetings or Rahul’s rallies make apparent, Uttar Pradesh’s youth too have dreams, too hope for better health indices, educational services and job opportunities — as other Indians do. The longer they are forced to wait, the longer India will have to wait to realise its potential as a nation. In 2012, Uttar Pradesh may not even be beginning that quest. Not even if its politicians use NH 24.
Ashok Malik is Contributing Editor, Tehelka.