Debating India


Changing scene

Saturday 25 September 1999, by MURALIDHARAN*Sukumar

The presence of four strong political formations in the fray, and the likely shift in the voting patterns of the castes and communities forming their support bases, have made the electoral outcome highly unpredictable in Uttar Pradesh.

A CURIOUS air of detachment prevails in the Bharatiya Janata Party office in Faizabad, Uttar Pradesh. Party volunteers sprawl indolently on mattresses laid out on the floor, not really seeking public attention with the fervour customary of an election se ason. Vinay Katiyar, the battering ram of the BJP’s Ayodhya mobilisation, is out campaigning to regain the seat he lost in 1998 after successive triumphs in 1991 and 1996. But his party workers are unaware of his location and itinerary.

Just days earlier, Vishwa Hindu Parishad chieftain Ashok Singhal had been to Faizabad to campaign for his embattled protege. At two rather sparsely attended public meetings, he never once raised the issue of the Ram temple at Ayodhya. In the discourse of the VHP, Ayodhya had obviously been supplanted by Kargil as a symbol of resurgent Indian nationalism.

The palpable sense of indifference in the BJP camp is curious. By any reckoning, the party stands a good chance of regaining Faizabad, a seat of symbolic importance ever since it became the focus of the ritualistic politics of the Ayodhya movement. On ba sic arithmetical logic, it faces an Opposition that is splintered three ways, rather than two ways as in 1998. In obvious ire at being denied the ticket, Mitrasen Yadav who won the seat for the Samajwadi Party in 1998, is contesting as an independent can didate. Having won twice from Faizabad - the first time as a Communist Party of India candidate in 1991 - Mitrasen has a presence in certain pockets of the constituency. Moreover, he is impossible to ignore because of the energy and zeal he brings to his campaign and the various debts of honour he is known to call in at election time.

The Samajwadi Party ticket this time around has been given to Heeralal Yadav, a zilla parishad-level politician of limited horizons and unthreatening mien - attributes that make him an appropriate standard-bearer for party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav. Sh ould the two Yadav candidates split the 250,000 votes that the Samajwadi Party obtained in 1998, then Katiyar, who lost by fewer than 8,000 votes, should have an easy time. The Bahujan Samaj Party is also in the fray and is not expected to suffer serious diminution in the 19 per cent vote share it recorded in 1998.

Katiyar’s problems emanate from a rather unforeseen quarter. After having virtually sat out two elections, the Congress(I) has returned to the contest in Faizabad with a new energy. Gone is the lack of purpose and direction so evident in 1996, when the C ongress(I) gave the ticket to a local college teacher best known for his manic advocacy of the temple project at Ayodhya. Absent too is the indifference of 1998, when the Congress(I) ceded the seat to Ajit Singh’s party, which did not have even a token p resence in the region.

The Congress(I) this time has fielded Nirmal Khatri who came to prominence as the local legislator in 1980 and as the youngest member of the U.P. Ministry. He subsequently won the election to the Lok Sabha in 1984, but withdrew from active political enga gement after a narrow loss in 1989 and an abject failure of initiative in his party over the BJP’s pursuit of the Ayodhya project. A grand-nephew of Acharya Narendra Dev, Khatri brings the prestige of a respected political dynasty to the campaign. But he faces a long haul in pushing the Congress(I)’s tally of the popular vote up from the region of 2 per cent - where it has lingered in the last two general elections. As a member of a minuscule Khatri community, he cannot recruit caste loyalties to his ca use. But his campaign managers expect a substantial number of votes to accrue on the strength of his aura and personality. The erosion of Katiyar’s image and the deflation of the Ram temple as an issue are expected to contribute the rest. The energetic c ampaign mounted by the Congress(I) in Faizabad strongly conveys the impression of a party that senses a dramatic - and imminent - reversal of fortunes.

IN nearby Rae Bareli, the man who was partly responsible for initiating the Congress(I)’s fatal flirtation with Hindu communalism as Rajiv Gandhi’s closest political confidant, affects an air of supreme confidence. Arun Nehru, Minister of State for Home Affairs in the Rajiv Gandhi administration and later a member of the V.P. Singh Cabinet, is today the standard-bearer for the BJP in a constituency he has won twice before for the Congress(I). He confronts Satish Sharma, a longtime Gandhi family intimate , fighting on the Congress(I) ticket. He is busy calling in old associations from the decade of the 1980s, when he represented Rae Bareli in Parliament.

Arun Nehru’s confidence emanates from his reading that between 1980, when he first won with 68 per cent of the vote and 1998, when the Congress(I) logged 7 per cent, the party he once represented has suffered irreversible damage.

Ashok Singh, an old lieutenant of Arun Nehru’s, had won Rae Bareli for the BJP in 1998. He switched loyalties to the Congress(I) when the current elections were called, in the evident belief that he would be given the party ticket for the constituency. H e has not taken well to Satish Sharma’s late entry and is in a mood to wreak vengeance. In part, the implications can be seen in the conduct of his brother, Akhilesh Singh, a Congress(I) legislator from Rae Bareli known for his ferocious turf instinct.

On September 18, Arun Nehru notably conducted a successful election meeting at Amanwa. The village, 18 km from Rae Bareli, is known to be the operational base from which Akhilesh Singh launches all his intimidatory forays into adjoining areas to enforce compliance with his political diktat. In allowing Arun Nehru the relatively unfettered freedom to operate within his domain, he seemed to signal a more positive disposition towards the BJP.

The S.P. has put up Gajadhar Singh, a zilla parishad-level politician from the Rajput community. This offers the option of caste consolidation to Ashok Singh and his family of traditional feudal overlords. A shift of the Rajput vote to the S.P. could cau se a serious upset. Fighting on the BJP ticket, Ashok Singh had in 1998 prevailed over his S.P. rival by just over 40,000 votes. This is evidently a margin that can easily be bridged, given the new configuration of caste loyalties.

Despite fielding a relatively high-profile candidate, the Congress(I) is not seen to be seriously in the race in Rae Bareli. Relative to Faizabad, the Congress(I) starts here with a lesser disadvantage. Its vote share in the last two elections has averag ed about 8 per cent. But unlike the candidate in Faizabad, Satish Sharma has shown little inclination to go out and hustle up the votes. Though essentially seen as a contest between the BJP and the Congress(I), Rae Bareli could well be transformed into one between the S.P. and the BJP.

A CONGRESS(I) revival in U.P. - if such is indeed under way - is not going to be a spontaneous affair or one occasioned merely by dynastic charisma. In the western sector of the State, it is the strategic alliance with Ajit Singh’s party that holds the k ey. And in other parts, it is premised on a credible effort to seek the votes, to bring back sections that have strayed away from their traditional allegiance to the party. Reassembling the Congress(I)’s traditional social coalitions also involves restor ing the party’s organisational network, bringing back the cadres who will keep the machinery working through the campaign and the polling process.

It is in these respects that Faizabad and Rae Bareli offer a study in contrasts. Aside from the town squares and main district roads, the Congress(I) seems to have little penetration in Rae Bareli. And its candidate is a person who is unfamiliar with the region and detached from its ethos and identity.

"There has been a disease within the Congress(I) over the last two decades," says Surendra Pratap Singh, member of the All India Congress(I) Committee and election agent for Nirmal Khatri in Faizabad. "Organisational work and cadre building," he says, "have come to a halt." The consequences have been apparent in the Congress(I)’s precipitate plunge from a dominant position in the 1980s to the parlous state of 1998. Dynastic charisma has never been a factor of significant moment in the State. Among all t he States that went to the polls in two stages in 1991, U.P. manifested the smallest magnitude of a "sympathy vote" after the Rajiv Gandhi assassination. Each round of elections since then has brought the Congress(I) closer to extinction. Even a strategi c alliance with the BSP in 1996 only brought it temporary succour. A large number of its elected legislators split to make common cause with the BJP early in 1998, in what seemed the death-blow to the party in the State.

In a sense, the 1998 elections marked the final denouement of the politics of convenience that the Congress(I) has always played in U.P. Failure to respond to the challenge of backward class mobility and political assertion in the 1960s was the first of the defaults. Inaugurating the politics of competitive communalism in the 1980s - opening the doors of the Babri Masjid to Hindu worship and overturning the ruling of the Supreme Court on maintenance for Muslim women - was the final and fatal error.

Uncertainty over which constituency to cultivate in U.P. was compounded by a sequence of disastrous alliances. Against the party’s best interests, Rajiv Gandhi concluded a pact with Mulayam Singh Yadav in 1990. The consequence was the Congress(I)’s releg ation to third position in the State in 1989 - behind the BJP and the still extant Janata Dal. It only took the complete conquest of the Janata Dal by Mulayam Singh to propel him to second position in U.P.’s political landscape. And the BSP meanwhile was whittling away the Congress(I)’s traditional base among Dalits, to emerge as the third really major player in the State by the 1993 Assembly elections.

Confronted with a challenge from the land-owning backward classes, Sampurnanand, one of the dominant faction leaders within the Congress(I) for much of the 1950s and 1960s, had forcefully endorsed "the continuation of the upper classes coalition in the Congress(I)". This, he argued, would ensure the party’s "influence in rural areas".

The idea was clearly to cement the allegiance of Dalits and Muslims to this coalition of upper classes, to ensure continuing Congress(I) hegemony in the State. That strategy came a cropper when the Congress(I), in response to the demands of its upper cas te constituencies, began stirring up the Ayodhya controversy in the mid-1980s. Muslims were progressively alienated and switched their loyalty to first V.P. Singh and then Mulayam Singh. Concurrently, Dalits were falling under the spell of the BSP, which promised them empowerment in a very direct way in local institutions, rather than the share in a system of upper class patronage that the Congress(I) held out.

If the pattern of partisan loyalties that crystallised in the 1990s is to splinter in the Congress(I)’s favour, it would have to be at the expense of the S.P. In 1993, the S.P. had demonstrated, in alliance with the BSP, the ability to assemble sufficien t numbers on the ground to overwhelm the BJP. But in subsequent years, it also demonstrated the manifest tendency to wreck this consolidation of forces in pursuit of its own narrow interests. The subsequent contests in 1996 and 1998 have shown that the S .P. is incapable of assembling the coalition of social forces that could actually empower the backward classes and Muslims. This provides an incentive to Muslims to turn to the Congress(I), which remains the only serious national alternative to the BJP.

This factor is offset by a fraying of the BJP’s winning combination in U.P. - between the forward classes which traditionally provided the leadership cadres to the Congress(I) and the relatively less prosperous backward classes. An analysis of voting beh aviour from the 1996 Assembly elections in U.P. reveals that the BJP won 76 per cent of the forward caste, 53 per cent of the "most backward caste" and 58 per cent of the Scheduled Tribe vote. The S.P. and its allies, in comparison, assembled their legis lative strength on the basis of 67 per cent of the Muslim vote and 52 per cent of the "landed backward caste" vote. The alliance of the BSP and the Congress(I) won a significant share of the Muslim vote, but was essentially dependent for its sustenance o n the Scheduled Castes, of whose vote it won no less than 73 per cent. Only 6.7 per cent of the forward castes voted for this alliance, which provides the basis for BSP leader Mayawati’s assertion that her votes are transferable to the Congress(I), thoug h not vice versa.

A marginal shift of the backward caste vote from the BJP to the S.P. could radically alter the balance of forces in U.P. But if this is accompanied by a shift of Muslim voters to the Congress(I), then the BJP’s own strength may not be seriously impaired despite an erosion of its vote share. The possibilities are as diverse as the State of U.P. itself. The trend of the campaign shows that the Congress(I)’s gains will be patchy and contingent on a host of local circumstances. But the overarching probabili ty of the BJP taking substantial losses in U.P., which provides almost a third of its parliamentary strength today, cannot be denied.

See online : Frontline


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

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