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Bolted Horses, Burnt Chariot & Uttar Pradesh Polls || Midweek Matters 42

31-01-2022published_dt 2022-01-31T10:53:15.115Z31-01-2022 16:23:15 IST
2022-01-31T10:53:15.115Z31-01-2022 2022-01-31T10:53:15.115Z - - 04-10-2022

Hello and welcome back to 

Midweek Matters. 

Hope you have all had a Merry Christmas, a good start to the year 2022 and a Happy Sankranti. 

By March 10 we will know the outcome of the five state assembly elections. I already told you what I found out about the state of play in Punjab after my travel in state in November. I was to go to Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand in December. But spike in Covid cases and uncertainty on how Omicron might pan out discouraged me from making the trip. However, I have been closely observing the developments in the poll bound states. Reading the news and speaking  to many who are seasoned observers of the political scene in the states. Today I want to share with you my reflections on the state of play in the state of Uttar Pradesh. 

Uttar Pradesh is the most dominant political geography of India. It helps to recall the numbers to put things in perspective and to understand the enormous significance of the political choice of the state. Even after the hiving off of the hill areas to form a new state of Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh still retains its political primacy by its sheer numbers. The state sends 80 MPs out of a total of 543 to our Lok Sabha. Roughly the same number as Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Tamil Nadu put together. Or, just 7 less than the combined strength of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala. It elects 31 members to Rajya Sabha out of a total of 245. That is 3 more than Kerala, Karnataka and Telangana together send. Or, 1 seat more than AP, Telangana and Karnataka send to the upper house. The five states that are going to polls next month together send 102 members to Lok Sabha. Of these, UP alone sends 80. 

Let’s now look at the number of Assembly seats at stake. The five states together have 690 assembly seats. UP has 116 more seats than the number of remaining four states combined. I remind you of these numbers to emphasise Uttar Pradesh's importance in the electoral calculus of our democracy. The sheer weight of numbers it commands. Electoral outcome in UP becomes even more significant if you remember that the President of India's election is scheduled for July this year.  

The state has not re-elected the incumbent party for at least over two and a half decades now. The BJP, in one sense, is therefore faced with the formidable task of bucking this trend. However, if we juxtapose the Assembly and Lok Sabha polls, the political choice of the state shows that the party, in another sense, has already bucked that trend. It won resoundingly in 2014 Lok Sabha polls, 2017 assembly elections and then again in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, many experienced political observers have concluded that the BJP has run out of its political steam and reached the limits of its politics of religio-cultural identity narrative. But that, evidently, was not to be. Therefore, it is important to understand if there has been a fundamental political change on the ground since 2012 state assembly elections which accounts for the BJP's continued dominance of the state. And to assess the strength and depth of the challenge the party faces in the present elections. 

BJP's predominant plank in the present elections is an ill-disguised communal narrative. This was not so in 2014. The party at that time fought shy of proclaiming an open communal, Hindu identity agenda. The then PM candidate of the party declared that Muslims and Hindus were not enemies of each other but together they faced common enemies - poverty and unemployment. They should unite to fight these enemies was his call. On the ground, however, communal narrative continued as a subtext of the campaign. Not fielding even a single Muslim candidate for both Lok Sabha and Assembly elections since 2014 was enough of a hint to the electorate about the communal intent of the party. Eventually, from a muted communal plank, the party graduated to a no holds barred divisive Hindutva agenda.

 

Abba Jaan remark of the Chief Minister and the party's UP mascot, the state government's population control legislation, slapping of sedition charges, arrests under UAPA, calling agitating farmers terrorists and anti nationals, the union government's CAA-NRC agenda, PM laying the foundation stone for the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, the grand event of Kashi Vishwanath Corridor, PM's calculated speech on the occasion that alluded to Aurangazeb and Shivaji, his much publicised visit earlier to Kedarnath temple in the neighbouring Uttarakhand, calls for construction of temple in Mathura, all were carefully sequenced to work up a Hindu consolidation behind the party. The open call for extirpation of Muslims by the Dharma Sansad in Haridwar and the complete silence of the Prime Minister and other leaders of union government and the ruling party both in state and national levels about it took the gloves off of the BJP's iron Hindutva fist. The UP CM's remark that these elections are a fight between 80% Hindus and 20% Muslims - the famous 80-20 formula - is the crown jewel of the party's narrative. However, this is a formidable narrative that has delivered three good victories in a row to the BJP. 

The party apparently believes that its indifferent record on job creation, rising unemployment, failure to control prices and arresting the fuel price hike, prevailing economic hardship, rural distress, farmers' anger, large scale deaths due to mishandling of Covid second wave, floating of Covid dead in the holy Ganga, the vaccine mess, will be overshadowed by Hindutva identity agenda in the minds of the electorate. The 2017 assembly elections were proof of concept that this agenda delivers. The narrative could help the party to successfully overcome the economic shock and distress caused by the mindless and futile demonetisation. 

Coherent challenge to this narrative is yet to be articulated in the state and a cohesive political platform remains unconstructed. There are no signs of a reversal of Congress decline. It’s core  constituency has not yet returned to it despite the persistent efforts of Priyanka Gandhi. Muslims, Upper Castes and Dalits who constituted its base were appropriated by Samajwadi Party, BJP and Bahujan Samaj Party respectively. It has a long road to travel to reclaim its pre 1989 ground. 

In the 10 years since it lost power in the state, the BSP seems to have done little that yielded results to recover its lost ground. Of the 65 something Dalit subs-castes, a significant number of non Jatav castes have moved away from it, some successfully co-opted by the BJP. It is not in a position to mount a credible challenge to either Hindutva narrative or the BJP's social engineering. 

If there is a political challenge in the state that makes the BJP leadership sit up and worry, it is from the Samajwadi Party. That is the party from which the BJP wrested power in 2017. The party under the former CM Akhilesh Yadav is able to stitch up anti-BJP alliances with several smaller parties in the state. It has become the go to party for the disaffected leaders from the BJP. The 79 something OBC castes seem to be gravitating towards SP. In addition, there are indications that the farmers who just tasted their victory over the BJP government at the centre are in favour of Akhilesh-Jayant Chaudhury alliance. Jayant Chaudhury, by the way, is the son of Ajit Singh and grandson of Charan Singh. His party is a force in the Jat dominated western UP. That region hugely favoured the BJP in the last three elections. A potential loss here would be a great setback to it. 

For all practical purposes it looks like UP is heading towards a straight and close fight between BJP and Samajwadi Party. Indications are that SP is rapidly closing the gap between it and the incumbent BJP. It is snapping at BJP's heels. There are a couple of major challenges for the SP. One, to what extent the BJP benefits from the Congress, BSP, and AIMIM cutting into its vote share.

 

And how many constituencies would it lose as a consequence? Two, will it be able to stave off the campaign that goondas, especially Muslim strongmen and Yadav musclemen, ruled the roost during Akhilesh's tenure as CM.

Two months ago I shared my thoughts on the forthcoming elections to the UP assembly. I concluded the episode with these words:

"In the current state of play, the BJP's attempt is to overwhelm the economic and governance issues with issues of Hindu identity and dharmic pride. It’s ahead in the game at the moment. The challenge for the opposition is to bring to the fore the issues of governance, economic hardship and threat to the tolerant and pluralistic identity and a liberal idea of India. Equally important is to forge a unity to take on the might of the electoral juggernaut that the BJP has morphed into under the stewardship of Modi-Shah. The chances of this happening look dismal today. All things being equal, the outcome of the contest scheduled in UP in the next few months will cast the die. The outcome will determine the shape of India as a society and polity."

BJP still has noticeable advantages in the current state of play. It has unlimited financial resources at its command. It has both state level and national level probe and enforcement agencies at its beck and call. Above all, BJP is the sole occupant of the Hindutva space. And it has a formidable array of organisations and platforms - starting from Dharma Sansad to countless rag tag vigilante groups - to put their shoulders to its electoral juggernaut. No other political party in the country today has that kind of a mighty support system. In addition, disunity which borders on enmity among BJP's opponents is a blessing for it. 

A win for BJP in UP is not a win for a political party. It is a victory for a narrative, for an idea of India that is inimical to the founding principles of our Republic. Similarly a win for SP or any other party against BJP there is not victory for that party alone. It is a victory for the liberal, plural, tolerant, secular, democratic India. It needs to be seen in that light. It is too dangerous to risk a loss in this fight. Platforms that challenge the divisive Hindutva agenda need to collaborate, complement each other.

I will end this by giving you what is called a Nyaya in Sanskrit, to illustrate my point. The Nashtasva Dagdha Ratha Nyayam. 

Two travellers set out on a journey on their own chariots. They broke journey at the end of the day and took lodgings in an inn. When they came out the next morning ready to continue their journey, one person found that his horses have bolted. The other found his chariot was burnt down. One had chariot but no horses. The other had horses, but no chariot. Neither of them could proceed on his own. Wise as they were, they collaborated. The horses of the man whose chariot was burnt were harnessed to the chariot of the man who horses have bolted. And they went ahead towards their destination. This is nashtaasva dhagdha ratha nyayam. The Nyaya of bolted horses and burnt chariot. There are people in the country who want political parties to keep this Nyaya in mind, especially in UP. 

 

That’s all for this week. Will be back again next week,

Wednesday, lunch time at 1:00 o’clock. 

Stay safe and take good care of yourselves and all your loved ones. 

Until then, Bye.

 

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