In Uttar Pradesh, the consensus on the streets and villagechaupalsis that the Chief Minister is the front runner in the forthcoming election.
Drive through Uttar Pradesh, and the physical signs of a new dispensation are only too apparent. Districts, universities and hospitals have been named — or renamed, as the case may be — after Dalit icons. A riot of statuary and pink sandstone elephants dominate gigantic parks in Lucknow and NOIDA, paying homage to Dalit power. And imposing new offices of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), painted in an inky blue and white, have sprung up at district headquarters.
But it isn't just the signposts that have changed: the social landscape, too, has been transformed in the close to five years that Mayawati has ruled U.P. with iron determination. The Jatavs, the BSP's mainstay, who constitute well over half the 21 per cent Dalit population in the State, are now suddenly more visible — and vocal.
On a recent trip to U.P., I interrupted a group of lawyers taking a break at the Agra district court. Four of them sat in a cluster, the fifth, a little apart. The foursome was noisy, argumentative — and vigorous in its support of Ms Mayawati. Occasionally, they paused to encourage the fifth man to air his views as well: he proffered them, but with some hesitation and it was evident he did not share his companions' rosy view of the Chief Minister. The four men, as it turned out, were all Jatavs; the fifth a Jat. For anyone familiar with the caste dynamics of western U.P., it was a surprise, a virtual reversal of things as they had been, when the Jats had held sway over this region.
From Etah to Aligarh
The next day, as I drove from Etah to Aligarh, I visited the village of Iqbalpur, a few kilometres off the main road. More than half its 1,600 voters are Yadavs; next in numerical strength are the Jatavs. I asked for the pradhan and was led to the Jatav quarter in the village. Everyone here agreed that Ms Mayawati had run a tighter, more efficient administration than her predecessor, the Samajwadi Party (SP)'s Mulayam Singh Yadav, stressing that all the criminals were now behind bars — and the Yadavs on a leash.
As the conversation warmed up, a thin youth, who had been sitting next to me and concurring with the general approbation of the BSP government, said cryptically, “Of course, every government cannot be equally good for everyone.”
As I walked back to my car, the youth — now revealed as a Omvir Singh Yadav — followed me, saying sotto voce: “Why don't you come to our part of the village?” So I found myself in the Yadav quarter: here the narrative was altogether different. Vijay Pal Yadav, a former pradhan's brother, bitterly complained about the “misuse” of the “Harijan Act” — the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act — the corruption of petty officials and SHOs, and the lack of “sunwai (a hearing”) for non-Jatavs. The Yadavs here were all rooting for the return of Mulayam Singh Yadav.
What I witnessed in Iqbalpur would have been unimaginable just five years ago, and that, too, in a village where the Yadavs, known for their muscular prowess, outnumber the Jatavs.
Weighing their options
It is against the backdrop of this transformed social landscape that voters are weighing their options, reflecting on Ms Mayawati's regime and comparing that with how they fared under Mr. Yadav. That is, barring the Jatavs and the Yadavs who have already made up their minds.
The BSP and the SP are, therefore, now concentrating on which other caste and religious communities they can lure into their fold. Currently, it is advantage BSP: the SP is neither as adept at social engineering as the BSP, nor does its record in power — even the BSP's critics, cutting across communities, admit — measure up to that of the Mayawati government, despite the many charges of corruption against it. For instance, a refrain I heard repeated across west U.P. was that electricity generation and distribution had improved considerably under the BSP.
Where the SP scores over the BSP is in the gradual return of the Muslims to Mr. Yadav: after his pact with Hindutva hero Kalyan Singh in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls of 2009, the community had deserted him for the Congress. Since then, he has apologised to the community and the controversial Mohammad Azam Khan is back at his side — and while the now chastened Mr. Khan no longer retains the appeal he had in the early 1990s at the height of the Ayodhya movement, he can still pull in some votes in the Rampur-Moradabad stretch. And in Meerut, the moneyed Quereshis, who dominate the Meerut-Muzaffarnagar-Saharanpur belt, remember Mr. Yadav with gratitude for measures that had helped promote their meat-export business. With 12 of the 28 districts in this region boasting of a Muslim population ranging from 25 to 49 per cent, with Rampur topping the list, the community is bound to play a significant role in the final results.
But Mr. Yadav still remains unsure of the support of any community other than his own. He is, therefore, trying his hardest to polarise this election into a contest between the Jatavs and the rest, flipping the assembly elections of 2007 on its head: at that time, Ms Mayawati had successfully created public opinion against the oppression of the Yadavs.
Jatavs versus the rest
In Etah, from where Mr. Yadav launched his election campaign on November 16, a close associate and SP MLC Ramesh Yadav says, “Apart from the Jatavs, no other community is happy with Mayawati. Everyone feels only Mulayam Singh can save them,” and then delivers what he thinks is the punchline, “If Indira Gandhi could lose in 1977, then Mayawati is nothing compared with that.” But it also reveals the general belief that she will not be easily defeated.
The SP has been partially successful in this attempt at creating a Jatavs versus the rest sentiment: both in the villages and at the district courts in Agra, Etah, Aligarh and Bareilly, I am repeatedly told that the number of cases being filed against upper castes and OBCs under the SC/ST Atrocities Act has swelled in the last five years. Though no one provides any statistics, it is evident that emotion is being whipped up against Mayawati's government on this issue. “As soon as a Dalit files an FIR,” explains a lawyer in Bareilly, “he gets Rs.25,000 from the government; if he wins the case, he gets another lakh. The accused, languishing in jail, usually tries his hardest to get the case withdrawn through a compromise, sweetened by more money.”
BJP and the Congress
Meanwhile, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress are contesting now for the third and fourth positions: if yatras by the former's leaders have reminded people of its existence, the latter is hoping a tie-up with Ajit Singh's Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) will bring it some dividends. But on the ground, there is not much evidence of enthusiasm for the RLD even among the Jats. Of the five assembly seats the party won in 2007 in the Mathura-Agra-Aligarh stretch, four have been reserved. In Baghpat, Mr. Singh can probably push RLD candidates through the Chaprauli, Kheda and Baghpat assembly seats, say locals.
Veerendra Singh, a well-to-do Jat farmer, who was the chief spokesperson of the Mahendra Singh Tikait movement, says, “The fact is: today, Ajit Singh doesn't evoke much enthusiasm among Jats. Two, Mayawati has increased the price of sugarcane, and compelled factory owners to pay the price without going to court; and last year, of the 70,000 constables she recruited, about 15,000 were Jats.” Indeed, in the villages near the Simbhauli Sugar Mill in the newly created Panchsheel Nagar district, farmers all speak positively about the increase in sugarcane prices. The community, Mr. Singh says, will first vote for Jat candidates, regardless of party affiliation, and then for the BJP. And then there is the unspoken part: Ms Mayawati's powerful Cabinet Secretary Shashank Shekhar Singh is from Muzaffarnagar — and a Jat to boot.
The BSP is, clearly on a roll, even though virtually everyone, including BSP activists, admits the party will lose seats and may not get a majority: the consensus on the streets and village chaupals is that Ms Mayawati is the front runner. The Jatavs may be more visible and vocal today, but the fact that they are not yet to be found in the same numbers in the political, social and economic structures as the Yadavs were, has meant that they are not quite as hated as the Yadavs were. The social revolution is not over.