February 22, 2020
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Uttar Pradesh Big Names, Diminishing Returns

Uttar Pradesh Big Names, Diminishing Returns
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Lok Sabha seats in UP: 85
The ’98 tally: BJP - 57
Next best party: SP - 20

As the battlefield shifts from Kargil to Uttar Pradesh, where it’s ballot over bullet, neither political parties nor individual politicians dare walk tall. This Lok Sabha election could well prove to be an unexpected Waterloo for some of those vying for the 85 seats the state has to offer. Well-entrenched politicians could end up being vanquished, while unknown, lightweight politicians could well find themselves riding to victory.

The anxiety of the veterans stems from the fact that their parties are fighting on their own this time. There are no tie-ups, no seat sharing or, for that matter, no tacit understanding amongst the four key players. There are no ‘live’ issues to sway the electorate either—Mandal and Mandir, the staple electoral diet of the ’90s, are akin to cheques overdrafted many times over. In many crucial segments, elections do turn on communal or caste polarisations, but there is no broad underlying current this time. Recent months have seen attempts by all parties to grow out of the rigid blocs they have been identified with and manage a cross-over appeal, while fighting off encroachments on their base. Urban voters might be influenced by issues like Kargil or the ‘videshi-swadeshi’ debate, but the rural majority is unmoved by such planks. The upshot, for UP, may be a fractured mandate.

There is a Kalyan Singh, who will flourish or perish, depending on how the BJP fares. There is a Mulayam Singh Yadav, whose Samajwadi Party (SP) is straining to retain its sway among Muslims. And then there is the old horse Congress—fronted by Salman Khursheed—which has to run new laps. Khursheed, deputed by Sonia Gandhi to revive the Congress in the state where it scored zilch last time, has the onus of proving the party’s claim that the Babri ghost is behind it and the Muslims are leaning back towards it. His wife is contesting Farrukhabad, the ‘ancestral’ seat that he could win just once, in ’91. Finally, there are Arun Nehru, N.D. Tiwari, M.M. Joshi, Jitendra Prasada, Mayawati, Sanjay Singh, Phoolan Devi and the like, whose future hinges delicately on these elections.

With no clear wave being felt or sighted, the pre-election patting of backs is giving way to serious contemplation as the crucial phase of campaigning begins. Consider chief minister Kalyan Singh’s mood. Just a couple of days before launching his campaign, he said: "The BJP will improve its performance. But whatever be the outcome, it cannot be the responsibility of any one leader. We are a party that believes in collective responsibility." Advance immunity from a few nasty surprises?

There are good reasons why the chief minister should harp on collective responsibility. Those opposed to Kalyan in the BJP have been suggesting that chief ministership should be taken away from him should the party perform poorly at the hustings. The BJP’s internal assessment that it might not repeat its haul of 57 seats is based on a strong anti-incumbency sentiment, helped along by rancour among party bigwigs. Kalyan has been at the heart of the divide in the state unit between the traditional upper caste-Brahmin lobby and the new obc grouping.

Now consider Mulayam’s situation. The SP would be doing exceptionally well if it retains the 20 seats it got last year. That is why he claims in each of his meetings: "Give us 60 seats and we will be ruling the country." For Mulayam, his political alienation after being held responsible singularly for not supporting an alternative Congress government at the Centre and consequently forcing another elections on the country, could work against him. Clearly, he takes seriously the possibility that Muslim voters may switch their allegiance to the Congress.

The Congress is hoping that it will better its performance over ’98—not too difficult a task since even one seat would have that effect. But the heated and unpleasant bickering over tickets and infighting within the party does not quite jell with a party that claims to be on a major upswing. But all observers agree that the party will tot up a few seats and even spring a surprise in this state, which holds the key for the party forming the next government. The Congress’ prospects would’ve been a lot brighter if it could have tied up with the bsp. But in spite of that, Congress leaders are very effusive and talk of eating into both BJP and SP territories. The recent crossing over of 12 sitting SP mlas, mostly Muslims, to the Congress, lends some weight to the party’s boast that it is winning back the confidence of the minorities. Yet, it would be foolish to expect an en bloc Muslim vote. Though the erosion of the SP’s Muslim votebank by the Congress seems to be a political reality in the state, the voting pattern would still largely be tactical. And in seats where the SP candidates are on a strong wicket the minorities might still largely vote for them, the ultimate objective being the defeat of the BJP.

Then there is the bsp, which won only five seats in the last elections and is hoping to improve on its performance by sloughing off its exclusively Dalit image. Take Phoolpur, where Mayawati has floated a trial balloon by fielding a Yadav. In a constituency which has about 3 per cent Yadavs and 8 per cent Kurmis, sitting MP Jang Bahadur Patel has been denied the SP ticket this time, causing internal bickering at the local level. Says Ram Charan, a local tea-stall owner: "All this hotch-potch is beyond our comprehension." In such a situation, the logic goes, bsp’s Tulsi Ram Yadav might gain.

The story here, however, is more involved and goes beyond caste factors. Atique Ahmed—a ganglord and one-time SP mla from an assembly segment of Allahabad—has reportedly fallen out with his political patron, Mulayam. As a result, he is using his clout in Phoolpur, a part of Allahabad district, to fan the fire of rebellion in the local party unit in Jang Bahadur Patel’s favour to have his revenge on Mulayam.

The BJP and the bsp have begun campaigning in right earnest. Mulayam Singh hit the trail a month ago and by now has addressed meetings in over 50 constituencies. Kalyan Singh, as is his wont, visited the temple in Vindhyachal as he set out for electioneering from August 4. With challenges both from within and outside the party, the once confident Kalyan will certainly be a jittery man till the last vote is counted. Similarly, Mayawati has addressed around 20 public meetings.

The Congress, however, is still waiting in the wings. "We have figured out the launch time of our campaign so that it has lasting effect," says upcc spokesman Kush Bharghava. The idea is to wait for a neap tide which, it hopes, will soon engulf the political landscape. Others, meanwhile, are making good use of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty in other, greener pastures.

Arun Nehru, once a close confidant of the family—and Rajiv Gandhi’s cousin—is now a BJP candidate from Rae Bareli. He flaunts portraits of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi on the dais as he addresses crowds in his constituency. His essential message: "Tell the people how transparent Atalji is. That it is only he (and not a foreigner) who can understand our needs." With his politically savvy ways and background, Nehru can stage a comeback only if he sheds some of his trademark arrogance while handling people. He has been elected as a Congress MP from this very constituency in ’80 and ’84. As and when Congress nominee Satish Sharma starts his campaign in Rae Bareli, he will probably be in a fix to figure out which portraits to use in his meetings.

To believe that any party can abruptly transform the situation in a state where the BJP has been going from strength to strength in the last three elections, will be expecting a miracle of sorts. The saffron party virtually enjoys the position that the Congress once held in the state. After the party, riding the crest of the Hindutva wave, touched the 50-seat mark and 32.9 per cent votes in ’91, it has only consolidated its position. But the shrill dissidence which Kalyan Singh has been facing for over a year, coupled with maladministration, could upset the BJP’s gameplan. The going for the BJP could be a bit tough. With the Congress seeking an emphatic revival in the state, the SP counting on making deeper inroads and the bsp looking forward to gain lost ground, the number two and three standings of the last elections become quite crucial. What remains to be seen is who gains and at whose cost.

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