What we saw SP and Congress have been first off the block in campaigning, banking on the young faces of Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi. Low-key BJP bids to polarise OBCs, but is riven by infighting and leadership squabbles. Blasé BSP yet to start canvassing but smiling secretly over the row caused by the EC diktat to clothe Maya’s statues.
What we expect BSP may lose some ground due to anti-incumbency and corruption overhang. SP, which has not been able to enlarge its backward class base, won’t be able to pull it off on its own. Congress doesn’t have the organisational strength or the local leadership to encash on the hype generated by Rahul Gandhi’s trips. BJP in a toss-up with Congress for No. 3 spot.
What we couldn’t figure Are Brahmins, who joined hands with Dalits in installing Mayawati, still with BSP, five years on? Will minority quota move benefit Congress—or harm SP? Could disenchantment with SP among MBCs help BJP? Could growing socio-economic mobility keep BSP in?
What might happen The best-case scenario is if either BSP or SP get the numbers on their own, but it is unlikely. In hung house, BSP can take BJP or Congress support. If SP falls well short of BSP, it has to hope Congress does better than expected since direct BJP support is out of the question. Congress stands to play kingmaker either way.
Why UP is vital It’s the ultimate test of Rahul Gandhi’s draw before next general elections, due in 2014. Whether it is BSP or SP, the next government in UP holds the key to the stability of the Manmohan Singh government at the Centre, given the trouble Congress is having from allies like Trinamool and NCP. Net-net, UP verdict will offer a sneak preview of 2014.
From Lucknow to Benares and further on towards the region known as Purvanchal, a strange rumour spread on the night of January 2: all those who sleep through the night will turn into stone by dawn. Children were forced awake, adults stepped out of their homes in the bitter cold, shops were opened to sell haldi and geru (a red powder), the rubbing of which on the body was believed to avert the strange phenomenon. Through SMS and word of mouth, people were told to recite the Hanuman Chalisa; many did, as rumours of an earthquake and other impending disasters also spread.
Who wants to be CM? Supporters moot Maya as PM. (Photograph by Nirala Tripathi)
UP had indeed entered the New Year on a bizarre note when humans feared becoming statues. The predictions of the election outcome at this stage can perhaps be as wild as the reasoning that drove so many people out of their homes and gave them a sleepless night.
Chief minister Mayawati is believed to be on a weak wicket, yet she begins her campaign as late as January 27. One can only assume that she has a strategy. What one cannot ignore is that if the election is a 100-metre run, then she always starts with a 20-metre advantage, given her Dalit votebank, which constitutes about 21 per cent of the population. And when she does start campaigning, it will be a whirlwind of rallies across the state. That apart, she has a cadre, has dropped 100 candidates and in the last two weeks changed 10 ministers. It’s her way of combating anti-incumbency. Yet the game has opened up as she has lost considerable support in other communities.
Akhilesh Yadav on his kranti rath yatra in Lucknow. (Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari)
The face of her rival Mulayam Singh Yadav’s campaign is son Akhilesh, who is rolling across the state with his kranti rath yatra. Being the new kid on the block, and given SP’s strong grassroots structure, the rath is evoking some response. Supporters wearing red caps await the young man; a large bunch of red and green balloons is released when he arrives. The pulley goes up. “Mayawati has only given you patthar (stones). Vote for change. Vote for us,” Akhilesh tells his audience. Stones and statues, both real and imaginary, are on top of people’s mind in Uttar Pradesh.
The Congress, meanwhile, is, as a local pundit put it, “mostly hawa hawai. but alive in traditional areas”. It has the problem of one national figure in Rahul Gandhi, too many state leaders at odds with each other and no organisational structure. It is present in pockets but there is no sign of any great wave in its favour. Indeed, the question of the Muslim vote is a vexed one for the party, as we came to discover later.
With most disillusioned by politics, people are eventually likely to vote along caste lines as the polls gather steam.
The BJP too registers its existence only in pocket boroughs, and its local leaders say that the national leadership is more often a liability than an asset. Anna Hazare’s movement is mentioned only once, by a professor of the Benares Hindu University (BHU), but in this journey through Awadh into Purvanchal, it is not seen as anything of relevance. “Anna who?” asked a villager near Akbarpur. Yet, across the state, people are disappointed by politics, sick of corruption, expect only more of the same, and complain of their daily sadak-bijli-pani woes. In the end, they will mobilise on caste lines, depending on whom they want to defeat in a particular constituency. It’s a negative brand of politics devoid of any hope.
Take Faizabad, that includes Ayodhya, a pivot that once transformed the political landscape. In 2012, the most interesting candidate it has thrown up is a kinnar (eunuch) who plans to contest as an independent. At the ghantaghar locality in the heart of town, we are surrounded by traders. Lalji Agarwal, who runs a jewellery shop, says philosophically, “A hijra is better than all of these useless parties.”
Gulshan Bindu campaigning in Ayodhya
Gulshan Bindu, the lady in question, turns out to be quite a character. She is surrounded by two rather gorgeous-looking creatures, animated, made up, one of them revealing a very ample cleavage in a tight white shirt. They are certainly shaking up musty old Faizabad. Tears well up in Gulshan’s eyes, because she says she feels for the people and no one cares for their problems but only divides them into Hindus and Muslims. She then produces a Jai Shri Ram dialogue of her own. “Bhagwan Ram had said na hum nar hain na naari (we are neither woman nor man) but we shall rule in Kalyug.”
This seat has been won five times by the BJP’s Lalu Singh. The SP has traditionally been the closest rival, but it’s the BSP candidate who is expected to give the fight this time because of caste calculations. The Peace Party too has put up a Brahmin and may cut into some Muslim votes of the Congress and SP. In the middle of this, there is Gulshan Bindu, who is becoming a magnet for local disgust with politics. Efforts are on to make her retire from the contest, but Gulshan says, “I will die but will not quit.” She has created a stir in the assembly polls but she is expected to win later in a local body election.
Sitting BJP MLA Lalu Singh
MLA Lalu Singh is sitting in the empty BJP office in Faizabad under fluttering party banners. “People are enjoying the show,” he says. “Sonia Gandhi keeps sending people to Ayodhya to defeat the BJP. Now she has sent a eunuch.” But, in Ayodhya, in the lanes leading to the Ram Mandir and the Hanuman Garhi temples, it’s still BJP all the way.
The scene shifts quickly in neighbouring Ambedkar Nagar district, a region from where Mayawati had once contested the Akbarpur seat. Ahrana village, off the highway, is an Ambedkar village. Ram Shubag, who works as a labourer here, is still hesitant to speak; many Dalit women smile shyly but say they know nothing of the election. “We have not been told yet. The villagers will all decide who to vote for. The sarpanch will tell us,” says Shubag. Who did you vote for in the last election? The elephant. Villagers then proudly point to a small dispensary that has come up. They show off the building. Ram Vachan is dispensing medicines there. Doctors from Akbarpur come a few times in the week. They may be coy about revealing their voting intentions, but all the signs point to this being a BSP stronghold.
Muslim voters in Azamgarh
On the road to Azamgarh, the car is stopped and checked several times. The police are looking for cash that may possibly be distributed during elections. By dark, we reach Sanjarpur, the village labelled a terror hub. Sixty per cent of the population is Muslim. Two boys from here were killed in the Batla House encounter, four have gone missing, possibly killed by the police, three are in jail. But there’s much more to Sanjarpur. It is far more literate than the average Muslim cluster. It has produced two judges, 25 lawyers, two doctors, several teachers, people who work in Dubai and Mumbai. And people here are furious with the Congress.
For Azamgarh Muslims, the big issue is they’ve all been called terrorists. For this, they blame Congress and its ‘loyal media’.
Fahim Ahmed, the pradhan, says that the votes will mostly go to the SP and a small number to the Ulema Council, a Muslim political party. “The Muslims in the whole of Azamgarh district say the big issue is that they have been called terrorists. They see the Congress and its loyal media as behind this,” says Mohammad Shakir, a teacher. The vehemence with which Muslims in Azamgarh say they will never vote Congress should worry the grand old party. Dr Iqbal, a retired professor from the Shibli College in Azamgarh, says there is a larger conspiracy to make Muslims into second-class citizens. “If we come up on our own, they call us terrorists. The Congress is the B Team of the BJP. They broke the Babri Masjid, they now try to fool us with reservation, while innocent boys disappear.”
The picture, however, changes district by district. In the Muslim-dominated Madanpura locality of Benares, residents are divided between the SP and Congress, as the priority here is to defeat the BJP. Says Haji Mushtaq Ahmed, a small trader, “We expect nothing, believe reservation is another fraud, but may still vote for the Congress if it seems the stronger party on voting day.”
A BJP supporter in Varanasi
This is a city of faith that reposes none in politics. On the magical ghats, they are engaged in the pursuit of religious form, but as they drop their guard during a chat, it emerges that political loyalties are based on caste origins. The majhis (boatmen) seem to prefer the BSP, a Yadav pujari grins and says SP—it is indeed a matter of community affiliation. Above Assi ghat, the Pappu chai shop is somewhat of an institution in Benares. It’s where the city’s pundits, many from BHU, gather on rickety wooden benches to drink strong chai, read the papers, contemplate politics and the human condition. They are delighted to share their opinions with a visitor who may be interested—“The Anna factor may count here,” says Devbratt Choubey, a professor of philosophy at BHU, who also reveals candidly that he will vote the BJP. But Dr Vashishtha, a geologist, gently teases his friend for misleading people about Anna and the BJP. He says he will vote the Congress, as the local candidate Rajesh Mishra is a former student union leader with a long history in the city. Prof Bhanu Pratap Singh agrees and says that the only thing that will pick up tempo as the election proceeds is casteism. He too is voting the Congress. The grand old party is the winner over the BJP in Pappu’s chai shop.
Pappu’s chai shop
In Benares, Veer Bhadra Mishra, the mahant of the Sankat Mochan temple, epitomises a man of religion who stands for humanism. He had voted for communal peace when there was a bomb blast in the temple in 2006 although every election there is an attempt to divide, he says. “What of politics here,” he asks, “when Gangaji is being polluted?” Sewage is falling into the Ganga at 32 points from the city, crores have been sanctioned to clean the river, but no one has found the place for a treatment plant. “We go round in circles, no one concentrates on the problem.” He too has initiated an effort to clean the Ganga but it’s like hitting a brick wall. “What of politics?” he asks again.
But the river flows on, holy and polluted. The human spirit also endures. At night, we are invited to hear Mishra practise singing with Pandit Channulal Mishra. The two meet three times a week as the magic of Benares still strikes the right raga. Instead, we return to Lucknow. There, the collective wisdom of political pundits is that it will be a hung verdict and UP may be in for a spell of President’s rule.