The elections in Uttar Pradesh (UP) are being fought at different levels: The caste cleavages, rural-urban divide, issue-specific pro-incumbency and the pro-changers acting as a class guided by their relative truths.
There’s no tangible wave of the kind that lifted the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) above the rest in 2014 or the 2017 assembly polls and the 2019 general elections, when Opposition alliances seeming invincible on paper failed to manage even honourable defeats. The “Aayega to Yogi (Adityanath) hi” chorus is consistent, but evidence on the ground is increasingly thin. The reason: The BJP’s forward-caste base sustains; its worry, the discordance in the backward class social combine that had made the party the leviathan so difficult to humble.
What makes the battle complex for the ruling dispensation is the emergence of an identity distinct from that of caste and religion. They’re the nowhere-to-go unemployed youth with deep resentment over the establishment’s lack of empathy. “We’re cane-charged while seeking jobs,” bemoaned Amit Khushwaha of Phulpur’s Jhusi. His angst: The use of force against students who hit the streets in Prayagraj (Allahabad) against a last-minute change of rules for tests for railways jobs.
Khushwaha had butted into a roadside conversation this writer was having over tea with a girl studying medicine, her father and a high-caste advocate and a local Muslim. Their gripe: lack of livelihood opportunities compounded by rampant corruption at all tiers of the state administration. The worst sufferers of it were the educated jobless, some among whom became overage during coronavirus-induced lockdowns. A widely aired demand’s for age bar waiver to help them appear in competitive exams.
Young voters’ mood is a sea-change from the past
The despondent talk marked a sea-change from the 2014 elections when hordes of youth rooted for Narendra Modi across the state. Asked what drew them to a leader from faraway Gujarat, the stock reply was about the jobs he promised: “Woh naukri dilwayenge….” That commonly-shared hope and the Congress’s veritable no-show in the contest gave the now Prime Minister’s maiden pitch for power in Delhi a thrust which so comprehensively pulverised his opponents. The powwow continued till five years later, the BJP wresting a brute majority in 2019 besides its unprecedented 2017 capture of power in UP.
The time period in which UP’s now going to polls is sullied by un-kept promises breeding disillusionment, the gravity of which will be a factor determining the outcome. In more ways than one, it’s the BJP’s MY (Modi-Yogi) versus the MY (Muslim-Yadav base) of the Samajwadi Party. Making Akhilesh Yadav’s dice on the board look like a possible winner is the value-add of Jat votes through Rashtriya Lok Dal’s Jayant Chaudhary and allies such as OP Rajbhar’s Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party.
The turning point in the polls was the resignation from the Yogi regime of heavyweight weaker/backward community ministers: Swami Prasad Maurya, Dara Singh Chauhan and Dharam Singh Saini. The concomitant defections of nearly a dozen other assembly members to the SP changed radically the campaign narrative.
In the words of a plain-speaking BJP insider the revolting legislators were like ‘drunken fireflies’ facing-off the sun: “Jugnuon ne sharab pe li hai, ab woh Suraj ko gaali deinge.” On a serious note, he felt the way the disaffected ministers drafted their resignations hit Yogi where it hurt the most. They accused him of giving a short shrift to small businessmen, the unemployed youth and the backward communities: “Each of these letters was equal to Modiji’s five poll rallies. They gave the SP the political script it needed.”
Diminishing crowds and the BJP’s labharthi card
On the sticky wicket the BJP finds itself, the one card that has traction among the poor, especially women, is the free monthly ration scheme going by the name of Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojna (PMGKAY). Launched in March 2020 during the pandemic, it has, with an eye on elections, been extended till March this year.
Across the districts of Kaushambhi (three seats) and Pratapgarh (seven seats) adjoining Prayagraj (12 seats), people talked about free foodgrain, pulses, cooking oil and salt for lower-income groups. It’s on this category of the electorate called “labharthis (recipients)” that the BJP’s pinning its hopes besides the forward castes’ vocal support for the way Yogi reined in mafia dons, land grabbers and extortionists who allegedly got a “free run” in the 2012-2017 rule of Akhilesh Yadav.
Doubts linger however about the party’s prospects on account of diminishing crowds at meetings and rallies addressed by Modi and other top-rung BJP leaders. Only the poll results will tell whether it’s a sign of constituency-centric dejection or a wider loss of people-connect. What created a big buzz in Prayagraj (Allahabad) city on February 22 was the lackadaisical response to Amit Shah’s rally and the huge crowds Akhilesh Yadav drew in rural Karchana where SP veteran Rewati Ram Singh’s son, Ujjwal Raman is defending his assembly seat.
Dilating on the urban-rural divide, Allahabad’s ubiquitous political pundits advised visiting journalists to travel 30-km from the central square (Ghanta-Ghar) of any city, towards the countryside, for a “real feel” of the public mood. This writer took the counsel and undertook an 80-km drive to Sirathu via Chail and Manjhanpur, covering Kaushambhi’s three assembly constituencies.
The BJP had made a clean sweep of these seats in 2017. But it’s now facing tough contests, especially in Sirathu where deputy chief minister Keshav Prasad Maurya is a candidate at the expense of his party’s sitting legislator. His fight there is with the Apna Dal (Kamerawadi)’s Pallavi Patel.
The seriousness of the challenge he faces could be gauged from the fact that Pallavi’s sister, Anupriya Patel, whose Apna Dal (Sonelal) is aligned with the BJP, had to be pressed into action in Maurya’s support. She pleaded with her Kurmi clansmen to vote for the Dy CM the way they’d have voted for her.
But at Rohi chowk a few km off Sirathu, a clutch of young voters saw a potential winner in Pallavi: “Woh chamak rahi hai….” Making light of the BJP’s free ration scheme (which will end in March), they also predicted a victory in Chail for the alliance’s another woman candidate, the SP’s Pooja Pal.
This group sipping tea at a kiosk comprised two Yadavs, a Maurya, a Dhobi and a Muslim. They were one in agreeing that the ration scheme barely compensated for their crop destroyed by stray cows and cattle. As they talked, a fruit-vendor nearby complained loudly about being forever bullied by the local cops: “The poor don’t count, the BJP’s police only serves the rich and influential forward castes.”
An aggressive pro-changer in the motley group was Ramakant Diwakar, a washer-man who spent thousands of rupees to make his way home from Mumbai during the first lockdown. In Bollywood-style hyperbole, he said the government has sold everything, leaving people to fend for themselves: “Sab kuch bik gaya hai, bus hum aur aap bachey hain.”
The BJP-RSS’s last-mile push
That said, the RSS cadres are proactively connecting with urban/rural voters at their doorsteps to convert the dithering or the undecided among them. Their tactics: putting the fear of the Yadav hegemony of the past to make BJP seem better in comparison. For its part, the latter’s pumping in extra resources to enhance its finishing power.
Given their organisational superiority over the SP, BSP and the Congress, the last mile push makes sense from the Sangh Parivar’s standpoint. That’s more so when the margins of victories and defeats could be wafer-thin in many constituencies.
HT’s veteran political editor, Vinod Sharma, brings together his four-decade-long experience of closely tracking Indian politics, his intimate knowledge of the actors who dominate the political theatre, and his keen eye which can juxtapose the past and the present in his weekly column, Distantly Close
The views expressed are personal