Debating India


Political paradoxes

Saturday 25 September 1999, by RAMAKRISHNAN*Venkitesh

In this election, the secular vote is more sharply divided in Uttar Pradesh than in previous elections, largely owing to the political resurgence of the Congress(I). Even so, the BJP appears likely to face an erosion in its support base and its tally of seats.

in Uttar Pradesh

THE electoral scene in the 85 Lok Sabha constituencies in Uttar Pradesh is somewhat paradoxical this time. In the two previous Lok Sabha elections, in 1996 and 1998, the split in the secular vote between the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the Bahujan Samaj P arty (BSP) helped the Bharatiya Janata Party win a majority of the seats in the State. This time, the secular vote is bound to be more divided than before - particularly since a resurgent Congress(I) has forced a quadrangular contest in a sizable number of constituencies. Yet the BJP, which should ordinarily have benefited from such a division of the secular vote, may end up winning fewer seats than it did in 1998.

This political situation, astonishing in many ways, has come about essentially on account of four factors. First, the strong anti-incumbency mood towards the Kalyan Singh-led BJP coalition Government in the State, which may prove to be the decisive facto r in almost every constituency in Uttar Pradesh. Second, the shift in the votes of those belonging to the upper castes, particularly Brahmins, from the BJP to the Congress(I), and the growing support for the Congress(I) among Muslim minorities. Third, th e denial of the ticket to former BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj and the resentment it has caused among large sections of the Lodh Rajput backward caste community, which traditionally supported the BJP. Fourth, the vote arithmetic factor that is bound to give an e dge to the party that finished second in each constituency in the previous elections. Going by campaign trends, this will help either the S.P. or the BSP in at least 18 constituencies, and the BJP in seven constituencies.

The absence of a sense of euphoria over the "great Kargil victory", which the BJP appeared to be banking on, and the failure of the public to share in the BJP’s appreciation of the "sterling leadership qualities" of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, a re two other factors that are certain to work against the BJP.

The party that is expected to make the biggest and most dramatic gains from all this is the Congress(I). A party that had fared as badly as it did in 1998 - it did not win a single seat - can, of course, only improve its performance this time. To what ex tent the other political forces in the State, such as the S.P. and the BSP, can benefit from a possible erosion in the BJP’s strength is a trifle unclear. For in those constituencies where the two parties had won in 1998, they may be affected by the "ant i-incumbency" sentiment directed at the sitting MP. The Congress(I)’s blank score-card in U.P. in 1998 means that it will face no such problem.

Undoubtedly, the Congress(I) is set to transform itself from the position of having been the only clear loser in the 1998 elections to being the only certain winner this time. In 1996 it won only five seats and secured 8.14 per cent of the popular vote i n the State. In 1998, it lost all five seats, and its vote share slumped further to 6.02 per cent. In the view of political analysts, the Congress(I) in U.P. was the only major party to lose out on both counts. Both the BJP and the S.P. increased their s eat and vote share; the BSP increased its vote share from 20.6 per cent to 20.9 per cent, although its seat share fell from six to four. Trends from across the State this time indicate that the Congress(I) is certain to increase its share of votes as wel l as seats.

The rejuvenation of the Congress(I) is evident most strikingly in the hill districts and parts of western and central Uttar Pradesh; the party is expected to do well in about 20 seats in these regions. The party is particularly well placed in the four co nstituencies in the hill districts. Led by veteran leader N.D. Tiwari, who is contesting from his traditional Nainital seat, the Congress(I) is putting up such a good show in the region that independent observers say that it may even make a clean sweep h ere.

In addition to the anti-incumbency mood against the State Government and the shift in the allegiance of Brahmins and other upper castes in favour of the Congress(I), two factors operate in this region. First, there is deep-rooted resentment against the C entral Government for its failure to deliver on its promise to grant statehood to the hill districts. During the 1998 election campaign, the BJP had promised that a new state of Uttaranchal would be formed within 80 days of its assuming office. The peopl e in the hill districts are incensed that this promise remains unfulfilled. The second factor that is likely to favour the Congress(I) is that its organisational base in the region is far superior to that of the S.P. and the BSP.

In Pratapgarh, former MP Ratna Singh, who is contesting for the third successive time, will benefit from the Congress(I)’s good organisational base. Similar is the situation in Shajahanpur, where former Congress(I) vice-president Jitendra Prasada is pitt ed against Union Minister Satyapal Singh Yadav of the BJP and Ram Murthi Singh of the S.P. In Rampur, a strong grassroots-level support base coupled with the presence of a popular candidate - Begum Noorbhano, who finished second in 1998 - will work to th e Congress(I)’s advantage. The BJP has fielded Mukthar Naqvi, Union Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting, but Noorbhano’s charisma and the shift of the votes of Muslims are expected to see her through this time.

In at least five other constituences in central Uttar Pradesh, the Congress(I) is likely to benefit from the emotive appeal of the Nehru-Gandhi family. Amethi and Rae Bareli are considered the pocketborough of the family; this time Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi is contesting from Amethi and Captain Satish Sharma from Rae Bareli. Similar political influences are at work in Sultanpur, Pratapgarh and Allahabad. The dynasty factor comes into play in Farukhabad too, where Louis Khurshid, grand daughter- in-law of former President Zakir Hussain and wife of State Congress(I) president Salman Khurshid, is in the fray.

Similarly, in six constituencies in western Uttar Pradesh, including the key seats of Meerut, Baghpat and Saharanpur, the Congress(I) is putting up a strong show in association with the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) led by Ajit Singh. In this region, Muslim vo ters have almost completely deserted the S.P., which they had backed solidly until now. The reason for this desertion seems to be the perception that the S.P. may not be able to defeat the BJP owing to its inability to strengthen its support base among c ommunities other than the minorities.

Scores of Muslims whom Frontline spoke to in various parts of western Uttar Pradesh underlined this point. A group of Muslims in the Shajahanpur region in Meerut said that only Muslims seemed to be voting for the S.P. and that this was not enough to fulfil their primary objective of defeating the BJP. Echoing these sentiments, Dr. Tariqat Ali, an Ayurvedic physician in Daula village in Baghpat constituency, said: "Our votes were going waste. We do not want that to happen again."

In contrast, the Congress(I) and the RLD, both of which are witnessing an improvement in their political fortunes over their abysmal performance in 1998, are drawing support from a section of the upper castes, Gujjars and Jats, in addition to that of Mus lims - a formidable support base as they take on the BJP. However, the Congress(I) has not won such widespread support in central and eastern Uttar Pradesh, even in constituencies where it has won in the past. As a result, doubts about its winnability ha ve prevented an en masse transfer of Muslim votes.

Resentment triggered by the choice of candidates and the lack of proper organisational machinery have accentuated this deficiency. In Farukhabad, a section of the party activists are upset by the "imposition" of political debutant Louis Khurshid; in Rae Bareli, the nomination of Satish Sharma has led to some heart-burn. Former BJP MP from Rae Bareli Ashok Singh, who has a strong base among the upper-caste Thakur community and who resigned from the BJP two months ago, was hoping to get the Congress(I) ti cket from here. The high command’s move to bring in Sharma, an "outsider", has angered Ashok Singh’s supporters, who, by all indications, are backing the S.P. candidate, Gajendra Singh, a Thakur and a local politician.

Even in Allahabad, where the Congress(I)’s choice of candidate has not been questioned, the minorities are not quite ready to back the Congress(I) because the party is not seen as a winning prospect. The Congress(I) candidate, Rita Bahuguna, the city May or, has a good administrative track record; being the daughter of former Chief Minister H.N. Bahuguna, she has the support of sections of the upper castes. But her campaign is hampered by the absence of a Congress(I) organisational machinery; the campaig n is being managed in large part by her mother Kamla Bahuguna, 75, who knows the constituency well.

If Rita Bahuguna gets her act together, she can take credit for defeating two powerful candidates, Union Minister for Human Resource Development Murli Manohar Joshi of the BJP and former Deputy Chief Minister Reoti Raman Singh of the S.P. But in order to be able to do that, she needs to win over the support of the Muslims. Other seats where the party is putting up a good fight are Varanasi and Kanpur.

THE Congress(I)’s problem in areas other than western Uttar Pradesh and the hill districts is that the strong support it has among the minorities is not supplemented by a support base among other groups. And this is precisely the strength of the S.P. and the BSP in a large number of seats in Poorvanchal, Bundelkhand and Ruhelkhand. The S.P., which registered the biggest growth in terms of vote share in 1998 - it grew from 20.83 per cent in 1996 to 28.69 per cent in 1998 as compared to the BJP’s increase from 33.43 per cent to 36.48 per cent - has constantly attracted new sections and communities to its fold.

Between 1996 and 1998 it added sizable sections of Thakurs to its traditional support base of Yadavs and Muslims. Party general secretary Amar Singh played on the feelings of resentment among this upper-caste community triggered by the short-lived BJP-BS P alliance of 1996-97. The party has fielded 19 Thakur candidates this time. The S.P. leadership further claims that it will benefit from the bitterness among Banias and a section of Brahmins against the State and Central governments. These claims are va lid, at least in some areas of the State. In Kusmara and Kishni villages in Mainpuri district as well as in Etawah town, groups of Banias affirmed that they had shifted their loyalty from the BJP to the S.P. "Mulayam Singh Yadav keeps his word: he does n ot go back on his promise - as the BJP leaders do even after taking bribes," said Dinesh Chandra Aggarwal of Etawah.

According to senior S.P. leaders, seeing the party’s ability to add to its support base, the Muslim community had felt encouraged to stay with the S.P., although a section of the minorities were unhappy over Mulayam Singh Yadav’s failure to cooperate in the formation of an alternative government under Sonia Gandhi’s leadership following the fall of the Vajpayee government. In Bahraich and Azamgarh constituencies, which were held by the BSP, it is believed that the accretion of support to the S.P. may pe rsuade Muslims to back the S.P. this time. In constituencies such as Badaun, Mainpuri and Kannauj, where the Yadavs are the dominant community along with Muslims, the minorities will almost certainly support the S.P.

The S.P. suffered a series of jolts in the early stages of its campaign when 12 MLAs, including five belonging to the minority community, left the party. Many of them joined the Congress(I). The leadership claims to have made up for this loss by winning over leaders from other parties such as the BSP and the Congress(I) and by winning support from other caste groups. The S.P. has fielded six former BSP candidates, including Kamal Yusuf Malik, V.P. Nishad and Hari Prasad, who had in 1998 finished second in Domariaganj, Fatehpur and Robertsganj respectively. All three seats had been won by the BJP.

Despite resorting to such tactics, the S.P. will face a tough time retaining its seats in Jalesar, Mohanlalganj and Balrampur. The shifting of Muslim votes to either the Congress(I) or the BSP, and anti-incumbency sentiment at the constituency level, may pose problems. While the BSP is reportedly ahead in Jalesar, the BJP’s chances seem to be bright in Mohanalalganj and Balrampur.

However, the S.P. hopes to benefit from the Sakshi Maharaj factor, which has effectively delivered to it the votes of a section of the backward castes - Lodh Rajputs. There is a significant presence of Lodh Rajputs in the 11 constituencies that lie betwe en Mathura and Farukhabad; of these, the S.P. won only three in 1998. This time it hopes to wrest seven seats from the BJP. Whether these hopes will be realised is unclear, but it is evident that despite the loss of support of a section of Muslims to the Congress(I), the S.P. is still a force to reckon with in 35 to 40 constituencies. Even if it manages to win half of these, the party will be able to retain the 20 seats it won in 1998.

The BSP had in 1998 fielded a number of candidates from among the upper castes in order to gain the backing of these groups and add to its traditional support base among Dalits and Muslims. The enterprise did not succeed: the BSP’s vote share increased o nly by 0.30 per cent, and the party’s parliamentary strength came down by two seats. This time the party has decided to go it alone, hoping to secure the support of a substantial section of Muslim voters, who were believed to be deserting the S.P. The BS P has fielded 31 Muslim candidates, the most by any party. This strategy appears to be working in some constituencies such as Shahbad, Jalesar and Maharajganj, but not in others. In these three seats, the BSP candidates - Dawood Ahamed, Ramveer Upadhyaya and Talat Aziz - have taken the campaign scene by storm.

However, the BSP has always had a problem retaining seats. This time too the party faces a tough time in constituencies such as Bahraich and Azamgarh, where Arif Mohammed Khan and Akbar ’Dumpy’ Ahmed respectively won in 1998.

Leaders of the BJP, including general secretary K.N. Govindacharya, say that in their estimation the BSP will finish second in the State, pushing the S.P. to the third place. The BJP had made a similar assessment in 1998 too.

The BSP hopes also to benefit from the "arithmetic factor" in at least 10 seats. Analysts estimate that this factor will come into play in seats where the S.P. or the BSP finished second behind the BJP in 1998 with a margin of less than 50,000 votes and the party that finished second (either the BSP or the S.P.) secured more than one lakh votes. These analysts believe that since both the parties draw their support from a similar voter-constituency (with the minorities playing a major role in their vote share), tactical voting by Muslims this time will help the party that finished second in 1998 to win this time. The BSP finished second in 13 such seats, and the S.P. in 10. Campaign trends in some of these seats, such as Shahbad, Aonla, Sitapur and Robe rtsganj, conform to this theory, but just how far it will be substantiated on a broader electoral plane remains to be seen.

Apart from all these factors, the BJP is handicapped by its cadres’ lack of interest in electioneering, an entirely new experience for the saffron party. Leading the list of those whose sincerity in campaigning has been called into question is the Chief Minister, who has not toured Aligarh, his home constituency. Kalyan Singh, who is on record that the BJP high command has given a raw deal to the party workers from among the backward castes in the allocation of the party ticket in the State, is believed to be upset over the denial of the ticket to Sakshi Maharaj. (Kalyan Singh too belongs to the Lodh Rajput community.) BJP insiders alleged that the Chief Minister is tacitly supporting the S.P. in some seats and receiving reciprocal assistance in consti tuencies where candidates known to have his patronage are contesting.

Obviously, all this bodes ill for the BJP. According to Hariraj Singh Tyagi, a long-time associate of the late Socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia, the churning within the BJP cadre shows that the rank and file is no longer ready to listen to the diktats of the leadership unquestioningly in the name of party discipline. He said: "The cadre wants its share in decision-making. That is the lesson the current campaign has given."

After the first round of polling on September 18, a section of the BJP leadership, including Govindacharya, had reportedly realised the difficulties in the party’s campaign management and initiated measures to overcome potential setbacks. Just how far th e BJP can succeed in checking the erosion in its support base and its seat tally will depend largely on the efficacy of these measures.

See online : Frontline


Volume 16 - Issue 20, Sep. 25 - Oct. 08, 1999

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