In the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, polling for which ended on March 3, Chief Minister Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) should have been at the top of the charts. Last November, when I spent 11 days in the western part of the State, the consensus appeared to be that, despite the high levels of corruption, the BSP could get a second bash at power, albeit with significantly reduced numbers: there didn't seem to be a better alternative on the horizon. This was not just coming from Ms Mayawati's own community of Jaatavs, still solidly with her; this was also what virtually every other social group, barring the Yadavs — all rooting for Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party (SP) — was saying. Ms Mayawati's five years in power had by no means been perfect, they all said, but she had run a tighter administration than her predecessor, and controlled crime, not shying away from jailing even the politically well connected mafiosi , many of them Thakurs. Finally, she had not permitted her caste fellows the sort of free run Mr. Yadav had. Only the Brahmins, the opinion-makers — and who number 11 per cent in U.P. — said they were “waiting and watching.”
Two months later, when I returned to U.P. for 16 days, travelling this time from Saharanpur in the northwest to Varanasi in the southeast, the mood had changed completely. Now, there was visible anger — almost orchestrated — against the Mayawati regime. U.P.'s “Iron Lady” — as her ardent followers refer to her — was under siege.
As campaigning by the SP, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress picked up, disenchantment with the BSP mounted. Dead health officials, looted MGNREGS funds and the frenzy of statue-building were now taking centre stage. “ Koi vikas nahin hua hai (there has been no development),” was the cry now. From the eastern districts, there seemed to be a wave in favour of the SP, with the Brahmins leading the charge to oust the BSP: the single point agenda for this influential, vocal community was to polarise votes in every constituency to ensure victory for the strongest anti-BSP candidate. With the SP the strongest non-BSP party in the fray, it began to become advantage SP.
What happened in the intervening two months? As I travelled, the sub-text to this new narrative emerged from the mouths of those most stridently anti-BSP — the upper castes.
The burden of their complaints: farm wages had increased to a Rs.150-300 band, pushing up wage bills of landed upper castes in the east (the MGNREGS triggered the hike, but since it benefited the Dalits the most, the BSP government was held responsible for it); the State government's “no tolerance” policy for non-payment of taxes had hit the trading community, largely the Banias; “unqualified” Jaatavs, members of Ms Mayawati's community, had been appointed DGCs (District Government Counsel) in west U.P.'s district courts; and the SC/ST Atrocities Act had been “misused” against the OBCs and upper castes in the villages. It didn't matter that it wasn't just Dalits who had begun to find it easier to get FIRs registered under the Act: “Upper castes settling scores among themselves also used the Act, manipulating Dalits, working on their lands,” a Thakur landlord-turned businessman in Jaunpur explained, “to register cases against their rivals.” For the non-Dalit poor, the top gripe was that government housing for weaker sections had been given only to members of one community, the Jaatavs. No one provided any statistics to back any of these complaints, but the message was clear: in the last five years, the Jaatavs had got the most favoured status at the expense of other communities.
On the governance front, people were now being forced to pay electricity bills. For those running factories, this was an added expense; in the villages, the periodic visitations by electricity department officials were viewed with dread. Near Bijnor city, three officials, waiting for the pradhan to return and summon villagers to pay up, acknowledged it was a painful process, saying they often had to make repeated visits to collect their dues.
By unleashing anger against Ms Mayawati's government, the upper castes changed the electoral dynamics of this election. They saw educated Dalits moving up the social ladder, securing government positions denied to them earlier; they saw the lowest of the low registering complaints at the police stations against them — and they didn't like it. “In many cases, the Jaatavs may not have even got a hearing because it is not that easy to change social equations,” an IPS officer in Lucknow told me, “But they got a psychological sense of well-being.” In Baghpat, a Jat-aggressive area, Jaatavs confirmed this, saying that even under the BSP rule, they sometimes found it hard to register complaints, adding, “But if Mayawati loses these elections, they will enter our homes and beat us up.”
In short, the progress of the Jaatavs — and, to a lesser extent, the other Dalit and MBC communities — began to represent a challenge to those who have been used to wielding power. In 2007, the Brahmins, enticed by the BSP's promise of sarvajan largesse, helped to create the mood for a Mayawati government. In 2012, they want to undo it.
Who will make the gains
The Congress and the BJP, which led the verbal attack on the BSP, should have benefited from the discontent that surfaced. But the lack of organisation in the Congress and division in the BJP's ranks allowed the SP to step into this vacuum, thanks to its strong party machinery. “The Congress and the BJP are hoping to destroy Mayawati in these elections, crack her Dalit vote bank and get back into the political game for 2014,” Badar Azmi, a senior Muslim leader in Deoband, says adding, “To achieve this, they don't mind if the SP gains in this election.” Indeed, Mr. Yadav has, in a large measure, succeeded in flipping the 2007 Assembly election on its head, when Ms Mayawati successfully created public opinion against Yadav oppression. Simultaneously, the SP supremo's son, the fresh-faced Akhilesh Yadav, has helped blur the image of the SP as a party of rampaging musclemen, and dim memories of Mulayam Singh Yadav's “ goondaraj .”
Simultaneously, for the Muslims flocking towards the SP, it is not just about the Urdu teachers and policemen that Mr. Yadav recruited or the meat export businesses of the prosperous Quereshis he promoted during his last tenure as Chief Minister; it is also about the sense of security that he provided to the community. If the Jaatavs got a hearing at the police stations in the last five years, Muslims had that advantage under the SP rule. At a time when Muslim young men are vulnerable to being picked up on terrorism charges, this is a plus point.
But the caste churning that is continuing has also meant that divisions in the Muslim community on caste lines have come to the fore. With a majority of Muslim legislators tending to be “upper caste,” the Peace Party, for instance, is carrying the torch for the pasmandas , the OBCs in the community. Such parties will cut into the SP's Muslim vote, even if marginally, making an accurate prediction of seats that much harder, even if the general trends are clear. The SP, the BJP and the Congress — in that order — will make gains; the BSP will register losses.
The BJP surprise
The big surprise in these elections is likely to come from the BJP, divided and demoralised though it is: in Bundelkhand, the OBC factor, thanks to firebrand Uma Bharati and the party's staunch support of OBC reservation, could help it. Similarly, in the Muslim dominated constituencies of west U.P., a “silent polarisation” was visible. There was no communal rhetoric but the large number of Muslim candidates, fielded not just by the SP and the BSP (both of whom have nominated over 80 each) and also new parties such as the Mahan Dal, were triggering off another kind of resentment. In Bulandshahr, a Brahmin lawyer, when asked about the fate of the constituencies in his district, said sourly, “Four Muslims, two Hindus.”
These elections are, therefore, about governance and development, but not in the way the Congress' Rahul Gandhi has framed it — as a caste-neutral, if not religion-neutral, promise of benefits for everyone. Rather, they are about governance and development, but viewed through the prism of caste and religion.