Caste still remains the determining factor in the Uttar Pradesh elections otherwise bereft of issues, but running subliminally is the question of corruption and lawlessness. Less than 24 hours after the Supreme Court ordered the cancellation of 122 telecom licences, it has become a talking point not just in the corridors of the Allahabad High Court but also in the surrounding rural areas as well as among pilgrims who have come to attend the annual Magh Mela at the Sangam from nearby districts.
What emerges from a series of conversations, less than a week before the first phase of the elections, is that while the ruling has the potential to damage the Congress' prospects further, it cannot harm the party substantially simply because it is not in contest in most constituencies. Indeed, it is the ruling Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) which is on trial, and the corruption associated with its five years that is getting foregrounded.
But what the judgment has done is to focus attention once again on a subject that first got traction in the wake of the Anna Hazare campaign. What is annoying people most is not just the 2G scam, but that the Congress-led government at the Centre is making light of it.
At Badohikauta in the Phulpur Assembly area, Budhiman Singh, a local bank employee, is furious with the government's defence: “Kapil Sibal mocked the Supreme Court for cancelling licences. He said the government should not be blamed if mobile phone bills go up,” Mr. Singh says, elaborating, “what he should have said is that our government respects the verdict and will ensure it won't affect the price of phone calls.” Mr. Singh is apoplectic, and says it is of a piece with the inept way the Centre handled the Hazare campaign, the Baba Ramdev rally and the Lokpal Bill.
Earlier in the day, as kewats (boatmen) did brisk business ferrying the devout to the Sangam, the soft sands were awash with pilgrims, sadhus and mendicants of all stripes. If three businessmen from Kanpur say the ruling is a reminder to people that they must vote only for clean candidates, Ram Sanehi Choubey, a postmaster from Lohandi in Sonebhadra district, east of Varanasi, looks concerned, when asked about the court's cancellation of telecom licences. “This is a good verdict,” he admits, “but we have our sights — an oblique reference to his own community, the Brahmins — set on a Samajwadi Party-Congress government; we have had enough of Mayawati's administration.”
Mr. Choubey feels the verdict, which could potentially damage the Congress, has come at an inopportune moment for those building a coalition to take on the BSP. Indeed, he stresses that the judgment has necessitated a round of “informal consultations” on February 5 in the tehsil headquarters in the eastern districts to “finalise the strategy” of those opposed to the BSP.
But in the Allahabad High Court, there is a high degree of cynicism: Rajiv Ratan Singh, a lawyer, says, “The Supreme Court verdict won't affect these elections as corruption is not an issue: all parties and governments are corrupt and these elections, like the ones before it, will be determined by caste.” Sitting in the senior lawyers' association room, most members agree on this point, but some say that though caste is the top factor, Anna Hazare has begun a gradual process of change in voting habits, where the image of the candidate will gradually become a determining factor.