A pitched battle in Uttar Pradesh

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New Delhi

Even though it has to cope with anti-incumbency, the BSP has the advantage. The Samajwadi Party faces a decline in Muslim support, while the Congress and the BJP are fighting to be back in the reckoning

“Graph down hai” (the graph has fallen) — is an election-time Hindi-English expression used widely in Uttar Pradesh to signal the plunging fortunes of a once popular leader. In the summer of 2009, it crops up repeatedly in conversations about Mayawati, indicating a measure of disillusionment with the government she formed with fanfare only two years earlier.

Uttar Pradesh sends up 80 Members of Parliament, the highest in the country. Naturally, a handsome seat tally from the State is considered the passport to Delhi’s power corridors. It is evident the stakes are high for each of the four main players, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress.

For SP chief Mulayam Singh, it is his big chance to get the better of Ms. Mayawati, and make himself important in any post-election power play. But given the widening cracks in his Muslim support, the goal might not be so easily reached. For the BJP and the Congress, reduced to being side players here, the fight is for revival in a State that has seen the relentless march of the underclass, represented first by the SP and then by the BSP.

Better placed

Of the two, the BJP seems better placed to improve its previous performance of 10 seats though any traveller here is bound to notice the abundance of goodwill for the Congress. The BJP’s chances look improved in part because of its seat-sharing deal with the Ajit Singh-led Rashtriya Lok Dal in western U.P. and in part because of the expected dividends from Varun Gandhi’s arrest under the National Security Act.

However, it is Ms. Mayawati, projecting herself as the next Prime Minister, who has wagered her all in this election. The official claim is that the BSP will get upwards of 50 seats, making it the third largest in the Lok Sabha. The argument goes like this: In a hung Parliament, such a large cache of seats would automatically propel Ms. Mayawati to the Chief Executive’s chair in Delhi.

Yet there is a danger with such over-projection. A 40-plus seat share will likely see the U.P. Chief Minister bid for the top Delhi job. On the other hand, should the BSP’s seat share fall below the 35 mark, Ms. Mayawati risks being dismissed as a transient phenomenon. For the BSP chief, that will be the first serious setback in a career studded with brilliant highs. Consider the BSP’s rise from 1991 to now: In the Lok Sabha, from one to 19 seats (vote share: 24.67 per cent) and in the Assembly from 12 to 206 seats (vote share: 30.43 per cent).

Indeed, the outstanding feature of the 2007 Assembly election was Ms. Mayawati’s swashbuckling performance. Riding on the back of an assiduously wooed and won sarvajan (all caste) vote base, she formed U.P.’s first majority government in 16 years. As Ms. Mayawati’s popularity soared, so did people’s expectations. That she brought efficiency and discipline to her previous governments helped the Maya legend grow. Two years on, that euphoric moment has become a distant memory, replaced by grumbling against the Chief Minister and her government. At the top of a long list of complaints is the migration of “goonda elements” from the SP to the BSP. People reel off the names of musclemen who have bagged the BSP ticket in this election, and are inconsolable that Ms. Mayawati has so carelessly tossed away the central plank of her 2007 campaign — to crack down on miscreants.

Core vote

But there is another side to the story. Of all the players in U.P., the BSP alone has a rock solid core vote that is also almost fully transferable. Unflinching in their support to Ms. Mayawati, her Dalit voters are today in a thrall over the possibility of seeing her as Prime Minister. Add to this an alert Election Commission and a BSP government in power in the State, and the result ought to be a near total Dalit turnout. The significance of this cannot be overstated in a State where Dalits form 21 per cent of the population.

Electorally this means that the BSP starts with a vote share of about 17 per cent in most constituencies. The edge this gives the BSP in a multi-cornered contest should be obvious to anyone.

Besides, it is quite apparent that the sarvajan formula that brought the BSP to power has not entirely unravelled. Brahmins, though appearing disgruntled, admit the BSP regime has given them power and respect.

The lower OBCs have a natural affinity for the BSP, and Muslims, upset over the Mulayam Singh-Kalyan Singh pact, are looking afresh at the party.

The BSP’s advantages are numerous. Yet there is also the anti-incumbency aspect. Whether Ms. Mayawati ends up with 30-odd seats or hovers around the 40-seat mark will depend on which of the two factors dominates this election, and also on the extent of erosion of Mr. Mulayam’s Singh support.

Corrections and Clarifications

The accompanying graphic in an article "A pitched battle in Uttar Pradesh"("Elections 2009" page, April 17, 2009) gave the total electorate of UttarPradesh to be 67,14,87,930, leading to a number of queries. Uttar Pradesh,the largest populated State with 80 Lok Sabha seats, has the distinction ofhaving every sixth Indian voter in the coming Lok Sabha elections. It has11,64,24,101 electors out of the 71,42,87,814 in the country.

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