Manish Tiwari and Rajan Pandey talk about “Battleground UP”, the latest take on the socio-political upheaval in Uttar Pradesh.

Deciphering Uttar Pradesh is like decoding Mulayam Singh Yadav’s speech or Mayawati’s mind. The more you read into it the more baffling it gets. Now two young academics have come up with “Battleground UP” (Tranquebar), a book that makes sense of the State, which invariably decides the fate of electoral politics in the country. Written in a lucid style, capturing the flavour of grassroot politics, Manish Tiwari and Rajan Pandey have not allowed their JNU roots to come into the way of what could be called a mass entertainer in rarefied academic circles. The result of a journey taken over a year around the last Assembly elections, during which they stopped over at roadside eateries, battled with perceptions and pests, inculcated relations with politicians and plebeians, the duo has managed to sieve out a narrative that sounds coherent and cogent without being vindictive or judgmental. Most importantly, they have managed to keep it away from the aridness that we associate with scholastic work.

For instance the chapter on National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) scam story starts with the Shashi Kumari Arya’s karva chauth fast, which fails to protect her husband, Vinod Arya from the bullets of his political masters. The story about farmers’ agitation against Yamuna Expressway emerges from the death of 14-year-old Prashant Sharma, who was ironing his shirt for the Independence Day celebrations when the police firing ordered to curb the unrest snuffed the life of out the fifth standard student. “The idea was to make the work accessible and look into the humane angle between all the political games,” says Rajan, a Ph.D student at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Manish, who has been associated with print and electronic media after doing his Ph.D from JNU, and Rajan disagree among themselves on who is the bigger evil in the cauldron of caste and communal politics. While Rajan supports Samajwadi Party for its earthy politics, Manish says during BSP’s rule the law and order situation was better for the common man. “What happened in the last year of BSP rule was related to one particular department. It was not affecting the public at large. When Samajwadi Party comes to power common man faces the law and order problem,” argues Manish.

Rajan finds Samajwadi Party more democratic even in terms of corruption. “Even in the ruling Yadav family there are many poles. Here everybody gets his share and there is devolution of power which keeps the cadre happy. Of course it also creates problems at times but it is something that interests even foreign academics. During the BSP rule there was a strict chain of command.”

Though at one point they describe him as ‘bachcha CM’, Rajan feels Akhilesh could well be the face of politics in the State, somebody who wants to bring in a new brand of politics without completely breaking away from the ground realities. “I hope Akhilesh will emerge from the familial pressures which are pushing him to old style of politics. They wanted to use him just as a fresh face to counter Rahul Gandhi and now want to assert the good old muscle power,” says Rajan, who hails from Mainpuri.

He gives Akhilesh credit for understanding the DNA of his voters. “The youngsters find the ideas of the scion of the Gandhi family impractical. When Samajwadi Party is making members after paying two rupees, Congress is asking for twenty and a whole lot of documents. Then Rahul says that local leaders should not use their names to get jobs done which is an impractical advice to give in Uttar Pradesh. Similarly Rahul’s advice to his party workers to apply for bail in case of arrests made during political protests is something that has not gone down well at the ground level.” In this regard, Rajan finds BSP also a statist party. “Indian democracy is not about the theoretical talk that scholars indulge in academic institutions nor is it about letting the cadres do what they want. One has to find a balance and at this point all the parties are grappling with it in the Uttar Pradesh,” reasons Rajan.

Their search for criminals in politics and the social sanction that they receive took them to the lanes of Gorakhpur where the writ of Hari Shankar Tiwari still runs large. And Rajan found an interesting link of criminal infestation in the state. Tiwari’s driver and guard Amarmani Tripathi developed his own clout and then like a true blue Bollywood pot boiler Tripathi’s driver Guddu Pandit carved out his own niche in the badlands of Western Uttar Pradesh.

Amidst all the talk of criminalisation, the duo also found people like Shyamdev Roy Chaudhury, the six-time MLA from Varanasi, who still moves around on a cycle when the average cost of fighting an MLA election in UP is said to be Rs.1.5 to 2.5 crores. They also met Bhulahi of Naurangia on the recommendation on Maulvi Samiullah. “We found it strange that a Maulvi is recommending a Sanghi MLA, who is known in area for his simplicity and honesty and the ex-MLA lived up to the image,” reminisces Manish. Taking a break from the big four, the duo also analysed the influence of small parties like Peace Party of India and stopped to take a look at the changing colour of rallies.

Manish says the Muzaffarnagar riots are going to polarise the Uttar Pradesh politics. Rajan feels SP’s loss is only short term. “Ultimately, Muslims will stand behind SP because only it is the potent force to take on BJP’s surge in the State.” However, he goes on to add that it is SP which has helped in creating this revitalisation of the saffron party by arresting their spent forces and coming in the way of innocuous yatras of VHP. “Suddenly we see some unity in the state unit of BJP. SP is going to prove the riots as a one-off fault and will do everything to regain the confidence of the minorities in the coming months. It seems SP wants a two-way fight in the State in the Lok Sabha elections and the way the winds are blowing it seems SP and BJP will share 50-60 seats among themselves. It is another matter that it might not be enough for BJP.”