The Uttar Pradesh Assembly election of 2017 has become interesting for a variety of reasons. One, since 2007, people are giving clear mandate to a party, demanding that it own full responsibility for governance or otherwise and not shift responsibility on alliance partners. So, parties are expecting clear wins in coming polls. Two, the electoral threshold for legislative majority has been declining; Mayawati formed the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) government in 2007 on 30 per cent vote and Akhilesh Yadav formed the Samajwadi Party (SP) government in 2012 on 29 per cent vote (lowest since Independence). That makes parties optimistic. Three, unlike bipolar competitions in Kerala, Tamil Nadu or Karnataka, the electoral battle in U.P. is being fought among two regionally dominant (SP, BSP) and two national (BJP, Congress) parties. That may fragment votes in such a way that a marginal vote shift could cause the victory or defeat of a party. It is against this backdrop that political parties are entering the fray in U.P. In doing so, they are not just positioning themselves against each other; rather, they have multiple fronts to attend to in the electoral battle.
In run-up to the 2017 Assembly polls, in-house turmoil is the prime concern of all parties. The SP suffered a virtual split when party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav expelled his son, and CM, Akhilesh Yadav from the party for anti-party activities for six years, along with his cousin Ram Gopal Yadav. Given the subsequent developments, many wonder whether it is a genuine tussle or has been choreographed by the father to brush up his son’s image. But it has confused the people and may end up harming the party. Since the SP’s vote share was very fragile in 2012, any loss of its traditional supporters among Muslims or Yadavs could be disastrous for the party.
The BSP had been through the same turmoil leading to some of its senior-most and trusted leaders — including Swami Prasad Maurya (most-backward caste), R.K. Chaudhary (Pasi-Dalit) and Brajesh Pathak (Brahmin) — exiting the party. That does not augur well for the BSP.
The BJP too had been battling to shun its traditional image of an upper-caste, urban-centric party of middle-class traders and merchants and become inclusive. In this, the upper-caste dominance in the party puts the brake on the leadership’s efforts at constituency transformation. The BJP’s reluctance to disclose its chief ministerial face in U.P. is probably dictated by its inability to solve this problem to the satisfaction of rival caste lobbies in the party.
The Congress had also been besieged with a party revamp though the importation of Sheila Dikshit from Delhi as a CM candidate did not work — nor did the deployment of party strategist Prashant Kishor, which led to senior leaders like Rita Bahuguna Joshi to quit the party.
There has also been a withering away of traditional support bases of parties. Ms. Mayawati is attempting a transformation of her social engineering from a Dalit-Brahmin to Dalit-Muslim coalition. That was necessitated because (a) she had angered upper castes when BSP leader Naseemuddin Siddiqui made derogatory observations about the wife and daughter of BJP leader Dayashankar Singh after the latter’s objectionable remarks against Ms. Mayawati; (b) the BSP lost its grip over Dalits during last decade; and (c) Muslims and Dalits have much in common in social life.
The BJP too is positioning itself for a complete constituency revamp and is focussing on becoming representative of OBCs by appropriating greater space among more-backwards and most-backwards. The party made Keshav Prasad Maurya president of its State unit, inducted BSP leader Swami Prasad Maurya (both most-backward) and allied with the Apna Dal, making its MP Anupriya Patel (more-backward) a minister in the Modi government.
The BJP’s efforts to appropriate the OBC space in U.P. were facilitated because the SP under Mulayam Singh Yadav neglected homogenisation of the OBCs, restricting itself to yadavisation only. As OBCs are the largest social group in UP, 41 per cent of the State population (NSSO data), any inroads could give the BJP a big handle in the coming electoral battle.
The SP also attempted to create a new constituency for itself by recommending to the Union government recently that 17 OBC sub-castes be transferred to the SC category. But that is a late move and also inappropriate as most sub-castes belong not to SC but to the ST category. Besides, only a parliamentary law could bring about the recommended change, so the SP may not reap any political advantage on that count.
The Congress does not know how to reach out to social groups, especially Dalits and Muslims, who were once the party’s support base. However, a few weeks ago during kisan yatras and khat-charchas in U.P., its party vice-president Rahul Gandhi did try to reach out to the poor and farmers by promising a loan waiver and subsidy on electricity. Since his party has been out of power in U.P. since December 1989, voters may not take his promises seriously.
Party leadership constitutes the third front of U.P.’s electoral battle. The SP is badly divided on leadership though it still vests authority in the Yadav family. But if Akhilesh Yadav scores in this battle, he may become the real inheritor of samajwadi leadership and Mulayam Singh Yadav’s legacy.
The BJP’s leadership contest remains under wraps though there are many aspirants for the CM’s job belonging to different social denominations. Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi happens to be the main face of the BJP in U.P., nominating someone as U.P. CM, if required after polls, may be easier. The BSP and Congress have, of course, no issues on this count as Ms. Mayawati remains the undisputed leader in the BSP, and the Congress is out of the reckoning.
The final front centres around the issues of demonetisation and development. The BJP on occasion appears nervous on demonetisation despite public support for the move in spite of inconvenience to people. Akhilesh Yadav wants to recast the coming polls as a referendum not on his governance and development, but on demonetisation. But the way the Maharashtra, Gujarat and Chandigarh civic polls, held after demonetisation, have approved of demonetisation is a pointer to the risk involved in doing so. While all parties may focus on Mr. Yadav’s failings, he may counter that with his clean image and development-centric politics and also earn the people’s sympathy in view of his recent battles within the SP.
So the electoral battle field in U.P. is becoming clearer. There are multiple fronts to be addressed. Many fast-paced changes are taking place on a daily basis. But how things unfold henceforth will depend much on how parties finesse their strategies and tactics once the Election Commission blows the whistle.
A.K. Verma is Director, Centre for the Study of Society and Politics (CSSP), Kanpur.