Is it payback time in the Hindi heartland?
Is it payback time in the Hindi heartland?
The late Mahendra Singh Tikait, a legendary peasant leader from western Uttar Pradesh’s Jat belt, used to count on Muslim faces as an integral part of his agitations—and he led many, including a ten-day siege of Delhi in 1988 where Jats wearing turbans marched in rhythmic cadence alongside Muslims in their own traditional headgear. Muley Jats, whose forefathers of the Jat caste had converted to Islam, enjoyed enormous cultural affinity with the region’s land-owning Hindus. Many of these ‘Muslim brothers’ were partners in farming and members of Jat-only wrestling teams. While Jats famously had affection for Muslims in the region, they looked down upon and even persecuted Dalits. None other than Tikait himself invited punishment for making derogatory remarks against former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister and Dalit leader Mayawati by referring to her caste.
That’s history now. And this social churn and the concomitant shift in political choices make Uttar Pradesh one of the three key states to watch out for in these polls. The other two, Bihar and Karnataka have also witnessed a major political churn over the past few years: and pundits forecast major swings in voting patterns in these three states.
Once amiable Jat-Muslim relations in western UP have been upset by recent outbreaks of violence, especially the Muzaffarnagar riots sparked off by reports of Muslim youths harassing a Dalit girl. Soon, Jats joined hands with Dalits, resulting in a conflagration that claimed at least 43 lives last September. While the veracity of such reports has been questioned, it is evident that the famed camaraderie between Jat Hindus and Muslims has come apart. Ironically, there have been no clashes in areas where rich Jat Hindus and Muslims lived side by side; most of the riots took place where the rich and poor of either community lived in close proximity, with the rich targeting the poor. In the process, western UP, comprising Bareilly, Agra, Mathura, Moradabad, Meerut, Saharanpur, Muzaffarnagar, Rampur, Shahjahanpur, Etah, Firozabad, Mainpuri, Shamli, Etawah and so on, saw a dramatic social churn. Prior to the Muzaffarnagar riots, Jats in this part of India’s most populous state had never lent their support to Scheduled Castes. “This unsettling of social and political equations in the region (where Muslims account for 26 per cent of the population) will play a crucial role in the next polls,” says acclaimed sociologist and author Dipankar Gupta, who, however, rules out any “warming up” of Jats to Dalits. Gupta, who has studied inter-community relations closely, says the political situation in the state is expected to favour the BJP in these polls.
Gupta dwells at length on how the BJP began to attract young Jats. “It began with the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. Young people had started showing interest in the agitation that catapulted the BJP to mainstream politics. By then, the rural economy was evolving fast and old boundaries were quickly losing their sanctity. It was par for the course until the 1970s for Hindu Jats or Muslim Jats to symbolically make fun of each other on the day of Holi. But, by the 1980s, that was no longer allowed, though Muslims and Hindus were still part of the same wrestling team,” recalls Gupta.
The only time the BJP made headway in western UP, by securing a chunk of the Jat vote, was after the religious polarisation wrought by the Babri Masjid demolition of 6 December 1992. Even then, pundits say, only the younger generation of Jats voted for the party. And very soon, they too switched to backing former Prime Minister Charan Singh’s son Ajit Singh of the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) as the religious fervour faded over the rest of the 1990s.
Sompal Singh, a rich Meerut-based farmer, says he would vote for the RLD, now a Congress ally, by force of habit. “That is all. I don’t think others in the community [of Jats] would continue to vote for [the RLD] or Samajwadi Party (SP),” he says, “Many young as well as some old people have started thinking: why not give the BJP a chance? There are many people who also launch a blistering attack on the Congress when the topic of elections comes up for discussion.”
Gupta argues that the Muzaffarnagar riots were not pre-planned. Whatever the case, says Muzaffar Ahmed, a Pune-based law student whose family is from Muzaffarnagar, “Communal amity that existed between Muslims and Hindus has ceased to exist. The situation there [in western UP] is very dangerous. Animosities show no signs of mellowing. They are only thriving and Mulayam’s son [Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav] has done nothing to improve the situation.” According to this 22-year-old, many Muslims have lost faith in the SP, which he alleges is playing “dangerous politics” by appeasing both Muslim and Hindu wrongdoers by letting them off. “They are just eyeing votes, but in vain. Who would want to vote for a party that could not stop riot after riot erupting in the state?” he asks angrily.
BAD NEWS FOR SP
This should indeed worry Akhilesh Yadav, says one of his party members who asked not to be named because he is not authorised to speak to the media. Of course, for a party that did extremely well in the 2012 Assembly polls in western UP as well as the rest of the state, this is no good news. “Do you remember the euphoria with which Akhilesh came to power? The promise he as a young man held out to people? In effect, nothing changed within the SP. The old guard is still at the helm and the talk among corporates is that if you want to get anything done in UP, don’t meet the CM,” laughs this legislator. “The riots have completely altered the region,” notes Ahmed, “Unfortunately, there is strong polarisation along religious lines there.”
The SP, which saw a consolidation of Muslim support in its favour two years ago, has come under sharp attack from various community leaders in the past few months. Jamait Ulema-e-Hind (M) General Secretary Maulana Mahmood Madani had hit out at the state’s SP government for failing to protect innocent lives during the Muzaffarnagar riots and for its ‘tepid approach’ towards the rehabilitation of survivors.
Meanwhile, Syed Ahmed Bukhari, the Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid, seems to be veering towards throwing his weight behind the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). He has lashed out at Mulayam Singh Yadav for “joining hands with communal forces and ignoring minorities”. He was also upset with Mulayam for denying his son-in-law a berth in the UP cabinet.
Clearly, Muslims, who wield significant electoral clout in a fourth of UP’s 80 Lok Sabha constituencies, don’t want to play the role of a mere pressure group any longer. This is an all-India trend, observe political analysts. Says Oxford University Professor Faisal Devji: “[Muslims] might return to the BSP in UP and to Nitish in Bihar. The Congress will be attractive only if there’s a general feeling that [the party] can increase its vote share among other constituencies as well, thus making it capable of offering protection and privileges to Muslims in particular.”
The ‘general feeling’ that Devji talks about goes against the Congress. Various recent surveys indicate that anti-incumbency against the Congress, which led the scam-scarred UPA over the past 10 years, is much higher than once thought. Perhaps he is right about Muslims tilting towards the BSP despite being suspicious of Mayawati over her past association with the BJP.
Virginia University Professor John Echeverri-Gent, an alumnus of Banares Hindu University, has studied India since the mid-1970s and has worked among Dalits in eastern UP, helping them acquire new agricultural skills. He expects the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) to have a clear edge in the 2014 General Election for a variety of reasons, and this includes the remarkable campaign capabilities of Narendra Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. He also expects the Congress to weaken in the run-up to the polls. “Modi has been highly successful in not only mobilising core voters for the BJP, but also in reaching out to other groups,” he says, “At this juncture, he appears to be a far more dynamic leader than Rahul Gandhi (despite the poor human-rights record of the former).” For his part, Atul Kohli, David KE Bruce Professor of International Affairs and Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University, is disappointed with the Congress for its inability to come up with a non-Nehru-Gandhi-family PM who has an independent political base.
The BJP, whose best Lok Sabha tally in UP was 57 seats in 1998, hopes that the ‘atmosphere’ in the state will help it win 40- 50 seats this time round, something that could see Modi achieve his ambition of becoming India’s next PM. Notably, for these polls, says BJP leader Dharmendra Pradhan, the party will allot more tickets in UP than usual to ‘Backward caste’ candidates as part of its efforts to woo voters who feel they didn’t benefit much from the social engineering exercise that swept the state after the emergence of parties such as the SP and BSP. This would mean non-Yadav voters among Other Backward Classes, since the SP is seen as Yadav-dominated, and non-Jatavs or Mahadalits among Dalits, since the BSP is seen as Jatav-leaning. As for making inroads among OBCs, Lodh Rajputs have already thrown in their lot with the BJP, thanks to Kalyan Singh, a Lodh Rajput who has returned to the party.
Congress leaders Open spoke to agree that the states of UP and Bihar are crucial in this election, and say that the party hopes to do well in Karnataka as well. “We are betting big on an alliance with the BSP in UP and with the RJD in Bihar,” says a Congress leader. A fastidious partner, Mayawati could ruin Rahul Gandhi’s dream of reviving the Congress party in the state. She may also demand an alliance in various other states in lieu of an alignment in UP, and this might see her make a play for Dalit votes in these states at the Congress’ expense.
Asked about the ‘tough nature’ of such a pact, the Congress leader says, “We will see when it comes to that.” As of now, he is of the view that a Dalit-Muslim power bloc could stop the Modi juggernaut, as the state has close to 50 Lok Sabha constituencies where Dalits and Muslims jointly make up over 40 per cent of the electorate.
Yet, all that is easier said than done.
BATTLE FOR BIHAR
In Bihar, a state that could see a major swing thanks to a realignment of forces since the last Lok Sabha polls, the Congress has tied up with the Lalu Prasad-led Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), hoping to pull in Yadav and Muslim votes. As part of this pre-poll alliance, of the 40 Lok Sabha seats in the state, the RJD will contest 27, the Congress 12 and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) one. They expect Dalit votes as well.
But the electoral competition in Bihar is stiff. “It is clearly a three-cornered fight in the state,” says a Patna-based political analyst who sees the Muslim vote splitting between the RJD-Congress alliance and the JD-U.
Chief Minister Nitish Kumar of the JD-U is on a mission to expand his party’s social appeal. He wants to rope in more people—meaning MLAs from other parties and powerful caste groups—for multiple purposes. Having severed a 17-year- old alliance with the BJP less than a year ago, he doesn’t want to lose power in the state now that he expects a hostile dispensation at the Centre after the polls.
After the JD-U’s breakup with the BJP over Narendra Modi leading the latter’s national poll campaign, Kumar’s party has just 115 seats in Bihar’s 243-member Assembly, and enough vacancies in the council of ministers: 16. Currently, Kumar’s survival is ensured by four Congress MLAs and as many independents. The upshot: widespread horse- trading. Kumar has managed to woo into his fold Samrat Chaudhury, an influential leader among Koeris. Son of former senior RJD leader and former MP Shakuni Chaudhury, he enjoys considerable sway over this OBC group.
In its fight for a share of the same vote, the BJP had earlier secured the support of Koeri leader Upendra Kushwaha, who will fight the elections in a tie-up with it. He is a former JD-U lawmaker who had quit Bihar’s ruling party last year to float his own Rashtriya Lok Samata Party. However, the real shot in the arm for the BJP has been getting Ram Vilas Paswan to ally with it.
Paswan, the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) leader who was piqued at a ‘raw deal’ meted out to him by the Congress and RJD over seat-sharing for the upcoming polls, was pleased to join hands with the BJP. His main goal is to establish a political career for his son Chirag. As part of an agreement that Paswan has reached with the BJP, the LJP will contest seven Lok Sabha seats as opposed to the five offered by the Congress-RJD combine.
The BJP sees a lot of symbolism in Paswan’s return to the NDA, which he quit in 2002. The veteran parliamentarian stepped down as minister from the Atal Behari Vajpayee Government in April 2002 alleging that the Narendra Modi government had failed to control the anti-Muslim conflagration in Gujarat after the Godhra train-burning incident. He had also demanded that Modi be sacked as CM and President’s rule be imposed in Gujarat. As a Dalit subcaste, Paswans comprise 4-5 per cent of Bihar’s electorate and the LJP’s loyal votes are considered transferrable to a party of the leader’s choice.
A BJP leader close to the development says his party’s strategy is similar to its game in UP: retain ‘upper-caste’ votes and offer as many tickets to Backward class candidates as possible. The party is keen to flaunt Modi’s OBC credentials to attract voters beyond its traditional ‘upper- caste’ appeal base, a widening-out exercise that it has succeeded with in states like Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. “The strategy will pay off,” says the leader, asking not to be named.
CLAMOUR IN KARNATAKA
A Delhi-based psephologist agrees that besides UP and Bihar, the state that is expected to see a major swing in voting patterns this time round is Karnataka. Together, the three states account for 148 Lok Sabha seats.
The BJP is optimistic now that Karnataka’s former Chief Minister and Lingayat strongman BS Yeddyurappa has returned to the party. The 71-year-old, who led the BJP’s first-ever government in South India, will contest the Shimoga Lok Sabha seat. Disaffection with the party among Lingayats, a dominant community in Karnataka, for expelling Yeddyurappa (on corruption charges) was one of the reasons for its poor show in the May 2013 Assembly polls. According to Muzaffar Assadi of the Department of Studies in Political Science, University of Mysore, the Congress’ decisive victory over the BJP in the state elections was aided by the fact that, besides the many misdeeds of the then ruling party, “minorities, OBCs and Dalits swung back to their traditional platform, the Congress”.
While many pundits expect the ‘Congress honeymoon’ in the state to sustain its chances in the Lok Sabha polls as well, it is important to note that in many Lingayat-dominated seats, it was the Karnataka Janata Party (KJP), floated by Yeddyurappa after his expulsion, that wrecked the BJP in last year’s polls. In 29 of the 224 constituencies, the BJP and the KJP together got more votes than the winning candidates. Overall, the KJP won over 9 per cent of all votes polled in Karnataka. No wonder then that the Congress won 41 seats more than it did in the previous polls of 2008, managing a tally of 121 in 2013. The BJP won only 40 seats, the same number as the Janata Dal-Secular of Deve Gowda.
Last year, the BJP had tried to counter the Yeddyurappa factor by naming Jagadish Shettar, a Lingayat leader of stature, as CM and its campaign spearhead in the state. However, the Shettar magic did not click as the group’s votes were split three-way, resulting in gains for the Congress. Now with Yeddyurappa back in the fray under the lotus banner and hoping to ride a ‘Modi wave’, the BJP hopes to make some gains. “We will definitely do better than [we did in 2013],” says a BJP national executive member from the South.
‘RURBAN’ AND DALIT VOTES
According to BJP General Secretary Pradhan, urbanised rural voters—villagers who aspire to be urban in their outlook—are expected vote en bloc for the BJP this time. The calculations, pundits aver, are based on the belief that the ‘rights-based approach’ championed by the Congress’ chief campaigner Rahul Gandhi may hold little appeal for young voters in the countryside, especially those who have started mimicking urban behaviour. And there are millions. Thanks to delimitation and migration, nearly 200 of the Lok Sabha’s 543 constituencies are either urban or semi-urban. Here, the state of the economy is of high relevance, though popularly discussed only as a question of jobs, earnings and inflation.
BJP leaders hope that Modi’s aspirational narrative will be a big plus in winning these seats—termed rural-urban or ‘rurban’ constituencies. Given his emphasis on economic growth and job generation over State handouts, Modi has an edge over his rivals in what some call the ‘confidence quotient’, especially among potential BJP voters and powerful corporations. Infosys founder NR Narayana Murthy thought Modi would be an acceptable PM if he merely apologised for the riots that hit Gujarat under his watch twelve years ago. Late last year, Modi did break his silence over that episode, saying he was shaken to the core by the ‘mindless violence’ of 2002.
Investment banks, too, have begun to root for him as PM. Goldman Sachs’ pronouncement that Modi could be a change agent invited the Congress’ wrath. CLSA, Nomura and others, too, went on to heap praise on the ‘investor friendliness’ of the larger-than-life CM of Gujarat.
Even Congress leaders admit—sotto voce—that the traditional template for political messaging may have rather little traction in this election.
THE POWER OF THREE
Political analysts suggest that the poll prospects of parties are best assessed in three key constituency categories: where the BJP is directly in combat with the Congress; where the Congress and BJP are fighting each other with the help of allies; and where either the BJP or Congress take on regional parties. According to election experts and Election Commission officials, the first category accounts for some 113 seats; the second, 100 odd (across states such as Punjab, Maharashtra, Assam, Jharkhand, and Haryana); and the third, 105 seats across Odisha, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh. What is crucial, notes Delhi- based political analyst TVR Shenoy, is how many seats the BJP secures fighting regional political entities such as the SP, JD-U and BSP.
The BJP, for its part, wants to add 28 Karnataka seats to that list as well. The Delhi-based psephologist argues that Dalits, who account for nearly 16 per cent of the country’s electorate, are up for grabs with new claimants emerging for their favour. The BSP suffered hugely in Delhi’s recent Assembly polls, with a rank outsider like AAP making off with a significant chunk of the city state’s Dalit vote. This vote bank, which once formed part of the Congress’ famed ‘rainbow’ of assorted social groups, cannot be counted on by any party anymore. Not the Congress, nor the BSP.
The Election Commission has sounded the bugle for the hustings. It has announced a nine-phase polling schedule starting on 7 April and ending on 12 May. Exactly how the churn has reshaped India’s political landscape shall be known four days later.