In Uttar Pradesh, the real question is not who is losing and why. Within a few hours of a casual travel through the state, you begin to see a clear pattern in the electoral ‘hawa’. The real question in UP concerns what and how: what’s working for whom, in which way and to what effect? Our obsession with ‘kaun banega CM’ distracts our attention from the issues that are shaping this election. The media focus on political games in Delhi and Lucknow and its old habits of reducing elections to caste vote-banks prevent us from noticing how this election, more than any recent one, is about governance and development.
This election in Uttar Pradesh is about a credible vision for the future, plausible promise of development and reliable track-record of governance. It is easy to miss this, for these grand themes present themselves in quotidian forms: electricity for the powerlooms, cement roads within villages, government recruitment, availability of NREGA employment, sugarcane prices, accessibility to functioning schools and of course getting ‘kaam’ done in tehsil, thana and kachahari. The voters weigh every issue in their own local context. Corruption is an issue but it does not necessarily work against the Congress. Price rise is not about what the economists call inflation, it is about livelihood. Issues such as Ayodhya or reservation for minorities, which occupy media attention, are missing in popular discussions. Of course, the voters see issues through the prism of their social location defined by their caste or community. What appears to be a shift in caste voting is driven by issues of governance and development.
The BSP offers status quo, and faces near rejection. The first Dalit government of independent India doesn’t appear to be a force of social transformation.
The incumbent party offers status quo and faces a near-certain rejection. Ironically, at the end of a full term the first real Dalit government of independent India does not appear to be a force of social transformation. To be fair, Behenji’s governance record was perhaps a shade better than her predecessors’, especially on law and order. Yet conversations with a cross-section of voters confirm what the opinion polls have been saying: public opinion has clearly swung against Mayawati. Some of it could be caste prejudice. This is evident in the exodus of the thin slice of the upper-caste voters who had sided with the BSP in 2007. But that cannot be the reason for a sharp erosion of BSP votes among lower obcs and Muslims, who were the biggest and unacknowledged ‘plus’ votes that led to its victory last time.
Simply put, the BSP is losing popular support across the social spectrum because it does not offer good governance and development to anyone but its committed Dalit voters. There appears a crack even within Dalits, as non-Jatav Dalit communities like Pasi, Sonkar and Balmiki feel excluded from power or tangible benefits of a Dalit government. Instead of bringing all oppressed social groups together, Mayawati appears to have achieved the opposite.
To be sure, conventional political arithmetic favours the BSP in many ways: the party’s election machine is amazingly well-organised and now well-greased, Mayawati pays meticulous attention to local caste equations and has cleverly chosen her candidates. Yet, popular disapproval for the ruling party appears to override these and could translate into a significant negative swing of votes. Since the bsp’s votes are fairly evenly spread through the state, such a loss could mean a massive dent in its tally. The BSP may not even finish a respectable runner-up.
On the other end of the spectrum, the BJP offers nothing to the electorate in terms of a vision. Burdened with a squabbling and discredited leadership, forgotten issues and a forgettable record of governance, the BJP is all set to miss its turn to stage a comeback in its electoral cradle. A pale shadow of its not-so-distant past, the party has lately been reduced to a Congress-like existence in Uttar Pradesh. It surfaces in patches and is largely irrelevant to the contest, except in some urban pockets and places like Gorakhpur, or some districts in western UP. Its own committed voters and cadre are the first to concede defeat and pin all their hopes on a possible alliance with the BSP. What the party leadership is hoping for is a marginal improvement from its dismal tally in the last election. But the first-past-the-post system is very harsh on parties that appear to be falling behind. Even retaining its meagre tally could be a challenge for the BJP. The Samajwadi Party stands not so much for its election manifesto and its newly discovered love for computers and English. If there is a buzz around the party this time, it is because the SP stands for restoration of order, for going back to pre-Behenji days. It is a testimony to the bsp’s unpopularity among non-Dalits that such a restoration looks like a step forward. Helped no doubt by Akhilesh Yadav’s cleaner image and his growing clout in the party, a fairly significant section of UP voters appears willing to forget and forgive the corruption and lawlessness that characterised Mulayam Singh Yadav’s last regime. The upper castes have bought into a story of victimhood and are willing to swallow a bitter pill of SP to avoid another “Harijan raj”. After the Kalyan Singh episode, Muslims also appear to be willing to forgive Mulayam, and SP is their first preference. Though it no longer is an emotional bond between them, villagers and farmers believe the SP will bring them some benefits.
This guarded welcome is all that the SP needs, for UP’s electoral equation favours it. So long as the BSP drops significantly, the SP does not need to gain many more votes in order to emerge at the top. At this mid-point of the polls, the SP is clearly the front-runner, at the threshold of big gains. Every additional per cent vote can fetch nearly twenty additional seats for the SP. A mild hawa in its favour could push the SP close to majority.
Ironically, if there is one party that offers undiluted hope to ordinary voters, it is a party without local organisation, grassroots cadre or a credible state leader. Cutting across castes, classes and the urban-rural divide, public mood is swinging towards the Congress. The Congress is noticed and talked about, Rahul Gandhi gets an appreciative nod from all sectors and some of the issues raised by the party have registered with the popular psyche. This tide of sympathy may not translate into votes, for the Congress candidates do not appear to be ‘in the race’ in a large number of constituencies. Many BSP and BJP voters are inclined towards the Congress but would wait for the next election to switch sides. Nor is the Congress in a position to convert votes into seats in a large stretch of eastern UP. Yet, it can surprise everyone, including itself. If the RLD-Congress combines clicks in western UP, it can even push the BSP to the third spot.
Yet the Congress’s strong hopes for resurgence is not a result of Rahul’s personal charisma. True, his initiative and willingness to take a plunge infused life into a virtually dead organisation and made it a viable player. At the same time, what might appear to be a ‘Rahul effect’ has to do with governance and development. In a climate of cynicism, he has presented something of a forward-looking vision. Eschewing the staple language of caste-community equations, he has raised issues of development. In a party that had given up on the poor and the disadvantaged, he has brought back the language of social justice. The ‘Rahul factor’ is about aligning his party with the changing mood of the times.
UP has changed but we have not. We do not see the real issues in this election, for we are unwilling to look. We insist that issues must present themselves in pristine purity, unsoiled by interests of the voters and politicians. We demand that ordinary voters must become connoisseurs of high ideology that must faithfully be translated into party manifestos. We expect people to detach themselves from the lived reality of their local context and make up their mind mainly on remote ‘national’ questions. It does not happen in UP. It does not happen anywhere in the world. Everyday politics refuses to conform to the dream of the ideologues and designs of the spin-doctors.
(Yogendra Yadav is Senior Fellow, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi