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The muddle in Middle Doab

MILES TO GO: “While CM Akhilesh Yadav is lauded for his development work, there is a nagging criticism of biased targeting.” Mr. Yadav in Agra.

MILES TO GO: “While CM Akhilesh Yadav is lauded for his development work, there is a nagging criticism of biased targeting.” Mr. Yadav in Agra.

We strike up a conversation with two young men sitting on a stoop in front of an old, dilapidated mandir in a village outside Firozabad. “I am a Brahmin; we Brahmins all vote for the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) ,” says one of the young Pandit men assertively. We are quite used to this by now. On first contact, most of our respondents seek to reinforce the ‘identity equals vote’ caricature of Indian politics, whether in Uttar Pradesh or elsewhere. But this is an uncritical response. Most voters have yet to sort through the careful considerations that will ultimately determine their vote choice.

As we continue to chat with the young man, a local electrician, it becomes clear that he is anything but certain in his vote choice. He talks of the ravages of notebandi, the popular term for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s demonetisation exercise. From a loss of personal income to a spate of nearby factory closures, his frustration grows visibly as he speaks. Emboldened by the young man’s crisis of political faith, a middle-aged passerby intervenes, “I’m voting for the BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party) this time, and I say this as a Brahmin!” Our young electrician and the interloper begin bantering and conclude that Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, from the Samajwadi Party (SP), has done a good job and deserves to be Chief Minister again, but, then, is the SP competitive enough in this constituency to warrant a vote?

While identity is, of course, a factor in U.P. politics, analysts often forget that a significant share of the population, like these Pandit men, is genuinely uncommitted to any major party. After all, a theory of voting based primarily on predictable identity-based lines suggests highly stable electoral outcomes, while no incumbent party has won the chief ministership of U.P. since the breakdown of Congress rule in 1989.

 

Middle Doab, 2012 and 2014

From Muzaffarnagar, Meerut and surrounding areas, collectively called Upper Doab (which we analysed in our last article), we headed south to the area bordering Rajasthan, the Middle Doab region. Middle Doab features a large reservoir of ‘floating voters’ who are yet to make up their minds about whom to support. This is quite unlike Upper Doab, where pronounced religious polarisation and many religious riots have left few floating voters. These two regions, Middle and Upper Doab, constitute the set of constituencies that will go to the polls in the first phase of the election in U.P. on February 11.

Middle Doab is comprised of the districts of Agra, Aligarh, Etah, Firozabad, Hathras, Kasganj, and Mathura. In the 2012 State election, this region displayed extraordinary political variation due to the complex interaction between identity at constituency level, particularly of Jats, Jatavs, and Muslims, and local political factors like those highlighted above. Of the 36 Assembly constituencies (ACs) in the region, the SP won 15; the BSP won 11; the BJP won three; and the largely Jat party, the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), won six seats, with its ally Congress winning one.

As with so much of U.P., the BJP nearly swept the region in 2014, consolidating power under the Modi wave, winning 31 out of 36 AC segments with an average vote share of 48%. Based on these numbers, the other major parties would seem to have little chance in the region, as the average vote shares in Middle Doab for the SP and the BSP in 2014 were 25% and 18%, respectively. The critical question is whether U.P. politics will revert back towards the complex dynamics observed in 2012, or whether the Modi wave has catalysed a structural shift that will allow the BJP to sweep to power in U.P.

Public goods and State governments

In Firozabad district, a village elder in a Jatav neighbourhood speaks in glowing terms about the current SP government in U.P. and all it has done for the village. As he begins to list the current government’s accomplishments, a crowd gathers around, and a young woman finishing her B.Ed. course interjects, “This is not the complete story. We have not been given all of the benefits this government promised us; those have been given elsewhere.” She begins to list all of the benefits given (and not given) to the village, as well as the level of government — panchayat, State, or Centre — that was responsible for the benefit. The crowd is won over. While she praises Prime Minister Modi for his bold actions and willingness to help the people, and he is preferred at the Centre, she will support the BSP for the work it did when it was in government and the security it provided to vulnerable castes.

There are two major lessons, from a political science perspective, in the young woman’s intervention. First, as we see across our interactions, voters are keen observers of the sources of benefits and can make distinctions in preferences across levels of government, perhaps due to innovations in political branding in the delivery of such benefits. Many of the issues that affect a citizen’s daily life, like roads and health/sanitation, are State subjects, and voters view the jobs of the Prime Minister and Chief Minister in systematically different ways. The young woman’s comments are not mere caste voting; the BJP has a credibility problem in State elections. A voter in a nearby Gujjar neighbourhood puts it succinctly, “When have we ever seen the BJP do anything at the State level?” (Not since 2002, when BJP last held the chief ministership.)

Second, while Chief Minister Yadav is lauded for his development work in the State, there is a nagging criticism of biased targeting. With a limited amount of resources, savvy politicians can be expected to deliver benefits in ways that maximise future vote share. Indeed, there is perceptibly less delivery of benefits and public goods where the SP is not politically competitive. In four districts that will go to the polls in the first phase, Agra, Ghaziabad, Hathras, and Mathura, the percentage of Jatav voters is greater than the percentage of Muslim voters. Even though the SP won the 2012 election, of the 23 ACs in these districts, it won just two seats, for an abysmal ‘strike rate’ of 7%. Due to Mayawati’s ability to empower Jatavs, and other voters strategically aligning with her in these constituencies, the SP seems less interested and less popular here than most other parts of U.P.

The forgotten castes

For all the talk of identity-based voting, a significant share of voters, and their identity groups, are not clearly associated with any of the major parties, BJP, BSP, Congress, RLD and SP. Across our travels in Upper and Middle Doab, a surprising narrative on notebandi is emerging. The most economically vulnerable voters are largely unruffled by the policy, as we hear a common refrain, “The rich are suffering. We were and remain poor.” However, in Gautam Budh Nagar, a Gujjar elder holding 25 acres of land complains, “Old payments haven’t come by, and even worse, old cheques have bounced.” He vows to vote for Ms. Mayawati this time. Large landowning, agricultural communities, like Gujjars, Jats, and Thakurs, still deal with a great number of cash transactions, and do so in rural areas where financial institutions are more inefficient. They have paid a heavy price during notebandi. At least anecdotally, it is believed that these groups consolidated behind the BJP in 2014, even though they have traditionally split across the major parties. While the popular discourse has focussed on the poor, it is these groups, and their disenchantment with notebandi, that may have the greatest effect on electoral outcomes in western U.P.

While Middle Doab displays extraordinary caste and religious diversity, a number of complex issues drive ground-level politics here. Politicians will likely be compelled to go beyond the simple script of identity politics, as voters critically assess a number of factors beyond identity in determining their vote choice.

Neelanjan Sircar and Ashish Ranjan are affiliated with the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) in Delhi. Bhanu Joshi, also with CPR, contributed to this article.


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Printable version | May 15, 2022 9:12:53 am | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed//article62113737.ece