Two conflicting narratives, both built around the BSP, dominate the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh.
A government official in Lucknow says this of the 2012 Assembly election in Uttar Pradesh: “This is an election where every party thinks it is forming the government.”
This election fairly bristles with paradoxes, starting with the fact that two strongly opposing currents can be detected on the ground. Travelling through the State, it is impossible to miss the contempt for Mayawati who is denounced as a Chief Minister wedded to the welfare of stone idols (a reference to the Maya statues dotting the landscape), ignoring the living, teeming millions, and who cares, if at all she does, only for her own biradari (community). But as striking is the aggression on the other side with Dalit support for “our behenji” reaching staggering levels. State government officials, in fact, attribute the huge increase in voter turnout in the different poll phases to the Mayawati government's war-like distribution of voter identity cards to the BSP's potential voters.
‘A wave for Mulayam'
Indeed, this is an election where the biggest and the most committed crowds have been for the U.P. Chief Minister. Yet from east to west, the common refrain is that there is a “leher” (wave) for Mulayam Singh. In a further irony, those vouching for the return of the “cycle” (the Samajawadi Party's symbol), seem equally willing to vote sundry other parties, making the SP's struggle to get past the post that much more difficult. This election has also seen Rahul Gandhi produce the most dazzling fireworks — skewering and outshouting his rivals, tearing up their manifestos and forcing himself into the electorate's forgotten consciousness through sheer, dogged persistence. But all this perhaps for the Gandhi heir only to learn that while his effort might increase the Congress' share of votes and seats, the party could still end up nudging the last spot. Voters speak of him with affection, promising to give him his big break, not in this “SP versus Bahujan Samaj Party” election, but in the next.
Then there is the contrasting image of Akhilesh Yadav. Very different from the mutinous Gandhi junior, this affable son of the SP elder has logged countless miles on his kranti rath, canvassing support for a party which was booted out in 2007 for its lawlessness, but which he promises has forsaken its goonish past for a clean, new start. This is not all. Incredible as this might seem, the congenitally over-optimistic Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been the underdog of this election, running a campaign so deceptively and surprisingly low-key that any improvement it shows — and show it will — must seem a surprise.
Political U.P. has changed unrecognisably in the five years since the BSP swept into office in 2007. The Maya avalanche decimated rivals even as it smashed the barriers of regions, castes and communities. The party of Bahujan (or depressed people), which abhorred the forward castes and built its foundation on muscular anti-manuwadi slogans, mellowed and metamorphosed into a Sarvajan (or everyone) party committed to the well-being and prosperity of every citizen regardless of her social antecedents. Though the BSP forged a rainbow coalition of castes, what amazed social observers was its new-found chemistry with the forward castes. Consider this: each time the BJP aligned with the BSP, it found its core forward caste support shrinking, presumably because the Brahmins and the Thakurs were deeply inimical to the BSP. Yet in a few years, these very castes would dump the BJP for a social pact with the BSP, enabling the latter to form a majority government for the first time in 16 years.
But only two years later, with the BSP down three percentage points in the 2009 Lok Sabha election, the Sarvajan pact would start to come apart. Today, little remains of the once magnificent alliance. If anything the empathy has been replaced by a hostility that expresses itself in malicious, intemperate language towards the BSP boss. From impoverished rickshaw pullers and pavement shopkeepers in Lucknow in Awadh to entire Brahmin villages in Gonda in the east to Muslim clusters in Moradabad in the West, hardly anyone has a nice word to say about the BSP or its supremo. And many of these are the same people who had enthusiastically lined up behind the party in 2007.
The complaints are endless but some things crop up over and over. The stone statues of Ms Mayawati and the acres of parks have become eyesores — a metaphor for a regime that has been obsessively self-centred. Farmers and Muslims seem particularly aggrieved. Farmers argue that Ms Mayawati has no intrinsic understanding of kheti (agriculture) unlike Mr. Mulayam Singh whom they celebrate as zameeni (rooted) and therefore naturally inclined towards farming.
In Bakshi-ka-Talab on the outskirts of Lucknow city, lawyer Veerendra Kumar Singh rages against Ms Mayawati, accusing her of betraying the faith of all those, like his own family and friends, who had risen above their caste affiliations to vote the BSP. “Farmers are in distress because there is no electricity and fertilizer is selling in the black. In Mulayam Singh's time, things were so much better. Mulayam is a “kisan priya neta (loves farmers).”
An emotional people, Muslims rue the lack of warmth in the BSP's government's approach to them. “We are harassed at the police stations, there is nobody to hear us out and sometimes we feel we don't exist for this government,” says Mohammad Hanif, a shopkeeper in the Chamraua Vidhan Sabha segment in the Muslim majority district of Rampur. Adds noted Lucknow lawyer Zafrayab Jilani: “We tried to tell Maya the advantage of supporting Muslims who would make an unbeatable combination with the Dalits. But she was indifferent.” Not surprisingly, there is a longing for the Mulayam Singh regime among Muslims. Whether this nostalgia will actually turn into votes for the SP is difficult to tell given the number of players vying for the Muslim vote, among them the Congress and the newly ascendant Peace Party.
The SP's mellowed form has brought in support from other quarters. In 2007, Brahmins and Vaishyas (traders) had a single mission: To oust the Mulayam regime which was seen as extortionist and lawless. Shopkeepers claimed to live in fear of SP musclemen, and indeed, that is why this BSP slogan resonated with the forward castes: “Chad goondon ke chhati par mohar lagao haathi par (crush the chests of the goondas and stamp on the elephant symbol).” Five years on, many of the forward castes have returned to the BJP, some to the Congress, and a fair section is surprisingly receptive to the SP.
At a dhaba in Ram Nagar in Barabanki, owner Shyam Sundar Shukla, a Brahmin, is declaiming in favour of the SP, arguing that he erred in voting the BSP in 2007. The local Vypar Mandal president, Shivram Gupta, agrees with him. “I have no fear of the SP,” he says, disproving the popular theory that the trading classes can never countenance the SP.
The logic and reason seemingly evident in the anti-BSP conversations cannot obscure one fact, though. The Maya baiters are united by their fear and dislike of what they see as a Dalit upsurge against the status quo. In villages, as in cities, men complain of being hauled up under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, referring to Dalits, not as Dalits or even as Harijans, but as “them.” The Chief Minister “indulges them,” and a single (Dalit) household can “wreak terror” on an entire Brahmin village.
Understandably, Ms Mayawati's core support is furiously consolidating behind her, with a repartee ready for every barb thrown at “behenji.” Bring up the Maya statues, and Rajbir Singh, a Jatav resident of Pagbada in West U.P. hits back: The Gandhi family can have samadhis and name every institution after the clan, but Behenji cannot have her murtis? If they build parks, it is khoobsoorat (beautiful), but if we do the same, it is badsoorat (ugly). Why?”