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Why UP is the biggest surprise this election

By A K Verma
May 18, 2009 16:59 IST
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When the EVMs were finally asked to make a mega beep after a month-long five phased grueling electoral contest in the largest democracy of the world on May 16, they screamed 'Jai Ho' all over. But the vehemence of 'Jai ho' in Uttar Pradesh surprised even the most optimistic observers at the performance of the Congress.

The new mandate acknowledges only one winner in Uttar Pradesh, the Congress; and all other major players -- the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Samajwadi Party, and the Bharatiya Janata Party -- were losers.

The Congress party's two decades-long banvas (exile) in the politics of Uttar Pradesh ended as it acquired a respectable position both in terms of seats as well as votes.

In fact, the Congress surpassed its 1989 seat tally (15 seats, 31% votes). Since then, the party had been besmirched in successive Lok Sabha polls -- 1991: 5 (18.3%)]; 1996: 5(8.1%); 1998: 0(6%); 1999: 10(14.7%); 9(12.04%).

This time, the Congress not only substantially raised its votes share (approx. 18%), but also more that doubled up its seat share.

However, should the Congress really take a credit for this victory? While it would be unfair to deny it some credit for the nuclear deal, the calm handing of recession, and slowly bringing in the youthful leadership of Rahul Gandhi -- the factors that may have contributed to its stunning performance, the records must also be put right.

Just prior to the beginning of its marginalisation in 1989, the Congress got 83 out of 85 seats with 51% votes in the 1984 Lok Sabha polls in Uttar Pradesh. But, December 5, 1989 was a D-day for the Congress when Mulayam Singh Yadav took over the reigns of power from Narain Dutt Tewari of the Congress.

Since then, the Congress has really been waiting for power in Uttar Pradesh. The Congress comeback indicates that the long wait may possibly end in the next assembly election slated in 2012.

But if the party wants to ensure that the wait does not extend further, it should refrain from taking any credit for this victory, at least, in Uttar Pradesh. The people of the state have been forced to undergo three experiments by three non-Congress parties in the past twenty years.

The BJP offered the Mandir experiment, the Samajwadi Party offered the Mandal experiment, and the BSP offered the social engineering experiment. All three experiments were just to generate caste identities and take its advantage in electoral contestation and political empowerment.

These parties thought that primordial identities would over take social and national identities, and by whipping them up, they could put the serious issues of governance and development on the back burner. But the simplicity, humility and generosity of the 'sovereign masters' were misunderstood by the non-performing servants.

The mandate of 2009 is one simple signal from the sovereign masters that they don't wish to be taken for granted, and would like to give a chance to a 'servant in the waiting' for too long.

The Congress could forget at its own peril that the party simply does not exist on the ground and there is a total absence of the cadre at the grassroots level. Victorious Congress candidates have done this by raising their own organisation, and have even kept the official party organisations at bay, thanks to local factionalism.

The party was just not there on the ground, and its local chieftains were non-performing, otherwise why should it lose six (Basgaon, Varanasi, Mathura, Aligarh, Shahjahanpur, Ghaziabad) out of the nine constituencies that it held. But by reinforcing their confidence, the people of Uttar Pradesh have taken a national trajectory; they have rejected the primordial for the national, and populist for the substantive; and given a clear preference for performance and development.

The Congress comeback in UP may not be so much a reward for its doings; rather it must be seen as a pro-active step of the people.

The BJP may have done well in Bihar, Jharkhand, MP, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat and Karnataka, but fared no better in Uttar Pradesh in spite of the Kalyan Singh and Varun Gandhi factors, and its tie-up with the Rashtriya Lok Dal. Conversely, the RLD gained the most as it won three fresh constituencies -- Mathura, Hathras and Amroha -- in addition to retaining Baghpat and Bijnor, an indication that the BJP did transfer its votes to the RLD, but the reverse may not be true.

But the most formidable win for the BJP came from Azamgarh which returned the saffron party for the first time since Independence, thanks to the communal polarisation forced by the display of Islamic militancy by the Ulema Council. Otherwise, the people of Uttar Pradesh see BJP as a party without issues, without leaders, and as a stooge of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

The people's mandate meant a crushing defeat to the BSP, the ruling party in Uttar Pradesh. The party expected over 40 seats, but got just 20, one more than its 2004 tally of 19 seats. The party had created history by getting an absolute majority in the 2007 assembly election, riding high on its social engineering and inclusive politics. But the party neglected its core constituency, the Dalits, who were getting impatient not because of Mayawati's honeymooning with the upper castes, but because a Dalit ki beti in power did not make any difference to them in their day to day life; they continued to suffer as usual!

On the contrary, resentment was brewing among Dalits against the wastage of money in building stone monuments and statues when they were craving for bare necessities. Also, in her drive to become prime minister of the country, Mayawati was almost bullying them as if they had a duty to make her the prime minister!

For the first time, Dalits could be seen leaving Mayawati's rallies during the course of her dull, monotonous and repetitive written speeches where she failed to establish a rapport with the masses.

In addition, governance has been completely abdicated to the bureaucracy and it is common knowledge that public goods and services are on sale. All jobs are being auctioned openly as never before; where is the job for a penniless Dalit?

So, there was a visible disillusionment among the Dalits; many Dalits may not have actually voted against Mayawati this time, but they also refrained from enthusiastically voting for her.

And, perhaps they have started exploring other saviours of the Dalit community; the handiest being the Congress as they and their forefather were before. Also, they were being assiduously wooed by Rahul Gandhi much to Mayawati's discomfiture and annoyance.

Perhaps, Mayawati failed to balance her bahujan with sarvajan, and, exclusive with inclusive politics. Instead of trying to replicate her social engineering experiments by delivering on the governance front, she indulged in her prime ministerial ambition.

The people, on the other, appreciated the candid way in which Rahul Gandhi excused himself from the top job for the present. Politics is not just power; it is power for delivery which must be limited by competence and merit. Disaster Mayawati must be a warning signal to the ever growing queue of prime ministerial aspirants.

Mulayam Singh Yadav must be the most mauled man in Indian politics today. He lost 13 seats fine; politics is a game of winning and losing. But what must make the man low is the fact that he lost credibility as a champion of secularism through his courting friendship with Kalyan Singh of the Babri Masjid fame.

The entire socialist tradition had been intricately intermixed with secularism; denting one also meant denting the other. So, the vanguard of a socialist bastion suddenly lost his ideological anchors. Consequently, Mulayam for the first time, since his ascendancy to power in 1989, lost his core constituency -- the Muslims.

That was signified by the long list of desertions by Muslim leaders, notably Salim Sherwani, Shafiqur Rehman Burk, Shahid Siddiqui, Islam Sabir, Azam Khan etc. By now, it is well known that the polling in Muslim localities all over was quite low; and Mulayam could not get even a single Muslim candidate elected out of the twelve that he put up.

It is perhaps for the first time since 1989 that Muslims have turned away from the Samajwadi Party and to the Congress; the Dalits have also gravitated away from the BSP and towards the Congress. Brahmins have never seen the BSP as their natural constituency, and they have been too inclined to join the Congress. Others may also follow suit.

So, suddenly the old constituents of the Congress -- Muslims, Dalits and Brahmins -- all have remembered their mother party. But the Congress will have to develop some gravitational pull so as to facilitate the reconstruction of a 'second generation rainbow coalition' -- a coalition that gave the Congress a long innings in Indian politics after Independence.

The people of Uttar Pradesh have taken an initiative; now, it is for the Congress party to respond.

Dr A K Verma teaches politics at Christ Church College, Kanpur.

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A K Verma